Book review: “Pavane” by Keith Roberts

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Book review: “Pavane” by Keith Roberts

Lady Eleanor, a young ruler in the county of Dorset in southern England, is quiet and thoughtful, sitting alone in Corfe Castle with her seneschal, John Faulkner. 

Just hours earlier, she pulled the cord on a cannon to start a battle with the Catholic Church, the international institution that dominates this latter half of the 20th century as it has dominated Europe for many hundreds of years.  All hell is about to break loose upon her head and the heads of her people.

“You know,” she said, “it’s strange, Sir John; but it seemed this morning when I fired the gun I was standing outside myself, just watching what my body did.  As if I, and you too, all of us, were just tiny puppets on the grass.  Or on a stage.  Little mechanical things playing out parts we didn’t understand….

“It’s like a….dance somehow, a minuet or a pavane.  Something stately and pointless with all its steps set out.  With a beginning, and an end…”

She goes on to ruminate about how all of life seems like a single fabric, and to pull or clip one thread — to take any action — is to alter the pattern of the cloth.

Because of her death

That’s what Keith Roberts does in his 1968 novel Pavane, a series of inter-connected stories that conclude with the story of Eleanor’s challenge to the political might and whim of the church.

In the novel’s opening sentence, he clips a thread: Elizabeth I is dying in July, 1588, from assassin bullets in the abdomen and chest. 

It could have happened.  There were certainly enough people who wanted to assassinate the Protestant ruler (although, for that era, she was relatively tolerant of religious dissent in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way).

Because of her death, the Spanish Armada comes that summer and triumphs.

Because the Armada triumphs, the Catholic Church is able to fight off the Protestant uprising throughout all of Europe, and the Reformation never happens or, rather, is snipped in the bud.

Because the Catholic Church regains its political dominance, it is able to stop much innovative thinking and much of what we, in our time, would call Progress.  For instance, as one character contemplates:

Cement manufacture was controlled rigidly by Rome, its price prohibitive.  The embargo was deliberate of course; the stuff was far too handy for the erection of quick strongpoints.  Over the years there had been enough revolts in the country to teach caution even to the Popes.

Quibbles

There is much that could be quibbled with in this scenario. 

It ignores the role that weather, unconnected from anything Elizabeth did or might not have done, played in the destruction of the Armada.

It ignores the restiveness of the secular princes and kings throughout Europe who, reverently or cynically, embraced the Protestant reformers when they challenged Rome.  The Reformation happened, it can be argued, because religious ferment came to a boil at the same moment when worldly rulers wanted to get more control of their worlds.

Also, as the Renaissance blossomed (in actual history), its scientists and thinkers were plumbing the discoveries of Islamic scholars and Chinese inventors and a vast amount of European learning that had been lost in the Dark Ages.  For Pavane’s world to exist, the Church would have needed to somehow re-bury and re-block all of that information that was sparking such frantic search for answers to the questions of the world and the Universe.

The Americas, which appear on the edges of this book as Newworld, were another potential hotbed of technological exploration, political experimentation and flat-out independent thinking.  The two continents were so vast that, it seems, it would have been easy enough to get beyond the not-so-long arm of the law.  After all, that’s, in a way, how the American Revolution happened and triumphed.

“The mighty Change”

Still, Roberts presents his alternative universe with such delightful attention to detail and imaginative adventurousness that a reader — me, at least — can ignore the quibbles and enjoy the speculations for what they are, great fun and great food for thought about what makes humans tick.

Essentially, Roberts presents an England and a Europe where, after four centuries, things have just about reached their breaking point.  Something’s got to happen.

Indeed, a radicalized monk named Brother John leads a failed grass-roots rebellion, and, at one point, he addresses a large crowd:

[H]e told them of the mighty Change that would come, sweeping away blackness and misery and pain, leading them at last to the Golden Age. He saw clearly, rising about him on the hills, the buildings of that new time, the factories and hospitals, power stations and laboratories.  He saw the machines flying above the land, skimming like bubbles the surface of the sea.  He saw wonders: lightning chained, the wild waves of the very air made to talk and sing. All this would come to pass, all this and more.  The age of tolerance, of reason, of humanity, of the dignity of the human soul.

None of this comes to fruition in Pavane, but the Change is set in motion by Eleanor’s challenge to Rome.

Pavane and Pratchett

For me, Pavane — which covers a period from 1968 to perhaps the 1990s — brought echoes of the marvelously inventive and humorous Discworld series of Terry Pratchett although it has a much different tone.  And, even more, of the richly speculative, wonderfully written 1959 book of Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.

There is a serious, dramatic focus to Pavane that is in sharp contrast to the, well, high silliness (and rather subversive seriousness) in Pratchett’s 41 Discworld novels.  But both Roberts and Pratchett are envisioning worlds in which technological change, for the most part, hasn’t happened.

The first chapter in the Roberts book is about a steam-powered transport shipper, and a later chapter has to do with the semaphore system set up by the Signallers.  Each of these technologies is invented in the long course of the Discworld books.

Also, Pratchett is lavish in layering his world with fantastic non-humans, such as trolls, wizards, golems, witches, dwarfs, gods and, yes, a monk who brings about a revolution, and he plays these for laughs (and a quiet prick to the intelligence).  Roberts doesn’t go quite that far, but his “realistic” world has hidden layers of Fairies and Old Gods.

Pratchett, an avid science fiction and fantasy fan, published his first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, in 1983, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that he had likely read and learned from Pavane.  This is not to say he thieved anything. But, as the Discworld story evolved, he faced some of the same questions that Roberts had in constructing Pavane’s 20th century alternative.

Pavane and Leibowitz

The parallels are of a different nature between Pavane and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

In contrast to the Roberts book, Miller envisions a post-nuclear world over the course of several centuries, focusing on three eras and on an isolated Catholic monastery that plays a key role in saving the learning of the pre-nuclear world (as monks did in the Dark Ages).

Those monks, for all the learning they save and develop, are definitely on the sidelines as various warlords and then waring states shape the new world, but they do what they can to nudge the planet toward peace.

These monks are the antithesis of the Catholic church in Pavane, an institution that lords it over the secular rulers and their people.

Even so, it is striking to me that both novels treat the Catholic church as something important and vital.  (One could speculate that Roberts might have gotten some ideas from Miller’s book, published nine years earlier.)

And both embrace a level of openness to the unorthodox. 

In Pavane, Roberts refuses to stay on the level of science and expands his story to include those Fairies and Old Gods. 

In Leibowitz, there is a recurring character who is the Wandering Jew of legend, and an ending that envisions an unlooked-for spiritual/physical/evolutionary rebirth, or simply birth.  (There also seems to be a recurring character in Pavane.)

“Bags of skin”

While Roberts, Miller and Pratchett, in their own ways, face the jaggedness of human life, they all bring to bear some measure of hope in such forms as friendship, sacrifice, commitment to truth and, yes, love.

Earlier in Pavane, Eleanor’s mother Margaret, in her late teens at this point, helps a gruesomely injured man, and, after the victim is taken away:

“[S]he was in a desolate mood where she seemed to see all humanity as bags of skin waiting to be burst and die in pain, herself a woman trapped in a fragile body, bleeding in childbirth, bleeding in coition.  She was very shocked, and felt like death.”

Death is interwoven with life.  (Indeed, the character Death appears in just about every one of Pratchett’s Discworld novels.)  In Leibowitz, in the final pages, when one character dies, another is able to live.

Margaret does not have a long life.  But her daughter sets into motion the Change.

Each of our lives ripple into the future.  The hope is that we are more than “bags of skin” and that the best of us is what will ripple forward.

Patrick T. Reardon

7.31.19

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