Sunday, May 24, 2015

Luke of Winchester, We Wish We'd Never Known You

(For the previous post on this trilogy, click here.)

A well-wrought adventure trilogy follows a standard format: introduce the protagonist and central quest in the first volume, use the second book to enlarge the setting and cast of characters, and make sure the finale goes off with a bang. Ideally, the middle book should leave the protagonists in some peril, raising the stakes for the reader right before the start of the concluding volume. John Christopher's Sword trilogy breaks with this pattern, but does so to powerful effect. The series's second installment, Beyond the Burning Lands, plods along, slowing the plot in order to expand the setting and introduce new characters (Cymru, Blodwen) or develop old ones (Peter). It ends, however, with a decisive fight that moves Luke Perry to the height of his fortunes: master of his home city of Winchester, betrothed to the beautiful Blodwen, and ready to resume his father's conquest of the south. If the author so dramatically raises Luke's hopes and fortunes, however, it is only to dash them more thoroughly in the final chapter, The Sword of the Spirits.

As in many tragedies, Luke is author of his own downfall. We receive a premonitory glimpse of his hubris early in Sword, when the young prince violates the rules of war to subdue a rebellious city. Luke succeeds in this campaign, and it only feeds the recklessness and willfulness he has displayed throughout the series. Shortly thereafter Blodwen comes to Winchester, and Luke learns that his fiancee was serious about a remark she made in volume two, that she was the mistress of her own mind and heart. When he jails his betrothed for thwarting him in his own city, the people of that city prove that they are not his playthings either: Luke's captains depose him and cast him out. 

A different character might learn humility in that figurative and actual wilderness, and in fact Christopher does offer Luke a chance at a different life, in the form of a village of “savages” who live happily together and hold all property in common. A wounded Luke takes shelter with the villagers, and one of their spokesmen urges him to remain with them longer and recover from the "sickness" of "jealousy and pride." Their guest refuses.

Instead the former Prince of Winchester heads into his past, to the sanctuary of the Seers and across the Burning Lands to Klan Gothlan. Now all of the plot elements Christopher introduced over the previous volumes – the Seers' technical knowledge and lack of scruples, the Wilsh love of novelty and machines, and Luke's own bloodlust and desire for vengeance – come crashing together with explosive effect. The Seers make twentieth-century weapons, the Wilsh provide soldiers, and Luke supplies tactical leadership to an army that marches into England and re-enacts A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In the end, however, Luke does not get the outcome he desired. Rather than give away the trilogy's denouement, I will note that the title of volume three has at least three meanings. The “Sword of the Spirits” is an actual sword Luke received from the Seers; it is also a metaphor for Luke, whom the Spirits – or, rather, their human interlocutors – have turned into their means of reunifying England. It additionally refers to a force that can prove stronger than fury and cold steel, a force Luke cannot understand.

The big surprise of this trilogy isn't the climax of its plot, but the outcome of Luke's character development. Many fantasy stories allow their main character to develop into a wiser, stronger, more mature version of their once-callow selves. Christopher shows Luke no such mercy: the princeling begins the series as a narcissistic lout and ends it as a soulless, rage-blinded killer. By the midpoint of Sword of the Spirits, it becomes obvious to more mature readers (this is why I enjoy this novel so much more as an adult) that Luke is not the hero he thinks he is, that his foes and foils are actually the more noble and progressive characters. Blodwen "betrays" her betrothed because she falls in love with someone else, and because she has repeatedly told Luke she is her own woman, not his property. Winchester's captains depose Luke because he has become a tyrant and the monarchy a liability. A forward-looking young prince, Eric of Oxford, wants to become Luke's friend but turns his back on him when he sees what bloody work Master Perry has done to recover his throne. And Luke's oldest friend, Martin, renounces his position with the Seers and demonstrates to Luke that there are powers at least as effectual, and as revolutionary, as the technology Luke thinks he understands. At the very end of the story, Luke only understands that he has helped unleash changes he cannot control, changes that will create a new society with no place for him. Sad news for Luke, but good news for nearly everyone else in his milieu - one doesn't want a happy ending for the man who turns out to have been the story's villain.

No comments:

Post a Comment