J H Alexander is Reader Emeritus in English at the University of Aberdeen
Count Robert of Parisby Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott
"The close observers of vegetable nature have remarked, that
Although primarily remembered for his extensive literary works and his political engagement, Scott was an advocate, judge and legal administrator by profession, and throughout his career combined his writing and editing work with his daily occupation as Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire.
"The close observers of vegetable nature have remarked, that when a new graft is taken from an aged tree, it possesses indeed in exterior form the appearance of a youthful shoot, but has in fact attained to the same state of maturity, or even decay, which has been reached by the parent stem. Hence, it is said, arises the general decline and death that about the same season is often observed to spread itself through individual trees of some particular species, all of which, deriving their vital powers from the parent stock, are therefore incapable of protracting their existence longer than it does."
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Sir Walter Scott, creator of the historical novel, never reached farther back in time in a novel than in this tale of the years 1096 and 1097 when the knightly Crusaders appeared before Constantinople en route to conquest of the Holy Land. Byzantium's star was waning and that of the Turks was rising when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade not many months earlier. *** In places, COUNT ROBERT OF PARIS reads like Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, as Sir Walter Scott draws on his photographic memory of readings in medieval chroniclers to bring to life the embattled court of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus and his historian daughter Anna. Scott gives Alexius high marks for good intentions and for playing brilliantly the weak hand left to him by his increasingly hapless predecessors as Eastern Roman Emperors. Alexius is being plotted against by some of his closest advisors and is fearful as well what the unruly crusaders might do to him, his capital city and his Empire. *** Count Robert of Paris, as attested by Anna Comnena, greatly offends the Emperor by sitting casually on his throne. He and his warrior wife Brenhilde are abducted by the Emperor's son-in-law, the Caesar Nicephorus Briennius, under the spell of the chief plotter against the throne, Agelastes, an aging Cynic philosopher. *** Twenty-two year old Hereward, Saxon hero of the Emperor's Varangian (English/Saxon) Guards, hates the Normans who had displaced his family in England but makes common cause with and rescues the imprisoned Count Robert. Hereward's sweetheart Bertha (betrothed at an altar of Odin in England) is now the serving maid of Countess Brenhilde. Together the four young foreigners foil the plot against the Emperor, but not without the help of a very intelligent, Saxon language- understanding orangutan from the imperial zoo! *** The Count and Countess, accompanied as dependents by Hereward and Brenhilde, ride off with the massive Crusader army toward glory in the Holy Land. Later, after the capture of Jerusalem, Hereward and Brenhilde are wed in Italy and Count Robert uses his influence with the King of France to gain for the happy Saxon couple a grant of lands in England near the New Forest, where their descendants are found to this day. *** With all the recent excitement about Dan Brown's novel THE DA VINCI CODE, researchers were not long dragging Sir Walter Scott into the foreground. For he had replicated the ceiling of Rosslyn Chapel in his library at Abbotsford. He had also written of Knights Templars and in COUNT ROBERT OF PARIS and ANNE OF GEIERSTEIN probed sometimes mysterious Royal bloodlines dear to Dan Brown. We see Godfrey of Bouillon on his way to becoming King of Jerusalem. And Count Robert is identified as an ancestor of Hugh Capet and his French dynasty. *** This is a good cross-cultural and historical yarn. It can also be read as reasonably accurate introductory history of a complex time when Western Europe was renewing acquaintance with East Rome and confronting on more equal terms Turks, Muslims and The Holy Land. The novel also includes cameo appearances by all the great figures of the First Crusade: Peter the Hermit, Bohemund, his gallant nephew Tancred, and others. It is a tale of intrigue, romance, duplicity, plotting and epoch- changing balances of power. COUNT ROBERT OF PARIS has all this and more. -OOO-