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Comments by Bob Corbett
Friar Otto, a Franciscan from Austria, is sent by one of his superiors, Alan Marsh, to interview William de Marisco who is on death row for having killed one of King Richard III’s enemies, Earl Richard.
Marsh certainly suspects that something wrong is going on in this case. Friar Otto knows virtually nothing about the case, is young and relatively inexperienced, but linguistically and intellectually able. Otto knows that Marsh suspects something strange is going on, but otherwise he knows little.
The novel is a report which Otto sends back to Marsh, not only proving Marsh’s suspicions are correct, but much more than Marsh would have bargained for.
The novel is both about this historical event, but much more it is about Friar Otto, who he is and how this assignment profoundly impacts his life and future.
At the very outset I was a bit puzzled by the novel, it was, in the first 10-15 pages, reading more like an historical report, a bit interesting, but not grabbing. Soon however, the reader begins to understand that there are two very different stories here: The affair of the 17 men condemned to death, and the story of the life, and future of Friar Otto.
Once that second theme begins to emerge the book becomes more lively, puzzling and demanding. It ends up being a very good read, perhaps a bit hard on religion and Christian faith, but exciting and provocative to the end.
I would recommend to any reader, but would suggest one read just a bit about the period of King Henry III’s reign in England in the 1240s.
Below I will do more commenting on things that especially interested me, but for any who are coming to the novel about to read it rather than having already read it, I would suggest that to read further would not be in your interest. It would spoil what would likely be a delightful read and surprises.
Upon the deaths of Kings Arthur and Richard, Richard’s brother John became king and upon his death in 1216 he was followed by his son, King Henry III who was married to Eleanor of Provence. He ruled during the period of this novel. He was generally seen as a rather weak person and king.
As the novel opens there are 17 prisoners who are in three different prisons and set to die in just two days. Their death sentence is seemingly the result of the death of Earl Richard in Ireland, whom the prisoners, under the leadership of William de Marisco, are said to have killed.
However, Adam Marsh, a Franciscan, living somewhere in Europe, but seemingly not in England, is very interested in this case and has sent the young but intellectually able Friar Otto to investigate the case.
Marsh is close to the Pope, and Henry III is in a subsidiary relationship with the Pope. Marsh suspects something is not right about the charges against William and his men, and he wants more information.
Indeed, Earl Richard died in Ireland in a battle in which William de Marisco and his companions were involved. However, it seems that Richard died more in the process of being captured than any attempt to murder him, and even those acts had not be done by William and his group.
The whole quarrel goes back to the death of Earl Richard, which was not at all caused by these men, but Henry’s clerk, Henry Clement insisted on it and some of the William’s group killed him. Henry Clement, the clerk, was not an eye witness to Richard’s death, but claims to know for sure that William of Marisco and his group killed him and that it was deliberate murder. Henry III appears to not have been particularly opposed to Earl Richard, but a number of people in his inner circle have come to suspect that the king was indeed the responsible agent for Earl Richard’s death. Thus, it turns out, it is much in Henry’s interest to convict these men of the deliberate death of Earl Richard. It underlines his (actual) innocence in this death.
Little by little Friar Otto wheedles out of the men their story of this whole event and their own imprisoning and so on. On their view this alleged murder of Earl Richard is a cover. The king just wants them DEAD and out of the way. They see themselves a representative of an older way of living and being, one based on honor and family, not on scheming and the power of kings and popes. They see themselves as honorable men in a world no longer honorable and thus a real cultural danger to the modern realm of Henry III.
However, their profound honesty of their ways deeply affects Friar Otto. In the rant of the prisoners against King Henry III and monarchy in general, there is an even deeper disgust with the religion of Friar Otto and the control of Europe by the popes.
As it turns out the King’s motivations seem not to have been as intellectually huge as Marico and his band think, but more a way to save himself from being suspected of killing Earl Richard, which, indeed, Henry did not do.
No matter the real case of Earl Richard’s death, the dialogues on the nature of values and honesty and the bitter attacks on the power of popes and kings and how they pervert real Biblical Christian values for their own mundane and selfish purposes, and all this weighs mightily on Friar Otto. He undergoes a serious dark night of the soul.
I really like the way author Sam Smith slowly brings this plot theory of the Marisco band to the fore, and the careful way in which the naïve Otto becomes more and more troubled and convinced by their argument. The further irony, of course, is that the Marisco group is simply wrong about the motivations of the king, but touch on very important topics and structures of the time, even if the specifics of this case in point aren’t a great example to be using.
The two questions I come away from the novel with are:
Put differently, did author Smith convince me of Otto’s change and was it for the reasons the Marisco group argued? I tend to have been persuaded by Otto’s response. He reminds me of my own movement from a seminarian studying to be a priest in my undergraduate college days, and my soon to follow atheism and movement more to an atheistic Existentialist morality.
Otto was a believer in what one might call basic human goodness, but also had been raised in a tradition which held and convinced him (and many others) that that morality and tradition was championed by the church. But the Mariscos convince him that the morality he deeply believes in, what I would call a basic “biblical” morality, is quite different from what he has been given: a “church” morality, a morality that strips the individual of his or her individuality and responsibility and spins out a morality which, by the by, is in the interests of the power of the church itself and contrary to much of what a more honest human morality and interpersonal care would suggest.
The struggle of Otto to deal with the criticisms spelled out by Marisco and all reminded me very much of the struggles I had, and in my case, aided by the work of the Existential philosophers, all of them, atheistic, Christian, Jewish, agnostic, led me, as similar thinking did for Otto, away from the dogmatic mode of morality of the Christian message to something more person and individualistic.
I would hope that other readers are as able to identify with Friar Otto as I was. It was like reliving some of my struggles in my late teens and early twenties, some 50-55 years ago.Bob Corbett email@example.com
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