Finally, a respite from the rain and the cold. The sun shines today in Vancouver, and it looks like spring, though the cherry blossoms are nowhere to be seen. The blossoms in my front yard are trying, but they are reluctant to invest themselves in this uneven weather. They look like little popcorn kernels ready to burst but they’re holding back from the big explosion.
Yesterday was a fruitful writing day, as I finished the first clearly delineated chapter of my novel. Until now, it’s just been a series of disconnected scenes I’ve written as they occur to me. Many of them have been re-written as I make changes to details, structure and voice. One of those fun moments of inspiration came to me yesterday, when I found an interesting re-ordering of the scenes and I was able to quickly write some transitions. And Bob’s your uncle! A chapter!
My little burst of inspiration may have come from Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, which I’ve just finished reading. This was another another recommendation from my friend, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, who also recommended the movie, The Navigator to me.
Morality Play bears a lot of resemblances to my own novel. It is set in the same time period as mine, the 1380s, give or take a few months, and it has the same darkness, the same overhanging sense of doom that I am cultivating in my own work. The main character is also a man of God, a priest who has abdicated his office and superiors.
But that is where the resemblances end. The priest is on the lam from the church because he’s fallen into temptation and had sex with a woman. We know nothing of the her, just the fact that the priest, Nicholas Barber, is wracked with guilt and fear for what will happen to him, having lost his home and vocation. He encounters a company of actors traveling to Durham, where they are scheduled to perform for their patron at Christmas. Nicholas joins the troupe, but they never make it to Durham. They stop at a rural village, where they end up breaking from the tradition of performing only religious plays. The troupe’s leader, Martin, wants them to re-enact a brutal murder that has torn the community apart. A young boy has been found dead and a deaf-mute woman has been arrested for the murder and stands to be hung. As the troupe delves deeper into the circumstances, they stumble upon a web of lies and deceit that implicate a Benedictine monk and the cold-blooded Norman lord of the village.
I found the priest’s voice stark and compelling and it will be difficult for me not to ape it in some way. My own Brother Richard, too, is a renegade and he is haunted by fear for his sins and medieval superstitions. But his own sense of moral indignation and belief in the Rule of St. Benedict make him a formidable adversary to his Abbot, just as Nicholas rises against the Norman lord.
I enjoyed as well Unsworth’s portrayal of rural medieviality, the constant presence of snowfall, the strongly drawn characters, and his ability to convey the darkness of the time rather than reproducing it, as Ken Follett might do, for example. Morality Play is a brilliant read and I urge it on anyone interested in taut mystery and masterful story-telling, not to mention the superb depiction of the Middle Ages.
Morality Play was made into a movie called The Reckoning in 2003, starring Willem Dafoe and Paul Bettany. Will it be another addition to my Top Ten Films about the Middle Ages? I look forward to finding out.