Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages.  By Hella Haasse.  Edited by Anita Miller.  Chicago: Academy Publishing, 1991.  594 pages.

Diane L. Schirf

This historical novel has its own interesting history. It was written by a Dutch author virtually unknown in the United States and published in 1949.  The first English translation was begun by a postal employee who spoke no Dutch. After his death, the manuscript was lost for decades in a closet. The final English translation was completed more than 40 years after the novel was written by a Chicago editor who also spoke no Dutch--but who did have the opportunity to get the author's approval.

In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages is the fictionalized account of the life of fifteenth-century poet and statesman Charles d'Orléans, son of Louis d'Orléans and Valentine Visconti, nephew of Charles VI, known as the Mad King or the Well Beloved. The plot is historically accurate and linear, beginning with the time of Charles' birth (although not focusing on it) and using that occasion to fill in the historical and character blanks for the novice to French medieval history.  Unlike other reviewers, I found this introductory material a fascinating setting of the stage, during which the author succinctly conveys the familial, personal, and political relationships of France's noble houses, primarily Burgundy and Orléans.

Although it is clear from the outset that Philippe the Bold of Burgundy is the nemesis of a united France and that Louis Orléans (his nephew, brother to Charles VI, and father of Charles d'Orléans) is his less selfishly motivated, more trustworthy counterpart, the novel does not fall into the trap of black-and-white villains and heroes. Burgundy and his successors are not evil personified; they are men who know how to look out for their own power. Louis and Charles d'Orléans, both flawed in their occasional lack of will and indecisiveness, in their own way look after themselves, but also attempt to keep France's greater interests in mind.  The most poignant moment early on is a conversation between Louis and his insane brother during one of his rare moments of lucidity, after which the royal power reverts again to Burgundy.

Charles is born into not only all the internal conflicts within France and the ongoing battles with England, but into a war he must wage lifelong with himself:  the conflict between his poet's soul and his inherited role as a statesman and leader of the House of Orléans. A scholar at heart, he must lead his house against Burgundy and his men against the English at Agincourt, where he is captured. Held prisoner for 25 years in England, Charles uses the time to become one of the leading poets of the Middle Ages, yearning for ideals of love, peace, and beauty-the very things that have escaped him all of his predestined life. He will not find them upon his return to France, as he is once more swallowed by leviathan internal and external conflicts and the need for his skills as a negotiator and arbiter. He is, as he says in one poem, "all rusted over with nonchaloir [nonchalance]."  Finally, he promises he will "not disavow the deepest desires of [his] heart" and "no longer give [himself] up to the sin of unhappiness"-a promise his position, his role, and the demands of political reality never allow him to fulfill.

The novel features an array of complex characters and their relationships and interactions, a compelling plot, a fascinating time in the history of England and France, and a spectacular background portrayed in brilliant colours as in a tapestry. Best of all, the novel is meticulously researched and as historically accurate as any fiction can be. Partway through the book, I realised that this novel could, if handled correctly, make a near-perfect epic movie.

In a Dark Wood Wandering has inspired me to look into the life and poetry of Charles d'Orléans, the history of Louis d'Orléans and Charles VI, incidental characters such as François Villon and Agnes Sorel, and so much more. For the history buff, the medieval tinkerer, or the person who likes a thoughtful tale, I highly recommend it.. Let's all be grateful that it was rediscovered at last.

7 October 2001.

© 2001 by Diane L. Schirf.

From the 
Commonplace Book

There is no more pleasant way to pass time than to play the game of thought.

--Charles d'Orleans
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