While I enjoy Conn Iggulden’s works of historical fiction (many of which we’ve reviewed previously on the site), I recognize that many of them lean more fictional than historical. We simply don’t have the kinds of documents, artifacts, and other sources of information from many of these time periods to create a compelling, full-fleshed cast of characters with which to tell a compelling story, so while the events, places, and general characters in Iggulden’s books are factual, he must sometimes invent entire characters to make the story work. That is not a weakness; Conn Iggulden is a historical fiction writer, not a history writer, and certainly not a translator.
The Abbot’s Tale, though, is something different, and in this Iggulden is serving more as a translator than a writer, or even a researcher. It is drawn almost entirely from a surviving manuscript written by Dunstan, a tenth century English monk, and the titular protagonist of The Abbot’s Tale. That manuscript is a sort of memoir or maybe a personal confessional, and it is clear that the original author never intended for it to be read, or even to survive. From what has survived to the present day, Iggulden created this more or less faithful interpretation, based almost entirely upon the text itself, with only minor changes or additions made where the original was inadequate for the task. We won’t go into whether it would have been better to respect Dunstan’s wishes that the piece be destroyed, because I would much rather talk about what makes this such a fantastic retelling.
I’ve sometimes described Iggulden’s works of historical fiction as gritty, even a little dark, which for me is part of why I find his books so compelling. Compared to the modern world, much of history is what we would call gritty and dark, so that component of his writing, especially in battle scenes, helps make the stories more immersive for the reader, creating a more useful window into what these periods of human history were truly like – very different from something like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, where the gritty, vulgar, dark elements felt overdone and gratuitous, detracting from the piece. There is an element of such grit to The Abbot’s Tale, but it has a different feel, at once both more immediate and less vivid. At times, it became just slightly uncomfortable, because to the modern reader some of the views and decisions that Dunstan takes for granted are difficult to understand and rationalize. There is less blood and gore, because to Dunstan that was simply part of life. Rarely though does the text allow the reader to forget that Dunstan is a complicated man from a very different world.
Take, for example, his opinion of women, which can be briefly surmised as “they are the great corruptors of men, servants of the devil.” Dunstan even expresses at one point that he does not trust any man who has a wife. This is not unexpected from a person of his position and time, and is what we today have been taught to think was the view of everyone before the great enlightenment of the twentieth century. Far more interesting is what Dunstan does not say, but rather shows in his recollections of interactions between his brother and his wife, or things his mother said, or the opinions of the other monks around him. Shown here in the confessions of a man who believed women were amongst the very greatest evils in the world is a repudiation of those who would assert that such a misogynistic perspective was universal in this period. Indeed, the impression is quite the opposite, that Dunstan’s views were something of an aberration.
With many of our recent reviews, I’ve had reason to discuss religion, and I find myself in that position again, reflecting on the nature of faith and belief. Reading Herodotus or Xenophon, about Spartans deciding when and how to do battle based on the messages seen in a goat’s entrails, there are some historians who will assert that those who led did not truly believe in their faiths, but used them cynically to manipulate their gullible followers. The other argument takes the opposite extreme, but The Abbot’s Tale walks a more complicated line. One has the impression that Dunstan genuinely believes that what he is doing is either a) the will of God, or b) the product of his own fallible, sinful nature. While he invented a story about being carried down by an angel, he truly did have a vision of a great abbey being erected, and throughout the memoir remained convinced that the vision came from God. Yet he also uses faith cynically, threatening people’s souls with eternal condemnation if they don’t cooperate with him, even manufacturing a disaster that claimed the lives of three people to make his point and avoid an inconvenient (and rare) expression of democracy.
In fewer words, Dunstan is complicated, and he is the main reason for how compelling this story is; it might be my favorite Conn Iggulden book (as much as I enjoyed his Kahn series). It also depicts a unique period of time, when England was only barely England, and there was no guarantee that it would endure as an independent and united kingdom. This was a time in which civilization, especially in western Europe and even more so in the British Isles, was still laid out gasping on the sand after the retreat of the high Roman tide, and it would be centuries more before civilization met and surpassed that mark. It was the monks, the Church, in many ways, that maintained the foundation for the coming Renaissance, keeping alive some of the learning of the Romans: in architecture, in rhetoric, in language, in philosophy and government.
If you are looking for neat resolutions, morally straightforward storytelling, then The Abbot’s Tale probably isn’t for you. Dunstan is a complicated individual, and in history there are rarely clear angels and demons. His story is the kind that will make you think, both during and after the reading. But it is not a difficult read, and I found it compelling. I encourage you to read Conn Iggulden’s interpretation of The Abbot’s Tale.