This week I’m celebrating the arrival of summer and William Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary year by picking Poul Anderson’s “A Midsummer Tempest”. The novel is set in an alternate version of 17th century Europe in which everything that Shakespeare wrote was fact rather than fiction. It came out in 1974 and is an early example of a parallel worlds story and arguably of the Steampunk genre. There are plenty of cheap paperback copies of “A Midsummer Tempest” around and it’s also available as an ebook.
In 17th century England a civil war has broken out between King Charles I and the Parlimentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. The royalist Cavaliers are gradually losing to the puritanical Roundheads. The most brilliant general in the royalist army is Charles’ nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine but he is captured by the Roundheads after the battle of Marston Moor. Rupert is imprisoned in the home of Sir Malachai Shelgrave. Although Shelgrave is a fanatical Puritan, he and Rupert share an interest in the new technology which is beginning to transform Britain. The prince’s imprisonment is made more pleasant by the presence of Shelgrave’s lively niece, Jennifer Alayne. She quickly falls in love with the handsome captive.
One of Rupert’s faithful soldiers, a West Country dragoon called Will Fairweather, persuades Jennifer to help him rescue the prince. Will leads them deep into the woods to meet some potential allies – the king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The fairies deplore the industrialization of England and see the repressive Puritans as their enemies. Oberon declares that “The Royal cause defends the Old Ways, knowing it or not.” He tells Rupert that the only way to stop the rise of the Puritans is to recover the spell books and staff of power which the great sorcerer Prospero (from “The Tempest”) left concealed on his hidden island. Titania gives magical rings to Rupert and Jennifer which will help them to achieve their quest, as long as they remain true to each other.
Shelgrave and his men are already in pursuit but Rupert and Will escape by stealing a steam train (yes really) and are allowed to take refuge for one night in the elusive Old Phoenix inn, a magical nexus between parallel worlds. After Rupert and Will reach the coast they hitch a lift to the Mediterranean on a ship belonging to the Tunisian ambassador and his beautiful young wife. There are complications and temptations ahead for Rupert. Meanwhile Jennifer’s part in the escape plot has been discovered. Her furious uncle sends Jennifer to Europe, guarded by Puritan soldiers and an odious clergyman, in the hope that her magic ring will lead them to the fugitive prince. Can Jennifer evade her escort and reach the mysterious island where the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban await?
Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was a prolific author who worked in many different genres. He is probably best known for his Science Fiction but he was also a member of the group of Fantasy writers known as The Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America. The 1960s and 1970s were something of a Golden Age for “Sword and Sorcery” tales (see my July 2014 post on Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry”). Many authors of this period created thrilling plots full of fascinating concepts but their work can now seem cold, carelessly written, and lacking in convincing female characters. Anderson has none of these faults. He was both a stylist and an ideas man. His writing is full of wit and charm and many of his stories feature memorable female characters. Style first. In “A Midsummer Tempest” Anderson displays his passion for the glorious language of Shakespeare by sometimes letting his noble characters break into blank verse. This may sound off-putting but it soon seems natural. A bit more trying is Anderson’s fondness for writing dialogue in a variety of regional accents. Will’s z-filled West Country dialect is quite hard-going at first, but if you persevere you’ll find that his salty speeches are full of jokes and puns.
Anderson was also a founder member of the still flourishing Society for Creative Anachronism – “an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts, skills and traditions of pre-17th century Europe”. The phrase creative anachronism could equally be used to sum up “A Midsummer Tempest”. For the first few pages it reads like an ordinary historical novel. Then you realize that you are in an alternate 17th century in which historical events are taking an unexpected turn and the Industrial Revolution has arrived more than a century early. To be honest, the trains are not essential to the plot. I’m guessing they are there because Anderson liked steam trains – and the incongruous idea of Dashing Prince Rupert comandeering one. He also clearly loved Shakespeare and imagining the further adventures of characters from some of the Bard’s most magical plays. I wish the narrative got to Prospero’s island rather sooner because the scenes set there are so beguiling. There is a particularly sympathetic portrait of “witch’s whelp” Caliban, still pining for his lost Miranda.
He isn’t the only character in the novel who turns out to be rather different from what you might expect. Rupert the soldier prince could be an Heroic Fantasy stereotype but in real life he was also an inventor and an artist, whom his contempories called “the philosophic warrior”. It is this complex and thoughtful person whom Anderson deploys as the hero of “A Midsummer Tempest”. The diving bell that Rupert uses to try to retrieve Prospero’s drowned treasures sounds like one of Anderson’s anachronisms but is based on a machine which Rupert (a founder member of The Royal Society) actually designed. In the course of the story it is warm-hearted Jennifer who has to endure the harshest ordeals. Like all the best Shakespearean heroines, she displays great courage and loyalty and, once she is disguised as a boy, takes the initiative in completing the quest. Will Fairweather begins as a typical comic servant figure, much given to drinking and wenching, but becomes something very much more at the climax of the novel.
At The Old Phoenix Rupert has the chance to talk to travellers from two further alternate versions of history – the formidably clever Valeria Matuchek from “Operation Chaos” and Holger Carlsen the hero of Anderson’s best-known Fantasy novel “Three Hearts and Three Lions”. So, if you find that you enjoy “A Midsummer Tempest”, there is a whole interconnected fictional universe to explore. Have a good summer.