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Maurice Druon - The Accursed Kings Legolas Send a noteboard - 13/12/2010 08:19:21 PM
Les Rois Maudits, as it's called in the original French, ranks among the most famous and popular French-language historical fiction of the twentieth century, re-telling the French history of the first half of the fourteenth century. It consists of seven books (of roughly 300 pages each): The Iron King/Le Roi de Fer, The Strangled Queen/La Reine Etranglée, The Poisons of the Crown/Les Poisons de la Couronne, The Royal Succession/La Loi des Mâles, The She-Wolf of France/La Louve de France, The Lily and the Lion/Le Lis et le Lion and When a King loses France/Quand un Roi perd la France. Two mini-series have been made, the original being considered among the classics of French television.

The title of the series is derived from the events of the first book, which will reverberate throughout the rest of the series. In the early fourteenth century, France, under its strong and competent king Philip IV the Fair, is powerful and wealthy, and seeks to become more so. The Knights Templar, no longer crusading since the last Christian presence in the Holy Land has ended in the 1290s, are increasingly becoming a nuisance. And so Philip, in collaboration with the Pope in Avignon, makes his move, abolishing the Templars, capturing their leaders and sentencing them to death for heresy. The last Grandmaster, Jacques de Molay, dies at the stake in 1314 - but with his dying breath, he curses the Pope, the king and his house. Before the year has ended, the Pope and king Philip are dead. Since the latter has three grown sons and a daughter, who is queen of England, there doesn't seem to be much danger of the line ending... and yet, somehow, that will be exactly what happens.

The six initial books, published between 1955 and 1960, tell the story of these "Accursed Kings", each of Philip's sons trying to live up to his father's example in turn, and all failing. In the sixth book, Philip's last son dies, and with him the Capetian dynasty, to be succeeded by Philip's nephew, the first king of the Valois dynasty. (By an ironic twist of fate, the Valois dynasty would end in the exact same way in the sixteenth century, three brothers all succeeding their father in turn without any of them producing an heir.) But the daughter, Isabelle, still lives, and her son, Edward III of England, refuses to give up his own claim so easily, starting the war that we now know as the Hundred Years War. The seventh book, published in 1977, should be considered more of a stand-alone than a real part of the series, as it describes the two years leading up to the battle of Poitiers in 1356, long after all the major characters of the main series have died, other than Edward III and his mother. It's also unusual in its format, being structured as a series of near-monologues by the Cardinal of Périgord, emissary of the Pope, telling various people about these events and his own role in them. By no means as boring as it may sound to some - Druon does a good job at showing the Cardinal's character, the good and the bad, through his words, and it's all written quite well - but very different from the previous six books.

The books don't focus on France to the exclusion of everything else, though - which would've been difficult, anyway, considering the extent to which European royalty and nobility was internationally interwoven at the time. The history of England gets a fair bit of attention, for instance, even if the focus is mainly on its French queen Isabelle and her son. A number of other big names of the fourteenth century - Boccaccio, Petrarca, Cola di Rienzi, Jacob van Artevelde,... - make their appearance as well.

The series follows many characters at one point or other, and varies between personal PoVs and wider views, but there are two characters that one might say are the protagonists, even if there are books in which one or both are almost absent. One is Guccio Baglione, a young student-banker from Siena, who comes to work for his family's bank in Paris and so offers a foreigner's perspective; the other is Robert d'Artois, a high French nobleman locked in a ruthless, lethal, long drawn-out struggle with his aunt Mahaut d'Artois for the county of Artois. Guccio is a typical enough protagonist - young, inexperienced, naive in many ways, but kind and well-meaning at heart. But Robert d'Artois is a large part of the reason why this series has become as famous as it has. He is a giant with immense physical strength, a devious and quick-witted brain, and very few if any scruples - a multiple murderer and guilty of every crime in the book, but still a sympathetic character in his way.

As one might suspect from the titles and the above descriptions, The Accursed Kings focuses more on the royalty and high nobility than on the common people - even Guccio Baglione is wealthy and very well-connected for a commoner. I suppose this was not uncommon at the time Druon began writing this series; now it would be rather more so. The early fourteenth century is, it's true, in some ways perhaps the temporary high point of the city folk, particularly in Flanders and Italy where the cities have largely replaced the nobility as the main political actors, but also in France where Enguerrand de Marigny and Etienne Marcel, half a century apart, both rank among the most powerful men in the kingdom despite their low birth. The cities are profiting from the power struggle between king and nobles to assert themselves; in the next century, as kings all over Europe gain the upper hand in that struggle, the cities and their leading citizens will find it harder to obtain power, except by serving kings. One might also say, somewhat cynically, that the fourteenth century shows the power of the peasants; not that they have any political power ordinarily, but when they rise in bloody revolt, as they do on a few occasions in the series, the country trembles. I think I'm getting off topic a bit; let's just say that the common man is more talked about and described than that he actually appears in this series. That, along with Druon's at times dramatic and epic tone, exaggerating the merits of some kings or noblemen and the faults of others, does make the series feel a bit dated on occasion - though only a bit.

The age of the books also shows in the writing. Druon's style is smooth and light for the most part, when he isn't being dramatic, and the books definitely aren't a difficult read. But he does have a love of obscure and old-fashioned words at times, and liberally uses the passé simple and subjonctif imparfait, of which the latter in particular is starting to look very dated in French literature. (I don't know what the English translation is like, though, or how successfully it emulates Druon's style.) You get used to it, in any case, and those who like books like The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, or I suppose the Lord of the Rings, should not be unduly bothered by the tone or the writing.

The Accursed Kings is warmly recommended to anyone who enjoys gripping, dramatic historical fiction, particular if they have an interest in French and/or medieval history. It is slightly dated, often rather unsubtle and on occasion overly dramatic, but overall a very entertaining read that in the process teaches the reader a fair bit about medieval history and society. Of course that history is somewhat dramatized, but it should be obvious enough which parts are real and which are dramatic license - and some of the more unlikely plot points are in fact based on contemporary sources, even if they're still probably untrue.
This message last edited by Legolas on 15/12/2010 at 08:04:41 PM
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Maurice Druon - The Accursed Kings - 13/12/2010 08:19:21 PM 7731 Views
Thank you for giving this review - I had forgotten the name of the author and series. - 13/12/2010 09:29:59 PM 1583 Views
You're welcome (and thanks for the correction, edited). - 13/12/2010 10:23:55 PM 1618 Views
I know it's not "literary". (EDITED) - 13/12/2010 10:42:33 PM 1514 Views
Subjunctive imperfect, yeah. - 13/12/2010 10:51:34 PM 1587 Views
And with regard to your edit, I don't have a problem with passé simples myself. - 13/12/2010 10:53:59 PM 1943 Views
But how can one read any French literature at all without encountering the passé simple? - 15/12/2010 03:39:37 AM 1739 Views
The point is it is a "literary" tense - 15/12/2010 10:19:59 AM 1724 Views
Why would I read a lower style of book (I won't use the term "literature" to describe them) ? - 16/12/2010 06:11:36 AM 1526 Views
I don't want to start a fight here, but your attitude is seriously starting to grate. - 16/12/2010 06:54:30 PM 1794 Views
I don't care. Start a fight. - 16/12/2010 08:24:22 PM 1698 Views
Well, or we can have a civil debate on French culture, I suppose... also fun. - 16/12/2010 09:09:20 PM 1682 Views
Well, I'm up for that, too. - 17/12/2010 05:48:39 AM 1669 Views
Good. - 17/12/2010 09:01:37 PM 2026 Views
Ah - I support the subjunctive!!! - 18/12/2010 05:10:38 AM 1886 Views
TANGENT - 18/12/2010 09:56:31 AM 1778 Views
This whole conversation is just a pile of tangents, anyway. *NM* - 18/12/2010 01:30:09 PM 803 Views
I enjoy the tangent. - 21/12/2010 12:43:23 AM 1446 Views
But you don't think its disappearance corresponds to a decline in American culture? - 18/12/2010 01:29:43 PM 1668 Views
I read Der Zauberberg in English already. - 21/12/2010 12:48:16 AM 1504 Views
About the passé simple, what Camilla said. As for medieval vocabulary... - 15/12/2010 07:17:44 PM 1691 Views
"Ne...point" is used in Stendhal all the time. - 16/12/2010 06:08:40 AM 1572 Views
That looks like a really fascinating series. - 13/12/2010 10:56:52 PM 1637 Views
Step up your French lessons!!! - 13/12/2010 11:50:21 PM 1827 Views
That is a great reason to learn French. - 14/12/2010 07:29:54 PM 1551 Views
Re: That is a great reason to learn French. - 14/12/2010 08:13:59 PM 1565 Views
Fancier English often turns out to be French, of course. *NM* - 17/12/2010 06:41:19 PM 884 Views
Ooooh - 14/12/2010 07:41:03 PM 1480 Views
I'm really not quite sure how you managed that. - 14/12/2010 08:09:55 PM 1629 Views
Re: I'm really not quite sure how you managed that. - 14/12/2010 08:13:48 PM 1535 Views
I meant Bertière, yeah. Dumas works too, though. - 14/12/2010 08:18:30 PM 1607 Views

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