An Antic Disposition
St Martin’s Minotaur, 2004
In Denmark, long ago, a king was murdered by his ambitous brother. The murderer married his brother’s widow and raised the dead king’s son as his own. The king’s son was trapped in a household made up of his enemies, with no refuge except madness.
You think you know this story, but you do not. At least, you do not know it the way Alan Gordon tells it in An Antic Disposition, the fifth book of the Fools Guild series.
The book begins in late fall, deep in a forest in Swabia, where the Fools Guild has moved to escape the reach of a vengeful pope. Father Gerald, the guild-master priest, assembles all the jesters and their helpers one evening, and begins a tale, a tale of the far north; the tale of Amleth, a Danish prince, Gerutha his mother, his treacherous uncle, and a jester named Terence of York, or, as the Danes pronounce it, Yorick.
The story is a break from the earlier tales of Theofilos and his wife Viola, who we met first in Thirteenth Night. Previous books followed their adventures. This story, however, is intimately connected to Theo, as Viola is about to discover.
Gordon sets the tale late in the twelfth century, during the efforts of King Valdemar to unite Denmark. Like his other works, this one is laced with humor. It is also filled with darkness, more darkness even than Lark’s Lament, a book that follows this one. It may seem darker because to some extent we know what is going to happen. Valdeman is a brave king who takes council from bad men. Orvendil, Ambleth’s father, is an honest man who cannot fathom the hearts of those around him, to his loss. His wife Gerutha is starving for power, more Lady MacBeth than Gertrude, crystallizing her desire in the vision of a rose garden and a palace. In Gordon’s story, there is no doubt how much Gerutha knew, and how much she approved, of her brother-in-law’s plot. The only thing that affords her the tiniest particle of redemption is her love for her son.
Amleth is the most vulnerable of the characters, long before the death of his father. He strikes up a friendship with the fool who comes to the stockade, and Yorick alone keeps him sane. He also begins to teach Amleth the art of the jester—an art that Amleth will cling to, in an attempt to ensure his own survival.
Yorick and his fellow jester Father Gerald are spots of light, flickering candles; brave and bright, frail and fleeting against the dark storm they confront.
Orvendil’s brother does not pour poison into his ear as he sleeps. That is not the way of the Danes. He challenges him to combat on a hilltop before a blazing bonfire and kills his drugged brother while Amleth watches. It’s a powerful, dramatic scene, one of the best in the book. Every exchange with Gerutha crackles with tension, even when she is only serving a guest a slice of roast pork. The downward spiral of the character who will become Polonius is convincing and almost makes us feel sorry for him. Almost.
The ending contains not a twist, exactly, but more of a grace note, as Theo, after the story is finished, reveals his part in it to Viola.
Because this story didn’t have Theo’s wit to leaven it, or much by-play between him and Voila, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I have the others. I think Gordon achieved what he wanted, which was a change of tone. Gordon works for the New York Legal Aid Society, and I’ve said before that I wonder if the jester books aren’t inspired by a sense of fighting for small justices against a machine, a bureaucracy and a tradition that all mitigate against the people on the street. I have that feeling even more strongly in this book. Father Gerald, Yorick and the other fools can’t save everyone. Yorick cannot even save himself. Yet they struggle for justice. Even Amleth’s act against the mercenaries his uncle has brought in, toward the end of the book, is a brand of rough justice.
This is a good book, but not a light book. It’s a midwinter book, a book about the cold and the darkness, not only of the weather but of people’s hearts.