[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
“I have been, to some extent, in situations like the ones I described,” Lloyd Alexander told curious children, without further detail, when discussing The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. “One of the most difficult things about writing those books was dredging up a number of very terrible memories.” If The Kestrel is Alexander’s war novel, then The Beggar Queen, the third and final Westmark novel, is his warning about the costs of revolution, even when violence is necessary.
Two years after enduring a war started by traitorous aristocrats, Westmark is still a monarchy, but a devolving one, with avowed revolutionaries holding high office and breaking up noble estates into smaller farms. Theo, the queen’s consort, has little to show for his life as a bureaucrat. Harvests are failing, while royalists, constitutionalists, and revolutionaries are falling into factions. Overnight, Westmark becomes a dictatorship under Cabbarus, the villain of the first novel, and ideological enemies again become reluctant allies.
Suffused with casual brutality, The Beggar Queen plausibly depicts tyranny, and Alexander finds bleak humor in it:
It had always been the good pleasure of the kings of Westmark to ornament their capital city and immortalize themselves at the same time. Some put up statues of themselves on horseback. Others preferred works of less equestrian and more civic interest: promenades, public walks, and gardens. Augustine the Great enlarged the Juliana and installed its famous bells. Mickle’s father, in the earlier, happier days of his reign, built the fountain of the great square.
Cabbarus followed in the example of previous rulers. With a difference. He had not yet raised a statue of himself, although he looked forward confidently to one day doing so. He had not yet proposed any monument or memorial. Instead, in the first months of his directorate, he offered Marianstat something of immediate, practical use: not a token of his own immortality, but a demonstration of the mortality of others.
He built a gallows.
The Beggar Queen might have been a direct commentary on fantasy if readers had been asked to choose between idealistic revolutionaries and a liberalizing, well-intentioned monarchy, but Alexander is concerned here with realism, creating a police state that’s dishearteningly believable—as are his depictions of death, suicide, and torture, even when he treats terrible moments elliptically or allusively. The revolution in Marianstat, the capital city of Westmark, is full of bravery and sacrifice, but even when it gets exciting, Alexander doesn’t romanticize it. Street fighting, palace-storming, barricade-building, and scenes of bourgeois revolt represent both the hope and the horror of revolution: that sometimes it takes on a life of its own.
I’m reluctant to say more about the Westmark series for fear of spoiling it for new readers. I’ll say only that Alexander himself is elusive in these books; it’s hard to know where his personal experience ends and fiction begins. The vengeful Justin, eager to shed blood in the name of republicanism, seems more than a little influenced by Alexander’s depiction of John Brown 25 years earlier, and at least one historical scene from August Bondi:Border Hawk recurs in The Beggar Queen, where it’s put to good use. Still, what makes Westmark memorable is that Lloyd Alexander passionately reassembles his life and work—stock characters, historical interests, war experiences, and decades of brooding—to create his finest story about the individual moral burdens of political acts.
The Beggar Queen ends abruptly, as if Alexander were exhausted from having set Westmark on paper at last. It’s one of his least sentimental endings, but fittingly so, dictated as it is by what one character calls “the hard facts of statecraft.” Slow to judgment and unburdened by ephemera, the Westmark books teach children a rare adult lesson: Government is a hard, messy business, but we fail at it only when we stop querying our consciences, even if we earn endings that aren’t entirely happy.