Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Hooded Man

This will be my last post for a few weeks before I go on holiday - huzzah! Before I go, here is the latest instalment of my Robin Hood serial, The Hooded Man. It is available on Kindle and will be on *FREE* download from March 1st-3rd.

Robin has been gone a while, and he returns to England to find all not as it was...

Summer, 1242 AD. King Henry III of England is locked in a disastrous war with his rival, the King of France, and about to engage the French army at Taillebourg.

Serving in the English army is a captain of archers named Robin Hood. Forced to leave his homeland, Robin has spent fourteen years in exile, serving as a soldier in various garrisons and embracing the heresy of the Cathars.

After the English army suffers a catastrophic defeat, Robin obtains a royal pardon from the King and makes his way back to England, hoping to see his beloved Matilda again. In his long absence, the legend of Robin Hood, the Hooded Man, has spread and flourished. Robin finds he has become a legend in his own lifetime, and inspired other men to take up the fight against Norman tyranny.

Most of his old followers are dead or scattered. Those who survive are leading quiet, honest lives, desperate to avoid the notice of the law. Driven by his heretical faith and a desire to strike one last blow against injustice, Robin attempts to bring the survivors together again in Sherwood, and spark a rebellion that will drive the Norman oppressors into the sea.

Unwilling to accept that his time is past, Robin risks all to bring England to the verge of civil war, even the lives of those he loves. War and death loom on the horizon as Robin’s enemies prepare for the return of the Hooded Man...

Monday, 17 February 2014


Recently I've been nose-deep in the dark and bloody history of the Cathars, one of the most popular and widespread 'heretical' groups of medieval Europe, and as such doomed to a horrible fate at the hands of the established church. 

The Castle of Queribus in Southern France, a Cathar stronghold
The Cathar religion is a fascinating subject, steeped in ancient mysticism and consisting of beliefs that seem downright insane to the modern mind. It was a dualist faith, effectively believing in not one God but two: a God of light and goodness, and a God of evil and darkness. Unlike the Christian religion, which believes that the forces of good are superior to evil, the Cathars placed evil on an equal footing.

Put simply, they were obsessed with evil, and saw it everywhere, in all living things. To a Cathar, all physical matter was by its nature corrupt, and goodness could only be achieved via the spirit. This meant that Jesus Christ had never taken physical form in the world, and the stories of his crucifixion and resurrection were lies invented by the Church. Christ had only ever existed as pure spirit, and the souls of the dead would join him once the corrupted matter of their bodies had ceased to breathe. Essentially, they believed in reincarnation.

Doesn't sound too bad, you might think, and vaguely reminiscent of Buddhism in some respects. But the Cathars didn't deal in mere theory. Since all earthly flesh was sinful and generally rotten, they considered sex an abomination, and marriage as a form of prostitution. Their goal was to obtain purity and become 'parfaits'. These parfaits served as unofficial priests of the religion, preaching to their followers and demanding they abstain from meat, sexual pleasure, and generally as much physical expression and interaction as possible.

Medieval depiction of the persecution of Cathars

The Pope hurled his military forces against the Cathars
The Cathars were largely based in the Langudeoc in the South of France, where they found much support among peasants and nobles alike. The Counts of Toulouse, who owned large tracts of the south, were rather more forward-looking than their peers in the rest of the country, and permitted the Cathar faith to spread in the early 1200s.

Initially the Pope and the Catholic church attempted to mediate with the Cathars, but then in 1208 a papal legate was murdered by an agent of the Count of Toulouse, and all Hell (which the Cathars didn't believe in, incidentally) broke loose. The Pope flexed his military might, hurling army after army at the Cathars and declaring successive Crusades against them.

The Cathars had a problem in that their faith forbade them from taking up arms. However, despite their rejection of the trappings of wealth and power, they did enjoy the support of wealthy patrons, and so hired mercenaries to do the fighting. For over forty years, they stubbornly held out in one remote fortress after another, the dramatic ruins of which can still be seen scattered about Provence and the Languedoc.

Appalling massacres were committed by the papal Inquisition, set up during the mid-1220s to root out the Cathars and other heretical groups. I don't intend to go into the sickening details of the punishments inflicted by the Inquisition: even at a distance of 700 years, it is enough to turn the stomach. Suffice to say that by the 1240s, the remaining Cathars had been driven from their last refuge, though they lingered on into the next century. The last known Cathar, Guillaume BĂ©libaste, was burned alive in 1321.

And now I shall look for some lighter reading matter...

Monday, 3 February 2014

Screen Kays

Following on from my last post about Sir Kay and his development (or rather, degeneration) over centuries of Arthurian legend and storytelling, I want to post something about the various depictions of the character on film and TV. I am aware of four Screen Kays, though obviously there are many more screen versions of the story. If anyone knows of Kays I might have missed, please feel free to say.

First up is Cartoon Kay, from the 1963 Disney animated version of TH White's The Sword in the Stone. White's book and its sequels are, for me, far and away the greatest version of this very old story, full of pathos and humour and imbued with one man's righteous fury against the dreadfulness of humanity as a species. The film encompasses none of these things, but then it doesn't try to. It's an efficiently amusing cartoon for kids, in which a young Arthur - or Wart - gets turned into various creatures by Merlin, with the occasional sing-song and dancing teapot thrown in.

Arthur's older brother, Kay, is one of the most obnoxious depictions of Kay since Malory showed him slapping a woman to get Sir Percival's attention. This Kay is not only an unpleasant bully who makes Wart's life hell, but dumb as a post.

Even when Arthur draws the sword from the stone, Kay has trouble figuring out what's going on, and we last see him squinting miserably at his own feet after his father, Sir Ector, forces him to kneel before King Arthur.

Next up is Sexy Celtic Kay, from the 1970s series Arthur of the Britons. Made by HTV between 1972-3, this series was an interesting but flawed experiment, the first screen version of the legend to make an attempt at placing Arthur and his followers in a believable historical context i.e. post-Roman Britain. The warlord Arthur and his men are just a bunch of grubby Celtic warriors living in thatched halls and roundhouses, though they do have fabulous hair - none more so than Michael Gothard as Kay (Kai).

Kai is a Saxon orphan, reared as Arthur's brother by their father, Lud. Stern and loyal and perpetually unsmiling, the nastier side of the character is largely absent in this depiction. In general, Arthur of the Britons was a bold effort, but hamstrung by a tiny budget and some iffy pacing and editing. A remake might be interesting.

Screen Kay no.3 is my personal favourite. Played by Niall O'Brien, Sir Kay in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) plays a subtle but important role in the film. Boorman clearly did his research on the character, and allows Kay his proper place as Arthur's loyal seneschal, a constant and dependable presence when all the other knights are falling to bits (quite literally, since they never take their armour off. That stuff rusts).

This Kay remains by Arthur's side when the rest of the knights ride off on the doomed Grail quest, here reinvented as an almost pagan symbol of fertility and renewal. A hint of his obnoxiousness remains, such as when he says to an aspiring young squire: "kitchen knives and greasy spits will be your weapons, boy - to the kitchens!" but otherwise he is a decent, upright sort of chap.

Me? Evil?
When the evil Mordred, played here by Robert Addie as a truly vile product of incest, rides up to Camelot and demands Arthur's castle and kingdom, it is Kay who (I'm paraphrasing) warns the horrible little jerk to back off unless he wants Kay's foot up his shiny metal ass. Kay is one of the few men to ride with Arthur to his first battle, and the few to ride with him to the last, a weird, mist-shrouded affair in which knights in shiny silver armour and knights in dirty black armour cut each other to bits. Kay is last seen hacking away at the bad guys, before a white-bearded Lancelot thunders in to save the day.

The fourth and last of my Screen Kays is sadly the worst. Played by Peter Mooney in the ill-fated Starz series Camelot - or Hack n'Shag, as it might have been called, such was the degree of naked tits and softcore humping on display - this Kay lands with a dull thud. Mooney is one of those routinely handsome actors that seem to populate all modern fantasy/sci-fi shows, and his character is as boring as his haircut. Not a whit of Kay's traditional nastiness remains. Without that, and without much natural charisma from the actor playing him, Kay is reduced to just another knight, though he keeps his role as Arthur's foster-brother.

Kay was spared the embarrassment of appearing in the 2004 Bruckheimer-produced abomination King Arthur. This was billed as the Truth Behind the Legend, in the sense that Kevin Costner's Prince of Thieves was a gritty, realistic, hard-hitting exposé of social conditions in late 12th century England.

So far as I'm aware, no more Arthurian films or televised dramas are planned for the near future, though doubtless there will be: one recent idea, apparently shelved, was a remake of Excalibur. Hopefully, the next time Sir Kay appears onscreen, he will be in his full glory as an obnoxious, sarcastic asshat capable of breathing underwater, shooting fire from his hands, killing oxen with a single blow and shooting up to the height of a tree. At least it would be good for a laugh.