Evan Connell's Chronicle captures carnage and glory of the CrusadesThe novel as an art form embraces a multitude of expressions, from the epistolary adventures of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa to the stream of consciousness wadings of James Joyce's Ulysses, and many other stops in between. Whether it also embraces Evan S. Connell's Deus Lo Volt! Chronicle of the Crusades is a nice question, but probably unanswerable.
It may also be moot, because in pre-publication publicity Connell emphasizes that he thinks of Deus as a book about the Crusades, not an historical novel. . . . Monologues and dialogues in the book are paraphrased or condensed from those in medieval documents. Every meeting, every conversation, every triumph or defeat, no matter how small, was recorded centuries ago. The title is Latin for God wills it, the cry that exhorted Christians to go forth and wrest the Holy Land from Islam's grip. The book runs from 1095, with Pope Urban pleading for the liberation of Jerusalem, to the end of the 13th century, when the Crusades lay in ruins along with many of the sites the Crusaders sought to liberate.
Connell, noted for Son of the Morning Star, his book about George Armstrong Custer, says that for this book he drew from numerous sources, prominently Chronicles of the Crusades by Geoffrey de Villehardouin and Jean de Joinville. He makes Joinville the narrator of Deus, looking back on the entire history of the Crusades in which generations of his family took part, including himself in their closing years.
Deus is, as its subtitle says, a chronicle. This is not a mere literary conceit; Deus literally reads like a re-creation of a medieval chronicle, with its flatness, monotone, and lack of perspective. The medieval chronicler reported events, and left it to his homogeneous audience to sort out the world-shaking from the mundane, knowing that, since they shared his world-view, his readers would be able to do that. Thus coronations, crop reports, battles, and astrological signs and portents were put down hugger-mugger, a jumble of events with scarcely any emphasis, because nothing in God's creation is truly trivial.
So it is with Deus, with its hundreds of pages of undifferentiated head-loppings, piles of severed body parts, and unending rivers of Christian and Saracen blood each development accompanied by a pertinent, and typically vicious, moral reproof. The tone of the whole thing is morally instructive again, like a genuine chronicle and any irony is totally accidental. Of an early slaughter that did not go well for the visiting team, Joinville says, 4,000 Christians arose to glory in our Savior. To be sure, the events described, though usually gruesome, are colorful. There is the incident of the spy who came apart in the air after being flung toward Jerusalem from a catapult. What led him astray? asks the narrator. Ignorance of our Lord. It is fun to read about pilgrims in a Jerusalem released from bondage viewing the skull of Father Adam and fragments of the True Cross and the stone that felled Goliath.
And reading about the slayings of thousands of Jews and heretics in the course of a campaign to slay thousands of Muslims centuries ago, we naturally contrast that with our own times and realize that the justifications for butchery have not grown any better: Hence the wicked must be destroyed that the good may flourish. . . . Hence, for Saracens to be slain is good and necessary that their turpitude not increase. In the last quarter of the book Joinville begins to speak of his own experiences on crusade. He tells us more about the culture of the period and less about sending Saracens to the fiery pit and Christians to the arms of Jesus.
From this swamp of sanctimony-driven carnage comes the still, small voice of one old woman, who appears briefly and in passing, saying for love of God one ought to live honorably, not in hope of entering Paradise or from dread of Hell. Deus does not say so, but no doubt at some point some worthy knight improved that humanist attitude with a sword.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.