“And they burn so bright, while you can only wonder why….”

[This is the third of four blog posts focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s medieval-themed stories. The first post can be found here, and the second can be found here, and the fourth is here. If it matters to you, please be aware that these posts about obscure, 80-year-old stories are pock-marked with spoilers.]

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third story about medieval France “shows that national chaos does not fail to bring forth a leader.” That’s the chirpy editorial comment just below the byline in the August 1935 issue of Redbook, and it makes me wonder if the magazine’s staffers actually read the story. By this point, they’re no longer touting Fitzgerald’s contributions on the covers, so readers would have had to stumble upon “The Kingdom in the Dark” while flipping through an issue already packed with other, lighter fiction. I wonder how many of them even remembered where the story of Count Philippe of Villefranche left off eleven months earlier.

To my surprise, Fitzgerald’s name still carries cachet for Redbook readers. Elsewhere in the issue, his name pops up in the introduction to a complete novel, We’ll Never Be Any Younger:

WHAT F. SCOTT FITZGERALD DID FOR THE “LOST GENERATION”—FOR “FLAPPERS” AND “SAD YOUNG MEN”—IN “THIS SIDE OF PARADISE” AND “THE GREAT GATSBY,” ELMER DAVIS IS DOING NOW FOR THOSE WHO ARE LIVING UNDER THE SIGN OF ALPHABET AGENCIES AND GREAT PROMISES.

That’s a kind endorsement of Fitzgerald’s influence, but it’s also a backhanded compliment that casts Fitzgerald as a has-been, a generational spokesman now receding into mere precedent. It makes sense, I suppose, that his medieval stories would dramatize rebuilding a world from scratch, and the unavoidable failures that follow.

As with Fitzgerald’s previous medieval stories, “The Kingdom in the Dark” doesn’t have a complicated plot. Count Philippe continues to consolidate power on his hereditary lands by building a fort overlooking the Loire, where he can collect tolls and taxes from merchants as they ford the river. There’s a charming, boyish innocence to Fitzgerald’s pride in writing about this fort, which is clearly the product of his own historical research:

Philippe had no education in military architecture, and probably any engineer-centurion of Caesar’s army would have laughed it to scorn, yet he had planned with a great deal of shrewdness:

To the north the hill fell straight to the river; westward it was protected by a sheer cliff fifty feet high. The vulnerable points were east and south. It was with the eastward side, a slope of shifting sandy soil that would bear no solid construction, that he was unsatisfied . . .

Later, Philippe explains the fort to the local abbot:

“Father couldn’t defend his house, God rest his soul! But I have an idea that the Northmen will have some job trying to crack this crib in a hurry. Look—this thing is only the first palisade—then there’s a second palisade, then the rampart and trench. On two of the other sides I’ve got the river and the cliff.”

Then Fitzgerald gives us an arid little lecture on ninth-century forts:

In an hour they were in sight of the house or fort. Land was easy to get in those unsettled days, but the ability to dominate and cultivate it was another matter. The prohibition of forts and castles had only just been withdrawn by the king, in the face of repeated invasions of Northmen; and though this law had not been observed literally for a half century, the art of fortification had fallen into desuetude.

Finally, Philippe shows off his fort to a girl:

“Like it?” Philippe asked the girl, with ill-concealed pride.

“I think it’s fine,” she said, and took a side glance at him, with pity for his pride in his homely effort.

“It’s not so good,” he said, with the modesty of possession. “Still, we’ve got three buildings up there—there’s the log fort and the houses for my men-at-arms and servants made of mud and rock. They’re part of the defenses.”

“It’s nice.”

She looked at him as a little boy playing soldiers, and for a moment they regarded each other. Then, reluctantly, he turned his eyes from the lovely head.

Fortunately, “The Kingdom in the Dark” isn’t entirely about forts. Philippe is intrigued by the girl, Griselda, who’s on the run from the new king, Louis the Stammerer, apparently because he made her lover in his court disappear. Fitzgerald’s description of her isn’t terrible, but it’s little better than the sort of prose that earns aspiring fantasy novelists a thorough critique from their peers:

The girl rode well. Her rather small curly head perched on a long body that carried it proudly. She was pale, and her lips were very red. There was a lovely necklace of faint freckles above an amber-colored surtout belted at the waist. Her eyes were small and hazel, with lashes of a delicate pink tan.

Nothing in this description of Griselda tells us anything useful about her. Can this really be the same novelist who could imply so much about Gatsby and his acquaintances through subtle descriptions of posture and clothing?

Fitzgerald revels in costuming, but little else, in an interminable passage about the king’s entourage:

To a man of our time, associating the Middle Ages with plate mail, the column would have seemed singularly dissimilar to any mental picture he might have formed of chivalry—and it was not chivalry in the sense that the word implied five hundred years later.

At the head of the procession rode a squad of scouts, carrying short spears, and short flat swords slung at their belts. Some wore cap-like padded helmets, turbans almost; others wore headgear of the same shape but of leather. There was no attempt at uniformity—under short tunics of blue, red, green or brown, there were usually perceptible a rough mail: rings sewed on leather, or crude coats of rings entire. Universally they wore leather moccasins, short or long, held in place by crisscross strips of hide.

After this casual advance party followed the King and his attendants—Louis in a long white tunic of fine linen shouldered with a cape of purple. Round his head was a light golden circlet; around his middle a golden chain of flexible links from which swung a flat jeweled sword . . .

King Louis was flanked by a gray-haired knight and an ecclesiastic. Following them came a quartet of esquires, then about sixty horsemen, dressed with as little uniformity as the advance guard . . . Then came the supply wagons, drawn by huge horses instead of oxen, and driven by men who served also as cooks and sutlers. A group of horsemen, well armed and knightly of bearing, brought up the rear.

Are you still awake? Anyone who’s written historical fiction or popular nonfiction knows what’s going on here. Fitzgerald has done his homework, and by God, he’s going to exhaust every last scrap of his notes. It’s painful to behold, all the more so because he opens this pageant with a paragraph that distances the reader from the world of the story. We’re glancing backward through time at a museum display of mannequins in costumes, not characters we ought to care about.

Briefly, Fitzgerald catches sight of a morally intriguing premise: Philippe conceals Griselda from a cruel, absurd king, even though he ought to be loyal to him, and even though Griselda has stolen one of the king’s horses. Philippe swears falsely that he knows nothing about her—when he does, Fitzgerald tells us that “invisible girths tightened on Philippe’s diaphragm”—and this false oath would have potentially interesting implications in a more thoughtful story. Instead, the king’s men burn down Philippe’s precious fort, Philippe executes the conspirators, and the gloomy count spends just two sentences wondering if he’s being punished: “I took a false oath this morning, and maybe Almighty Providence doesn’t believe me anymore. But someday, by God, I’ll build a fort of stone that all the kings of Christendom can’t burn up or knock down!” Is this a moment of heroic defiance, or hypocritical futility? Beats me. There’s no sense of Providence in this story, no appeal to truth, no sense that anything matters in “The Kingdom in the Dark” but brute force.

“But Philippe was wasting his passion,” Fitzgerald writes. “Three days later Louis the Stammerer, King of the West Franks, obligingly died.” That’s the final line of the story, a conclusion that snuffs out whatever embers of tension and conflict that Fitzgerald has spent nine pages struggling to kindle.

“The Kingdom in the Dark” is an unsatisfying mess, but I’d be a lazy reader if I didn’t dig for something more. The jarring, meaningless ending doesn’t have to be a sign that Fitzgerald, like Philippe, was “wasting his passion.” Maybe the closing of the story is a statement in itself, Fitzgerald’s implication that history doesn’t unfold in a coherent narrative.

For some writers, the Middle Ages are an admirably pure foil to the miserable complexity of the modern world—or they’re a era of ignorance that reflects our own superior wisdom, or a supposed source of cultural origins, or a period that highlights timeless aspects of human nature, or a setting whose violence bestows “authenticity,” or a distant carnival of irreproducible human strangeness. Novels, movies, and TV shows cover all this ground, but Fitzgerald’s Middle Ages may be one of the bleakest fictionalizations of the Middle Ages I’ve come across. In his vision of ninth-century France, he can’t imagine spontaneous human organization or the persistence of culture. After Viking raiders blast the landscape to rubble, the locals are reduced to helpless savages. Only a nobleman can motivate them and impose order.

Yet even Philippe falters: The destruction of his precious fort makes him despair, and he considers joining the Norsemen as a mercenary. Only his new squeeze, Griselda, brings out the best in him, insisting that he has a responsibility to his subjects and reminding him that one can hate the king as a person but still be loyal to him. It’s the second time a woman has tempered Philippe with reason and softened his heart. In “The Kingdom in the Dark,” he gets noticeably nicer, showing a genial rapport with his majordomo and the local abbot that was absent from earlier stories.

Even so, this is a tale in which the hero who rebuilds civilization will defy his king, swear false oaths, and ignore laws that aren’t of his own devising. In his notes, Fitzgerald wrote that the character of Philippe, inspired by Ernest Hemingway, was meant to represent the “modern man,” but three stories in, the comparison isn’t flattering. Modern stories set in the Middle Ages inevitably comment on the present. Is Fitzgerald rationalizing corruption if it’s for a good cause during desperate times? Is his medieval world a warning, or a template he thinks we’ll someday require? I can’t tell; I don’t think Fitzgerald knew either.

6 thoughts on ““And they burn so bright, while you can only wonder why….”

  1. I have to stop and admire your phrase “distant carnival of irreproducible human strangeness”. Seriously, I’m slowing down and leering at how gorgeous that is in a manner that is unconscionably creepy. Do forgive me, if you can …

    But.

    Then we turn to the author at hand, and – oh my aching head – “wasting his passion.” Aiieeeeeeee, the very WORD passion has become so freighted with all the bad advice it’s been invoked to dispense, or all the agents who can’t describe writing they want to see with anything ELSE … it’s worse than meaningless, it’s just a warning of empty-headedness ahead. Looks like this is not new.

    Is it wrong, then, I now have a bit of a passion(ate curiosity) to read these stories??

    Oh my stars and garters. (And that almost seems a phrase he might have used along the way.)

    In other news, one of the very few palatable poems I have written in my life actually happened to be named for Patient Griselda, though it was really about Penelope.

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  2. I really did not expect a Fitzgerald story to draw on Men Build Stuff tropes! Have you researched the publication? I wonder if Redbook was the equivalent of RAH graduating to glossy magazines, or more like … actually, I don’t know, pretty much everyone seems to pay equally poorly for short fiction these days 😦

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  3. Diane: Thanks for stopping by! Oh yes, I’m with you on the over-use of terms like “passion” in the writing biz—and you’re right that little has changed, because apparently Fiztgerald’s editors and agents discouraged him from going down this unproductive road. (I’ve asked my local library to get for me the one major article about these “Philippe” stories, from 1975, and whatever I learn from it will be included in the fourth and final blog post in this mini-series.) My guess is that if Fitzgerald had lived longer, something interesting might have resulted from his several-year obsession with researching the early Middle Ages. I can’t fault him, because my quirky little writing career is full of false starts: unfinished poems, piles of notes for pop-nonfiction proposals that didn’t pan out, even a few humiliating fragments of fiction. I think of them as vivid dreams: baffling in retrospect, but healthy. Of course, some writers, musicians, and artists get self-indulgent and loopy if left to chase some of their sillier ideas, but it seems to me that Fitzgerald’s obsessive refocus on the Middle Ages was one of the few healthy things in an otherwise miserable period of his life. (And I will definitely find a way to get these stories to you if you’d like to read ’em!)

    Sean: Is “Men Build Stuff” a common men’s-pulp trope? Do tell! I’ve read an above-average amount of old-school pulp, but this is a new one to me.

    As for Redbook, today it’s a women’s magazine, but that doesn’t appear to have been its focus until the 1950s. Prior to publishing Fitzgerald’s Philippe stories, the magazine published some of his short fiction in the 1920s—as well as the work of Dashiell Hammett and (much earlier) Jack London, Edith Wharton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. A letter to the editor in one of the issues I own praises the magazine for appealing to a wide range of interests. From what I can tell, it became a women’s magazine in the 1950s. In flipping through the four relevant issues, I don’t see a typical “Redbook story,” so perhaps it was a better venue than most if Fitzgerald wanted to try something new.

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  4. “Men Build Stuff” … my brain goes right for nightmare Randian fictions. Yoiks.

    Jeff, on false starts – the vivid dream metaphor nails it, that is a great way to explain it, especially for non-writers. I do hope you won’t mind if I gank that (with credit where due, of course). I actually JUST had a vivid dream idea which flared really bright, and just as suddenly I decided to do nothing with it. Life cycle, maybe 4 days, which is unusual for me. Now, with luck, that energy can go back to the WIP.

    Cannot wait for post #4. And yes, if you don’t mind pointing me in the right direction, I’d love to hunt these down. I believe you have my email, in the comments singin info.

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  5. Hi Jeff: there is a whole class of fiction which revels in describing how the heroes Build Stuff. I associate it with later and longer stories than the pulps, but L. Sprague de Camp the underemployed engineer had to deconstruct it in 1939 so there must be some pulp era examples. David Hines compared the appeal to cooking shows and home-renovation shows, but I also think of worldbuilding and the half-baked lectures in thrillers … half ‘watching competent people at work’ and half ‘now I could do that.’ I would say that the oldest examples are “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson” although there are elements of this in the “Cyropaedia.” Xenophon was writing for people who actually raised armies and built forts though.

    Someone with more time could tease out the distinctions between stories where the building happens in the background of the main plot, and stories where one key trick or invention resolves the conflict. The second type are more like European detective stories, even if the question is “how did you know it was iridium?” not “how did you know the porter was a Mason?”

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  6. Diane: Indeed, I think we all need to go off on writerly tangents from time to time. Just because Fitzgerald didn’t use his extensive research to write good stories doesn’t mean, as far as I’m concerned, that it was a useless endeavor on his part. I get the sense that these stories provided comfort for him in a crummy time; it’s just a shame they didn’t have more to offer the reader.

    Sean: Thanks for the clarification! While I’ve seen such stories in science fiction, of course, I never really saw them as comprising a “class.” I wonder if Fitzgerald’s earlier reading included the sorts of stories you mention? Perhaps a Fitzgerald scholar will come along and let us know.

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