An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

October 30, 2017

Baumgardt - Interview with John D. Cressler

Julia Baumgardt (Marian University, Indianapolis)

Interview with John D. Cressler, author of Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City, books one and two of the Anthems of Al-Andalus series

John Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013, viii + 424pp.
John Cressler, Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014, viii + 584pp.

Why did you choose al-Andalus? What got you interested in this period and region?

JDC: My dream has always been to write fiction, and after 5 non-fiction books, the time finally felt right. History is my second love (especially European history), and I really enjoy reading historical fiction, so that became my goal: write a compelling piece of historical fiction. No small feat! First up: setting. After a couple of months of browsing I happened upon some descriptions of Muslim Córdoba at the height of the Golden Age (the end of the 10th century), which totally blew me away! I thought I knew European history pretty well, but somehow I had missed out on this fascinating period, marked not only a truly remarkable flowering of art, literature, science, and medicine, but for a >100 year stretch, convivencia, the relatively peaceful presence of both Jews and Christians living (and practicing) in Muslim Spain (a reminder that Jews today consider the Jewish Golden Age to be that same period within 10-11th century Muslim Spain! Remarkable.). To me, the very existence of convivencia bears an important message for the 21th century. The more I read, the more enthralled I became. And thus I decided on a quest to break open this 800 year Muslim-Spanish history with a series of novels: The Anthems of al-Andalus. While I always intended to write about the Golden Age (10th century), I soon fell in love with the Alhambra Palace, and it seemed like a fantastic place to set a novel, especially an interfaith love story! I went back to the history books and found a pivotal moment in Spanish history (late 14th century, around Pedro the Cruel and the Castilian Civil War to focus on (a time when Muslims fought alongside Christians!). Nicely, that time frame also presented the pinnacle of the Alhambra’s colorful history. So I was off and running!

You write rather emphatically against the erroneous idea of the medieval period as a kind of “dark ages.” Where, in both your personal and professional life, do you still encounter this stereotype and why do you feel that it’s important to combat it?

JDC: Indeed I do. A good clue would be this: in 975 CE in Córdoba, the caliph possessed a library containing over 400,000 volumes in his private collection alone. The largest collection of books at that time in continental Europe was a few hundred volumes. Everyone in Córdoba loved and collected books. The lost books of the ancient Greeks were rediscovered and translated into Arabic. The level of sophistication on 10th century Muslim Spain was staggering. Running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, paved roads, public hospitals, modern agriculture, public baths. This list is long. In my conversations with folks around the US (e.g., as a part of my book gigs), even for well-educated folks I find that most people’s understanding of medieval Muslim Spain is woefully lacking (as was my own). It is tempting to read a history-bending agenda into this educational omission (that Muslims played a huge role in the cultural and intellectual development of Europe?! Whattt?!), but in any case one of my central aims with my novels was to break open this period for modern readers. To reawaken it.

You state in the afterword to Emeralds that your primary aim was to bring “a time and place long dead magically back to life” and to share your own experience of the “truth and holiness and timelessness” of love (360). What of your own story merges with the one you discovered in your research and the ones you have created? Now that you are writing the final book in the series, have your aims changed at all?

JDC: My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn. It seemed to me that love stories would be a powerful way to do this, since love, both then and now, often manages to cross artificial boundaries (religion, culture, ethnicity) with relative ease. I like to think of true love as undeniable. I have been blessed in my life with Great Love (capitals intentional), and thus my life experience with my wife Maria (best friends for >40 years and counting, and married for >35 now) was very much what I drew upon in creating my characters, both for young love (Chandon/Layla; Zafir/Rayhana), and mature love (Samuel/Rebekah). I also discovered that writing love stories is serious fun! Not surprisingly, book 3 in the series (Fortune’s Lament), centers on a love story as well.

What kinds of research did you do before writing the novels? You provide a rather long bibliography at the end of each book. Were there one or two books that really stood out as key to your investigations?

JDC: Not surprisingly, I read everything I could get my hands on related to medieval Muslim Spain. I have a bookshelf 10 feet long filled with them in my office at home where I write! A couple of go-to books for Emeralds and Shadows were:

1)    Salma Jayyusi’s edited double-volume set, The Legacy of Muslim Spain. A comprehensive view of everything related to al-Andalus (life, food, music, art, gardens, religion, you name it), written by the experts in their respective fields. Comprehensive and magical, for both specialists and the seriously curious (me!). I have had the great pleasure of having Salma as a reader/blurber of both books. That she loves my books is high praise indeed.
2)    Maria-Rosa Menocal’s, The Ornament of the World. For general audiences. This is the very first book I read on al-Andalus. Magical. Sadly, Maria-Rosa has since passed away, but I chatted with her and shared my vision of these novels. She loved the idea! And then made me promise in book two to revisit 10th century Córdoba and the rise of al-Mansur. Which I did in Shadows!    
The specificity of detail regarding weaponry and military maneuvers is instantly striking to the reader. Why was it so important to you to communicate concretely the intricacies of medieval warfare?

JDC: Indeed; by intent. I did feel strongly about including the rich details of battle, for a couple of reasons. First, I have always been fascinated by the history of warfare, so it was fun topic to tackle and include. To me, it adds an element of realism and believability to the story. More importantly, however, I wanted to give a realistic depiction of the absolute horror of up-close-and-personal combat in the medieval world. All war is horrible, of course, but with the 21st century’s increased reliance on drones and smart bombs, I felt it was important for the reader to experience a swordfight to the death, and the awfulness in battle that was quite routine during that period. 

I felt similarly about your description of the physical spaces and of the Alhambra in particular. It was clear even before I read your “Reflections” that you had spent a significant amount of time there. What were your impressions of the architecture and the layout of the spaces? (How, what parts, and to what extent) did you hope to make those impressions come alive to your readers?

JDC: The Alhambra holds a very special place in my heart. Yes, I have in fact spent considerable time in the palace, and its surroundings in Granada. Three separate trips; for Emeralds, Shadows, and for Fortune’s Lament (which will be largely set back in Granada at the fall of the kingdom). One of the great gifts in hindsight was doing nine months of research on the Alhambra BEFORE I went, so I knew it backwards and forwards before I stepped foot in the place. I let my imagination churn on the palace and my characters. Seeing it in person was a dream come true. Stepping into the Comares Palace for the first time, seeing Layla’s and Chandon’s rooms over the reflecting pool, the Lion Palace, the other breathtaking buildings, the Generalife. It brought it all alive after percolating so long in my imagination. I knew the layout, obviously, before going, but the sightlines, sounds, smells, feel of the various buildings and locations was so important to my writing about it. The same was true for Madinat al Zahara and Córdoba in Shadows. Same path, same experience. Only exception is that now Madinat al-Zahra is (sadly) largely in ruins. But that did have the benefit of letting my imagination run wild.

You provide a significant amount of historical foregrounding, both before and after the actual text of the novels. What things were important to you to get “right”? Where did you feel there was a bit more room to fictionalize and invent? How did you decide?

My approach to historical fiction is to try and hold tightly to the broad brush of the actual history, to the extent that we know it (much of that history is murky), but in the smaller details to reserve creative license to change things in ways needed to keep the story properly paced and engaging to the reader. That said, I am careful in the back matter to tell you where I deviated from history, and why (rare in historical novels). One main feature in Shadows, for instance, was timeline compression. Two years in the book was really ten years of history, a choice I made to enhance the dramatic weight. The same will be true in Fortune’s Lament.

You make many references to Reconquista and the idea of “renewing” Reconquista in Emeralds. How do you understand the term as a historical, religious and historiographic concept? How does it relate to the use of jihad in Shadows? What historical sources pointed you toward that understanding?

JDC: Simply put, reconquista was a principal aim of the various Christian kingdoms to retake what they viewed as Christian lands lost to the Moors at one time or another; in practice a step-by-step push back of Moorish influence and power. The fact that those “lost lands” were spectacularly wealthy over much of that time played a role in their ambition, of course, but at various times, so did religious conflict. This struggle ebbed and flowed during the 800 years of Muslim Spanish history, of course, but reached crescendos in 1367-69 (Emeralds) during the Castilian Civil War, and of course in the 1482-1492 with Isabella and her power play for Spanish unification (via Castilian dominance, and marrying well). She was an impressively ambitious woman, and clearly had both power and wealth and religion in the mind in her version of reconquista. And, as told in Shadows, al-Mansur’s naked ambitions served to inflame the Christian north in the 10th century. By bringing the Berbers from the Maghreb to Spain, he almost singlehandedly unleashed reconquista, and ultimately the destruction of Moorish Spain (marked first by the Almoravid incursions, then the Almohads, both of which accelerated religious tensions). Without him, it would have been interesting indeed to see how long the tolerant Umayyads would have ruled, and what Spain would have ultimately become.

Many of your staunch religious figures seem to define their practice and spirituality in negative terms; that is, in terms of avoiding specific activities and individuals. In addition, those in power such as Cardinal Coysset, Peter Strobel, and al-Mansur express less actual devotion than they do use of religious dogma as rationale for and means to extend their exercise of power. In your opinion, are tolerance and openness integral aspects to the truest and fullest expression of religious faith? Do religion and power always go together when that faith is expressed conservatively or more dogmatically?

JDC: Yes, that is true. But also historical. Christianity and politics/power were very much intertwined for much of that 800-year history of Moorish Spain. And even for al-Mansur, while history tells us he was a devout Muslim, it is hard to imagine that his power/ego were not what drove him to do the things he did. He used religious dogma to his own advantage. In both cases (Christian and Muslim), dogma and prejudice was at times very much used as a weapon for personal gain and to satisfy egos and control/silence others. The Jews? Well, they were often caught in between. That is not to say that people of sincere faith were not plentiful on both sides (they were), but the big figures of the history of Moorish Spain are chocked with so a complex intermingling of religion/politics/power, which, while sad, makes for good dramatic action. The brief period of convivencia (< 200 years, true, but still very remarkable for the time) enjoyed under the Umayyads was in large measure characterized by religious tolerance, and unprecedented social mobility for all faith traditions in Córdoban society. In my view, tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to. That example, nearly two centuries worth, is a real important reminder for us all in 2017.

Layla, Rayhanna and Rebecca all stand out as exceptionally bright and beautiful women. There are many parallels, in particular each woman’s fierce and stubborn intelligence, integrity, passion, and love of books, as well as the physical similarities in “dancing” hands and unruly curls. Are these women versions or representations of your Maria, to whom you refer several times? If not, what are some of their principle differences as you conceive of them, both from each other and from Maria?

JDC: Hehe. Well, yes, they are exceptionally bright and beautiful women. Busted. I have had the great blessing in my life to be surrounded by bright, beautiful, strong-willed women. So writing about them is quite natural and enjoyable! Are my heroines copies of my Maria? No, although Rayhana and Maria do share the same eyes. Are elements of Maria contained in some of who and what my female characters espouse? Certainly. I will also say that, despite stereotypes of Islam, we have records of a number of exceptionally bright and beautiful women in Moorish Spain, many with exceptional influence on historical events, and with remarkable social mobility.

Who is your favorite character and why?

JDC: I am close to many/most/all of my characters. I think most novelists would say the same. One tidbit I will share. Post Emeralds, Maria did ask me to consider writing about mature love, not just young love (something we two know intimately after 35 years!). Samuel and Rebekah were the outcomes of that request. Both of whom I am very fond of as characters. 

Personification of key objects (the constellations in Emeralds and the books in Shadows) plays a role in each book. Why did you decide to incorporate these elements and what were you hoping to communicate through this device?

JDC: Both novels contain elements of magical realism (the constellations, the books). I felt (and still do) that they add to the sensuous wonder/magic/dream-like character that was Moorish Spain. Fortune’s Lament continues that trend. I will say that I came upon the living constellations somewhat by chance. I added them in only a couple of places in my first draft, as whimsical minor characters. My early readers loved the way they worked in the book, and encouraged me to add more scenes, which I did. I like the result. The living books in Shadows were a deliberate choice. As a lifelong reader, books are very much alive to me. With the setting in the Great Library of Córdoba, it seems like a very important and natural choice to make. I like that result too!

What does the blue flame present between the lovers in both books mean to you?

JDC: Good question. I opted for a magical element bounding the otherworldliness of true love when it is directly experienced (transcendent, divine, life changing would be closer to my life experience). Why blue? Blue, like an electrical spark, a holy flame, divine fire.

Given that the bulk of your professional life is spent in the quite different realm of electrical engineering, what has it been like to venture into Hispanism, medievalism and creative writing? What things have been most rewarding and most challenging about the writing and publishing process on these topics?

JDC: Truthfully, falling in love with Moorish Spain (hook, line and sinker), and getting to creatively write about it, has been a dream come true for me. I love every minute of it, and consider it a great blessing. I live Moorish Spain, I breathe it, and I think constantly about that magical place and time and culture that were so unique, yet so relevant to the modern world and what I wish for our planet and its many peoples: love-filled; no artificial boundaries; the practice of religion as it was originally intended, peaceful and tolerant; filled to the brim with knowledge and culture and reverence. You may also find it interesting to note (I do) that my right-brain centric imagination and creative writing dove-tail beautifully with my scientific research, which, while it may be left-brain centric, requires intuition and imagination to practice well. Hand in glove. 

Is there anything else you’d like me/the reader to know?

JDC: Well, I am hard at work on the third novel in the series, Fortune’s Lament, which tells the story of the lead up to and ultimate collapse of Moorish Spain in 1492. Think Fernando and Isabel, Columbus, the Inquisition. War, politics, betrayal, and yes, love. Danah, my bright, beautiful, strong-willed heroine (!), is working hard to become Granada’s first female physician. Little does she know, love is about to blind-side her! I recently decided to split the story into two books (the plot arc is LARGE and LONG), the first of which should be out late 2017 hopefully, with the conclusion about a year later.

Works Cited

Jayyusi, Salma, editor. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Brill, 1994.

Menocal, María Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created
a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra; Shadows in the Shining City

All You Need is Love: A Review of Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City from the Anthems of Al-Andalus series by John Cressler

John Cressler, Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013, viii + 424pp.
John Cressler, Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014, viii + 584pp.

Reviewed by Julia C. Baumgardt
About his foray into historical fiction with the first two in a series of historical novels centered on Islamicate Iberia, Dr. John D. Cressler, Schlumberger Chair Professor in Electronics and Ken Byers Teaching Fellow in Science and Religion—and author of five additional non-fiction books—states: “My principle goal was to reawaken this time period for modern readers, and to do that while telling a great yarn.” Richly layered with historical detail and carried forward by casts of extremely loveable characters, Emeralds in the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City roundly achieve this aim. Readers from a general audience will be captivated by what may be a new discovery of the cultural flourishing of medieval Spain and more initiated readers will likely enhance their knowledge of the minutiae of life in Islamicate Iberia.

The first book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, Emeralds in the Alhambra, opens in 1367 in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada under Sultan Muhammad V. With plenty of space given to military endeavors, political intrigue and florid architectural and spatial description, the novel follows the story of two young lovers: the decorated Breton soldier William Chandon and Layla al-Khatib, the daughter of the Sultan’s Gran Vizier. Their story parallels the fight between King Pedro of Castile and the (eventually successful) pretentions of his brother, Enrique of Trastamara, in a Castilian Civil War; the quite longstanding alliance between Nasrid Granada and Castile; as well as the Catholic Church’s meddling in Iberian political and religious life. The novel opens as Chandon, allied with Enrique, prepares his troops for battle at Jaen against the Nasrids, who are allied with Castile. After an impressive display of both knightly valor and swordsmanship, Chandon defeats the Grenadine commander—the Military Vice-Vizier’s nephew—but is then seriously wounded by a cheap shot and taken back to Granada as prisoner. The famous Jewish physician Salamuun heals Chandon and in so doing befriends him and educates him on the sophisticated and heterogeneous culture of Granada. As both a political move and a cultural transaction, the Sultan arranges for Chandon to learn Arabic from his Grand Vizier’s fiercely intelligent and independent daughter, Layla, and for the Breton to teach her English. Through their interactions, they fall in love, Chandon decides to become a Muslim, and the two marry, with the blessing of many—but not all—from the Alhambra community. During their lessons and courtship, Layla is also studying under the great Sufi master, Mansur al-Mussib and, through the latter’s direction, begins to volunteer in the Maristan hospital for the infirm and destitute. It is here that she opens her heart to love—platonic, romantic and spiritual—and has her first experience with Tawhid, mystical union with the divine. The pursuit of and respect for love in its many forms is a central component of this novel, where love is linked to any and all inclusive, non-dogmatic practice of religion and spirituality. In contrast, religious practice characterized by regulation and prohibition is portrayed as love’s antithesis and connected to political machinations, the accumulation of power, and the exclusion of the Other.

Shadows in the Shining City is the second book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series, though temporally its prequel, and is set in the “Golden Age” of Al-Andalus, the Caliphate of Cordoba under al-Hakam II. The story’s action begins in 975 and carries to the dissolution of the Caliphate and the time of fitna, all of which occurred historically over the course of a decade but which the novel compresses to a span of two years. Central characters are the historically infamous Muhammad ibn Abi Amir (al-Mansur) and his daughter Rayhanna, as well as their lovers, friends and enemies. Shadows follows the Abi Amir family’s trajectory: Rayhanna’s voracious appetite for books and thirst for knowledge that leads her to the Royal Library, Aristotle’s Book of Optics and replica of his camara obscura, and Zafir; as well as Muhammad ibn Abi Amir’s insatiable desire for wealth, prestige and power that leads to his steady moral decline and that of the Caliphate itself. The political focus is on Muhammad’s illicit introduction into palace life through the beguiling and beguiled Subh (wife of the Caliph and mother of al-Hakam’s only heir), his machinations to secure dominance in Cordoba through alliance with North Africa, and his eventual self-inflicted dehumanization as his quest for power grows. As with Emeralds, Shadows also centers on a love story—and Cressler promises the final installment will continue this tradition—though this time played out in a more complex, tri-part network of protagonists. Rayhanna and her beloved Zafir—a saqaliba with a prominent role as translator of Greek and assistant to the Royal Librarian—are the story’s primary romantic couple. Samuel, the librarian himself, and his wife, Rebekah, are the second set of lovers in Shadows and, as a mature couple, they provide both a fitting complement to the headstrong and hormone-driven young lovers and invaluable assistance in Rayhanna and Zafir’s quest to be united. The third pairing is significantly different from the first two but no less important to the plot: the haunting presence of Ibn Abi Amir’s great love with his late wife, Rayya. The memory of their passion, as well as Rayya’s apparent wish that Rayhanna marry for love, serves as the catalyst for Rayhanna’s grandmother’s timely intervention as the plot develops. It is this intervention that stalls what would have unfolded as a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with poison, faked suicides and a rather unreliable antidote. The spectral memory of Rayya haunts al-Mansur as well, and his tender memories of their love and his devastation at losing her round out his personality by providing a sympathetic backstory and a plausible explanation for his seemingly inhuman hardness and unquenchable ambition. The contrast of a great love lost and the brutal impossibility of recovery after the fact triangulates with the other two couples and provides a much-needed balance and dose of reality to the otherwise rose-colored portrayal of love in both Anthems books.

The plot and characterization of both novels are engaging, though Emeralds’ characters—however loveable—at times come off flat and one-dimensional. Shadows demonstrates a blossoming in Cressler’s narrative craft, with al-Mansur in particular represented in considerably more depth. In addition, the inclusion of certain questionable or outright problematic cultural elements in both novels goes far to balance and nuance the portrayal of an often overly idealized period. Likely the most well-known of the controversial cultural practices is the harem, a space of enclosure-prison for royal women. Shadows’ portrayal of Subh’s unhappiness and isolation within the harem and the Sultan’s near undoing because of his lust for Layla in Emeralds highlights this problematic institution. In addition, the depictions of these more objectionable aspects present a cautionary tale of the volatility of even the most seemingly stable of polities when they are constructed upon the oppression or marginalization of certain groups. The creation and maintenance of eunuchs, an element of the harem often overlooked in popular portrayals, is also brought to light through the character of Jibril and his young protégés. Anthems does also present local responses to such challenges and social problems, such as the existence of the Maristan Hospital and the new hospital Layla founds in Emeralds.

An especially strong area in both novels is the rich historical detail in weaponry and warfare, politics and historical events, and cultural elements such as architecture, contemporary literature, food and bathing practices. Anthems not only creates loveable characters and compelling plots, but also places them within an entire historical world reconstructed meticulously and in vivid color. In the areas of warfare and city geography in particular, the novels take on a more documentary quality, which strengthens their purpose and complements the love stories. It is clear that the series has been thoroughly researched and each book contains not only the text of the novel but also maps, a glossary, several historical primers, notes about facts and fiction in the text, and an extensive bibliography.

Religion in general is rightly given a central place, with an emphasis on tolerance, open-mindedness and love. That Chandon learns Arabic and converts to Islam in Emeralds is an excellent demonstration of the linguistic and religious permeability of the heterogeneous Islamicate culture Anthems celebrates. The same is true for the recognition of social mobility for Jews and Christians (slaves or free) within the Caliphate and Emirate through characters such as Salamuun (the Caliph’s doctor, Emeralds), Reccimund (the Christian Bishop and Vizier of Dhimmi, Shadows), Samuel and Zafir. All the ostensibly good characters in the novels cultivate and practice a kind of open spirituality that expresses itself within a specific Abrahamic faith, whereas religious dogmatism is equated with political quests for power and control. On the portrayal of strict religious observance as incompatible with tolerance, Cressler states that “tolerance and openness to the Other are indeed essential aspects of what religion can and should aspire to.” It is noteworthy, and, as Cressler indicates, “historical,” that those characters who influence the plot most negatively seek to limit the possibilities of spiritual expression of both their religious Other and those within their same confessional community, and always do so in the pursuit of power, riches and prestige.

As is fitting, then, both Emeralds and Shadows pay commendably nuanced attention to the intricacies of politics and their intermingling with religion. Throughout both novels, the complex alliances and scheming of various political players take center stage and influence the tide of decisions made by the Emir and the Caliph as well as those of their allies and enemies to the north, the northeast, and the south. The complexity of the political situation in al-Andalus and Castile, Iberia generally, and the Mediterranean more broadly is extremely well-presented given the scope of the novels and their intended readership. Anthems offers a nuanced approximation to the papacy’s pretended political and ecclesial influence through the depiction of the visiting monks of Cluny in Shadows and the Cardinal in Emeralds. In addition, the books rightly complicate what contemporary readers might well have assumed to be a homogenous medieval Christian (i.e. Catholic) church by depicting the unique practices of southern Iberian Christians in the Mozarabic rite. 

While the text proper of the novels is appropriately complex in its approach to the socio-politico-theological matrices of medieval Iberia, the historical summaries and primers surrounding the novels do not appear to be quite so carefully worked. In those texts, the tensions between Iberian Christians, Cluny, and the Papacy, as well as the Castilian Civil War, are presented as “infighting” and “bickering” within otherwise unified groups (Emeralds 406). This oversimplifies the situation as it existed historically and as it is generally depicted in the novels and feeds into an all-too-black-and-white notion of Reconquista as a time-tested, unified, and perdurable impulse. The word “reconquista” itself appears sixteen times in Emeralds in the mouths of a variety of its characters and another nine times in the historiographic materials surrounding the text of the novel. With each use it gestures toward a universally understood and accepted (by all the kingdoms of Iberia, England, France, and Rome) notion of a common, underlying impetus uniting all of Christianity against Islam, in a struggle for both ecclesial domination and territory. While this conception of Reconquista is not by any stretch novel—and may perhaps be an easy way for the uninitiated reader to dive into the historical and historiographical questions surrounding medieval and Early Modern Iberia—the simple use of the term in the mouths of characters is likely an anachronism. Evidence suggests that “restoration” (in ecclesial terms) or “conquest” (more military/territorial) were used in reference to the confessional and military changing of hands of Iberian kingdoms, and according to Ríos Saloma, the earliest extant incidence of the term “reconquista” referring to armed struggle between Christians and Muslims does not appear in Spanish until 1796 (194). This is not to say that the impact of the crusading mentality and rhetoric did not reverberate within Iberia, nor to deny the presence and influence of Jimenez de Rada’s vision of the Christian character and destiny of Iberia—it was he who so firmly connected the dots from Visigoth rule to Pelayo at Covadonga through to the conquest of Toledo and the continuing might of united Christian armies at la Navas de Tolosa. This concept of a slow but steady regrouping of Christians post-711 Muslim “invasion” and the REconquest of “their” territory toward the teleological victory of (Christian) Spain makes for a great story. However, a tape-measure notion of Reconquista as “no illusion…inevitable” (325) as the Military Vizier al-Bistami suggests in Emeralds, involves a fair amount of glossing over the very political, cultural, linguistic, and even religious intricacies that Anthems otherwise works hard to present in their complexities. [1] That the Visigoths were Arians (and thus, heretics) until (at the earliest) the end of the seventh century, that the Mozarabic (Hispanic) rite was banned by the Council of Burgos in the eleventh century but has been practiced continually in some form into the present day, and even, in fact, that a (if not the) principle enemy of the Christian front alongside which the Grenadine army fights at the beginning of Emeralds is Pedro—another Christian ruler—all run the risk of being elided by the repeated emphasis on the term “reconquista.” Perhaps with this the novels pave the way for Anthems’ final installment, which will treat the Catholic Monarchs and the fall of Granada and, as such, will likely (and hopefully) take up the rhetorical strategizing and propaganda campaign around the completion of the Christian conquest of Spain engineered by Isabel the Catholic.

The use of the term “Moor” and “Moorish” in Emeralds and Shadows as a blanket signifier for all Muslims and all things Islamicate on the Iberian Peninsula presents similar misgivings. Cressler acknowledges on the very first page of Emeralds, prior to the text of the novel itself, that “the Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term ‘Moors,’” but fails to acknowledge the racialization of the term and the problems of its continued use. As I and many others have argued, the word “Moor” refers to a monolithic and universalized Muslim Other—an always already imagined figure, a repository of anxiety of the Christian Other, and never a real and contextualized individual (Baumgardt 115; Flesler). While it may be fitting to place the term in the mouth of the Cardinal or Papal envoy, its use in the front or end matter of the novels and in their description might be productively replaced by Hodgson’s “Islamicate” or similar nomenclature.
Overall, the first two novels in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series depict the complexity and heterogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages in vivid color. Emeralds of the Alhambra and Shadows in the Shining City weave well the varying shades of its immense tapestry and unfold around characters that are alluringly attractive (or despicable) enough to captivate both period specialists and a general readership. Few will want to resist Cressler’s consistent portrayal of love as spiritual experience, as antidote, and as all-powerful force for good. This series is a welcome foray into a period still underrepresented for Anglophone audiences. Its conclusion will be awaited with anticipation.

Julia C. Baumgardt, Marian University, Indianapolis

Works Cited

Baumgardt, Julia C. The Times of Al-Andalus: Performing Alternative Temporalities in Spanish
New Historical Novels, Festive Reenactment, and Conversion Narrative, The Johns
Hopkins University, 2015, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 10302153.

Cressler, John. Emeralds of the Alhambra. Sunbury Press, 2013.

---. Shadows in the Shining City. Sunbury Press, 2014.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time.
Princeton UP, 2009.

Flesler, Daniela. The Return of the Moor. Purdue UP, 2000.

Ríos Saloma, Martín F. “La Reconquista: génesis de un mito historiográfico.” Historia y Grafía,
no. 30, 2008, pp. 191-216, Accessed 8
Dec. 2015.

[1] On “tape measure” histories and teleological chronologies, see Dimock.

October 19, 2017

Sutter, The Bastard Executioner

The Bastard Executioner, created by Kurt Sutter. Distributed by FX Network, 2015.

Reviewed by Ashely Conklin
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord…” Isaiah 55:8-9
God’s ways are mysterious and unknowable, such is the premise behind Kurt Sutter’s failed show The Bastard Executioner. Canceled after a single, ten-episode season, the FX series seemed like a promising addition to the growing number of more realistic fantasy epics. After all, TBE contains the usual new “historical” (read: gritty) medievalism staples: oppressive religious and political systems, social upheaval, secret societies and overdone prophesies, a Chosen One figure, and a healthy dose of castles, sword fights, and all the graphic violence and nudity one can expect from a cable channel. In fact, the problem is that it has too many of these motifs, all clamoring for equal attention and very loosely united through the main character, Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones). Wilkin is an English knight, the Chosen One of the series, granted visions from God that steer him from a soldier’s life to that of a journeyman executioner in a small Welsh shire. The show takes place in 14th century Wales, during the tumultuous reign of Edward II in which English barons are struggling to hold onto lands against Welsh uprisings with limited assistance from their weak king. Wilkin and his cohort of Welsh freemen suffer under the oppressive taxation and violent rule of their English overlords, and after their village is slaughtered, they join together in a quest for vengeance that kicks off the ten-episode season. 

Straightforward, right? Unfortunately, with a show that rests upon divine providence and all the mysteries that entails, nothing is quite that simple. The narrative acrobatics required to turn Wilkin Brattle, English Knight, into Gawain Maddox, executioner, render the first few episodes of this series overwrought and unbelievable. Wilkin’s journey is more confusing than mysterious, more accidentally unlikely than providential. And if you can name all of Wilkin’s Welsh companions by the end of the third episode, then you will have done better than I did. The show primarily suffers from trying to be too big and too complicated and so that what is meant to feel mysterious and weighty is instead confusing and contrived, beginning with the main character.

Wilkin Brattle is chosen by God. He doesn’t know what this means. I don’t know what this means, but that’s ok because I’m pretty sure figuring it out is the point of the show. Building a show around a central and, in this case, abstract mystery can work quite successfully.[1] Unfortunately, the events of the show waver between feeling entirely random (because their importance and connectedness are hinted at through ambiguous visions) or deeply significant (due to the series of belief-defying coincidences that caused the event to happen) or, strangely, both at the same time. Wilkin’s entire role as the executioner neatly sums up this problem of feeling portentous and yet entirely random. Since executioner is God’s chosen role for Wilkin, it is accompanied by a near-death experience, visions of angels and serpent-demons, and a spiritual guide, Annora of the Alders (Katey Sagal). Annora spends most of her time onscreen staring dreamily into the distance with flowing, wind-ruffled hair and telling Wilkin limited information about his mysterious past and destiny. Her air of mysticism is cultivated through her foreignness—she is Slavic—and her scarred, mostly-mute sidekick and lover (Kurt Sutter). Annora, as it turns out, is a leader of the Seraphim, keepers of the Gospel of Jesus, and she is in hiding from the Soldiers of the Rosula, a secret sect of the Catholic Church that is hunting them. The storyline of the Seraphim and the Rosula is the one most aligned with Wilkin’s role as the Chosen One, although events within it occur mostly independently of him. These conventional tropes of secrecy and conspiracy help to create a sense of profundity about Wilkin’s newfound calling, and in the very first vision of the show an angelic child tells Wilkin: “You must live the life of a different man.” The angel means this literally: Wilkin Brattle must assume the identity of Gawain Maddox.

Despite considerable setup, however, this identity seems chosen at random rather than for a distinct purpose. Wilkin’s occupation as executioner grants him a position within Ventris Castle, at the center of conflict between Welsh natives and English overlords. Wilkin is blackmailed by the unscrupulous chamberlain (Stephen Moyer) and becomes close to the baroness, Lady Love (Flora Spencer-Longhurst), but it is only Wilkin’s location at court that provides this access, not his occupation. One imagines that Wilkin could retain his role as a knight or perhaps as a mercenary and end up at Castle Ventris and his path would be no less unbelievable than what is actually written into the show.[2] If the show gave any indication as to why Wilkin’s chosen one role is that of an executioner, this would feel more meaningful and less randomly chosen so that lots of people can be horribly mutilated on television. Instead, the show leans heavily on mysticism to force the audience to accept plot-holes and unlikely scenarios. Every time Wilkin starts to feel doubt about torturing or executing someone, a beatific vision of his dead wife, Petra, appears to assure him (and us) that he is doing the right thing. Just don’t ever expect to learn why. The role does not even entirely work, since Wilkin keeps being recruited for military duties outside of those of executioner and more appropriate to a soldier; several characters even comment on this unusual turn of events. The writers have to do extra exposition to explain away narrative inconsistencies in Wilkin’s God-chosen role. The only true reason for Wilkin becoming an executioner seems to be that it is an easy narrative tool to make him look sympathetic by making Wilkin do terrible things and then feel bad about it. Any emotional connection with Wilkin is built through violence: his entire regiment is slaughtered, his entire village is slaughtered, and now he is forced to do terrible things to people because God told him to, so we should feel bad for him because he is basically a good guy who has gotten a bad deal. We like him for shouldering his great responsibility but also because he has the good taste to not be happy about it. It’s a cheap way of making the audience sympathize with Wilkin, one that hasn’t been earned by actually developing his character. Actor Lee Jones possesses the depth and range to do more than emote broodily at the camera; unfortunately, he rarely has the opportunity to do so. 

Additionally, the torture scenes are a means through which the writers can cater to expectations of graphic violence in a medieval show while simultaneously absolving the perpetrator of that violence. This sort of graphic bloodletting should not be surprising in a show entitled The Bastard Executioner and is standard fare for anyone who has watched any number of other medieval-type shows, since, for most modern viewers “medieval” and “violence” are synonymous. According to Kurt Sutter, "I sort of had the mandate that anything that happens -- be it battle sequence, or an execution, or a torture scene -- that it comes out of the story, and you see the character's conflict or their non conflict in carrying forth with that violence. [...] But that it always has a ramification, whether it be an emotional ramification, the character, or somehow it impacts the narrative."[3] Essentially, we know who the good and bad characters are due to the level of violence they will employ to accomplish things and how bad they feel about it afterward. The characters we are meant to like—Wilkin, Love, the Welsh rebels—fight when necessary but often feel bad afterward, and the characters we are supposed to dislike—the English, the Rosula—torture and kill people not simply to dominate them but also because they seem to enjoy it. Wilkin commits violence as a tool of divine will. His heartfelt regret shows that he is really just a good guy, as opposed to the unfeeling torturers of the Rosula (special cameo by Ed Sheeran, whose shining cherubic face may forever creep you out, if it didn’t already) who torture not only to dominate people but also because they seem to enjoy it. Sutter is right; violence does have aesthetic purpose. Unfortunately, here it seems to be used as a narrative shortcut to avoid actual character development.

The main drawback to The Bastard Executioner is that it is too ambitious too quickly. The series often leaves the viewer as confused and lost as poor Wilkin, with no assurance of any answers and no real sense of whether the confusion is a deliberate manifestation of God’s ways or if it is an accidental byproduct of having numerous long-term plots and multiple characters with mysterious pasts. However, if you can make it past episode 4, things will start to make a bit more sense. Or maybe I just got used to being confused. But around episode 4 is where I started enjoying the show, partially because this is where the characters who previously seemed quite flat began to be developed more carefully. For example, I spent the first few episodes waiting for Milus to twirl his mustache (he doesn’t actually have one) while fiendishly laughing because he’s EVIL. He is, after all, blackmailing Wilkin, plotting to marry Love off to a rival English baron, and his advice is always to impose the harshest of measures against the Welsh. What free time he has away from plotting murders and lying to everyone, Milus spends indulging his sexual appetites with a string of servants which include twin sisters and a young male servant named Frenchie. Milus is so clearly THE BAD GUY that it takes several episodes to see that there is actually some depth to his character. From a viewer’s perspective, the problem is not that Milus is a villain, it’s that for much of the season he is a caricature of a villain. This is resolved through the belated addition of backstory and the addition of plot-lines that allow Milus to do something other than plot to murder people. For instance, when Lady Love fakes a pregnancy in order to retain control of her lands, she spends much of the season fretting about how to perpetuate the fraud through bulky clothing, but has no clear endgame for how to resolve the issue. Milus, with unusual gentleness, offers the solution: “The child of Lady Love and Baron Ventris was so blessed, so special that God called him to Heaven even before he was born.”[4] This resolution, though obvious, would be difficult to successfully orchestrate without the help of Love’s closest household, and Milus’ suggestion of it makes it clear that he’s capable of far more than spite and arrogance. With Milus, as with many of the characters on The Bastard Executioner, it takes a bit of time to see his hidden depths, time that many viewers will be reluctant to invest.

Although the male characters are hit or miss—I challenge you to even name Wilkin’s Welsh comrades—the women are the real reason to watch. To begin, there is a surprising number of women for a medieval-set show whose focus is a central male figure, and they showcase a range of personalities and social roles. The women are dynamic, multi-faceted, and, as a whole, far more well-developed than most of the male characters, many of whom viewers may struggle to put a name to throughout the early episodes. One of the most fully-conceived and well-acted women is Lady Love. Love is a sheltered noblewoman oppressed by her husband, and after her husband’s death, she and Wilkin share a vision of their baby. Despite her position as Wilkin’s love interest, Love exceeds that role by turning out to be a shrewd and crafty leader, utterly unafraid to challenge the men that surround her. She outmaneuvers Piers Gaveston at several junctures, ultimately handing him over to English barons for execution, and Milus admits his admiration for her at several junctures, commenting that if Ventris had used her negotiating skills he might have lived longer. Love is, thankfully, not a leader without flaws and doubts. She struggles to reconcile living on the borders between two countries and two identities. Although born Welsh and loyal to her people, there are times when she must “act English,” by imposing harsh penalties on native Welshmen who commit crimes. She gives the order to cut the nose from a young Welsh girl who is responsible for defacing a statue of Love’s late husband. Her identities as Welsh baroness, English peer, and devout Catholic all come into conflict and force her to choose an outcome that she hates—mutilation—but is nonetheless necessary to keep a fragile peace. Love is competent but also vulnerable in a way that makes her far more interesting than if she had been self-assured all the time.

Equally intriguing, if not always likeable, is Jessamy Maddox (Sarah Sweeney), Gawain Maddox’s wife. She forcibly maintains Wilkin Brattle’s secret identity by pretending that he is her deceased husband. Jessamy never explains her motives for doing so, but Maddox was so viciously abusive that Jessamy and her son, Luca, are physically scarred. Even a complete stranger is an improvement on Maddox. Jessamy quietly but firmly insists that Wilkin is her husband, even to him, so that it is unclear if she is a fabulous play-actor or if she is deluded. There is a particularly chilling moment in episode 4 where Wilkin returns home and catches Jessamey continuing the abuse on herself and Luca, leaving herself with a black eye and Luca with burns. When Wilkin, horrified, asks why she does this, she stares at him tranquilly and says: “I don’t, Maddy. You do. As you have always done when we needed correction.” What is most disturbing is Jessamy’s calm assurance that Wilkin aka Maddox is responsible for their injuries and that it is perfectly right that he has hurt them. It is a moment where viewers are left asking: just how deranged is she? Does she genuinely believe that Wilkin is hurting them? Or is this her desperate and manipulative way of holding her fictional family together via the abuse they have always suffered? The delicacy with which actress Sarah Sweeney plays this ambiguity leaves viewers delightfully uncertain if Jessamy is insane or perfectly rational and crafty.

Yet despite having a number of well-developed female characters, many of the most grotesque dismemberments and deaths are reserved for women. The death of Wilkin’s wife, Petra, is particularly repulsive, as her unborn child is displayed atop her body in a scene that evokes and surpasses the gruesomeness of Game of Throne’s Red Wedding. I am not sure that viewers really needed to see that bit of horror in order to understand that Wilkin has lost everything and wants revenge and that the murderer—the show hints that the culprit may be Annora or the person ritually mutilating people—is truly monstrous. That moment and Wilkin’s removal of a young Welsh girl’s nose in episode 3 will horrify and perhaps even test viewers’ gag reflex, which might be the sole purpose for these scenes. But if these scenes are also meant to evoke pity, then they fail because the horror is too visceral to get past to have a real emotional response. Additionally, the violence against women is gender-oriented, targeting specifically female traits, like reproduction and beauty, by mutilating the womb, the face[5], and in the case of a female serving woman, the genitals.[6] In these cases, the female body exists solely to gawk at and be horrified by. 

The high points of the show, such as female character development and the high-caliber acting, are unfortunately not enough to justify slogging through the sprawling, corpse-littered, convoluted world of The Bastard Executioner. The mythology of the show is ill-defined and seemingly massive, there are too many long-term plotlines to manage, and the characterization is inconsistent. While a good story should unfold, viewers need something concrete to grab onto in order to stay invested. Game of Thrones works, even with a massive backstory and numerous characters and locations, because in season one the main storyline - the secret of the royal children's parentage - is fairly simple and motivates what happens throughout the season.  In The Bastard Executioner, it's hard to find a single motivating factor, except perhaps Wilkin Brattle as God's chosen, and I still don't know what that means.

Ashely Conklin
University of Rochester

[1] Lost and The X-Files are two shows that immediately come to mind as having long, successful television runs and a deeply-shrouded mystery at their core.
[2] One plot-point I’ve gotten hung up on is why a reasonably intelligent man like Wilkin is living in a shire named after the man who tried to kill him five years earlier. Worst retirement plan ever.
[3] From Deadline’s report on TBE’s TCA panel, Ross A. Lincoln. “Kurt Sutter on ‘Bastard Executioner’ Violence and His Catholic Baggage.” Deadline. 7 Aug. 2015.
[4] TBE episode 10
[5] Qualifier: in this instance, the girl is being punished for chopping the nose off of a bust of the former Lord Ventris, so this could be seen as reciprocity for the crime. However, I do find it suggestive that the culprit here is female, since beauty is such a prominent female attribute and resides primarily in the face. An interesting medieval analogue to this moment would be Marie de France’s Bisclavret in which the protagonist bites off his wife’s nose in retaliation for trapping him as a werewolf.
[6] This is one of the few instances where the actual torture occurs, thankfully, off-screen, but the aftermath alone will be disturbing to many viewers. The mechanism itself involves a sort of sharpened saw-horse over which the victim is suspended and weights are added to her ankles until eventually the body splits at the genitals.