Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Emperor of the West

Emperor of the West: Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire
Hywel Williams
History

I wanted to adore this book, I really did. Not only was my knowledge of the subject a bit lacking, it's tailor-made for a lover of high adventure. Decaying empires? Check. Barbarian kingdoms? Check. Swords? Check. The original of the Chanson de Roland? Check. Heroic warrior-king who conquers an empire and initiates a golden age? Check.

And it's got all that stuff ... somewhere. It's never a good sign when an author spends multiple pages of his introduction telling you what he's going to tell you. In this case, it's a sign that Hywel Williams doesn't realize that he's got a story on his hands. Instead, he treats his material as if he were writing Wikipedia articles: organized by topic, confusingly interrelated, largely colorless, and complete without being cohesive.

A few examples will stand in for a great many others:

  • Absolutely inexplicably, there is neither a timeline nor a family tree, and there are precisely THREE smallish maps.
  • The lack of a genealogy is made acute by the repetition of names, or similar names. In the index, I count five Carlomans, seven Charles, four Childberts, five Pippins, and ten Louises (Louisiae? Louii?). Since the main text is in no way chronological, it's often unclear which one is under discussion at any give ntime.
  • On page 116, we get a mention of Charlemagne's wife Fastrada. Wait--who the hell is Fastrada? Last I remember (page 65), Charlemagne was married to one Hildegard. The first index entry for Fastrada is not until page 192. This sort of thing happens a lot.
  • Frequently the same event is referred to many times over, in a multiplicity of contexts, discussing different facets of the event, without explaining or describing the event itself. When and if we finally do get the explanation, it's impossible to fit it in with what's gone before.
  • The temporal dimension is dizzying. I appreciate a determination to show Charlemagne's historical context, but zipping back and forth among the 740s, the 790s, and the 860s isn't the way to do it--and the swings in places go much further than this.
  • He spends a certain amount of time concocting complicated explanations for things that can be explained simply.
  • Finally, and most damaging, Williams never sets his scenes. He just assumes that all the basic facts and personalities are too familiar to need introduction, and goes from there. Even if this were true--and it seldom is--it's poor technique.
If I'd been writing or editing Emperor of the West, I'd have started with the scene that Williams puts on page 140--Charlemagne's coronation as Emperor. It gives a nice capsule portrait of the man himself, explains who he was, and gives a vivid picture of why it matters. That would ground the entire work in giving, first the background leading up to the scene, then the following consequences. It's a pity that Williams didn't think that way. As it is, I can only recommend the book to those readers who want completeness at the expense of the other literary virtues.

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