Of Swiftness and Grace: Mark Chadbourn's Swords of Albion

Of Swiftness and Grace: Mark Chadbourn's Swords of Albion

"The Elizabethans lived in a time of transformative new technology. Social change. Religious fundamentalism. Foreign wars for scarce resources. And that foundation of the spy network - big brother watching - that we see all around us today.

Mark Chadbourn's opening statement at the launch for his latest novel The Scar-Crow Men (the second book in his Swords of Albion series) echoes the philosopher John Paul Sartres's phrase "Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Some might think that a historical fantasy set in Elizabethan England will have little in common with contemporary issues. Yet in this, they could not be more wrong. The first book, The Sword of Albion, opens in 1588, when England is beset on all sides by enemies, both foreign and domestic. The Spaniards are rapidly expanding their power, funded by riches from the New World. Traitors lurk in every corner following the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, religious wars threaten to explode, national fervour runs unchecked exhibiting itself as racial hatred, and the exploited population live in fearful abject poverty, whilst the established elite reside in comfortable luxury. Sound familiar?

Mark Chadbourn's inspiration for the series came when a rare portrait of Christopher Marlowe was found in the Corpus Christi College of Cambridge. Marlowe was not only famous for writing The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, but he was also suspected of being a spy under the employ of Queen Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. The portrait was inscribed with the phrase "Quod me nutrit me destruit", which translated from Latin reads "That which nourishes me destroys me", a fitting epitaph for the tragic playwright Kit Marlowe.

Central to the Swords of Albion series is Will Swyfte, a character born of Mark Chadbourn's imagination. He is an adventurer, rake, and swordsman, and is described as a "England's greatest spy".

It is interesting to read the promotional tagline for the series: "Will Swyfte: Elizabethan England's greatest spy". In one way, this echoes the pulp adventurer stories popular in the 1950s, as well as Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (the Will Swyfte novels even have their own Q-Branch scene). Yet espionage agents thrive on anonymity; a "great spy" seems something of an oxymoron. This is explained early in The Sword of Albion, as Will Swyfte's exploits as a adventurer are in part a fabrication: watch the left hand so you don't see what the right hand is doing. This façade is designed to boost morale of the population in an unpopular war (something not uncommon in the world today). Mark Chadbourn further addresses the issues of being a famous spy when Will Swyfte infiltrates the Armada, a task made all the more difficult as Will had been the subject of a wide-spread leaflet campaign.

One of the reasons why the Swords of Albion novels are such an engrossing read is that they address themes concurrent with today's culture. One of the primary themes throughout the series is fear in society. This fear can come in many forms, as can the way in which fear manifests itself. Also examined is how fear is used as a weapon, and how allowing ourselves to succumb to fear can mean that the enemy have won. Fear is something to be resisted.

Then, there is the fear of the unknown. One of the particular strengths of the enemy, the Unseelie Court, is that only a few know them, due to their otherworldly nature. With the rise of Queen Elizabeth I, she declared that England would take a stand against her Fay foe, and thus employed Sir Francis Walsingham to mastermind a network of spies and assassins to combat this foe. However, in order for her agents to operate effectively she declared that knowledge of Unseelie should remain hidden, for fear of England tearing itself apart. This trope of the ruling power possessing knowledge that is concealled from the public, is a common theme in the Swords of Albion series.

It is no surprise that the Unseelie use terror tactics so humanity will fear them. They use the fear of the magical and unknown to make humans believe them to be all powerful. This allusion to war on terror is a critical point to the series, for, as we learn, the Unseelie are just as vulnerable to being killed by a sword as any man or woman; we should not give into our fear.

There is also the fear of the outsiders, not just the enemy (whether they be Spanish or Unseelie), but fear of those who are different. As a consequence of the constant threat of the Spanish Armada invading, more than one reference is made to swarthy men being attacked in the streets of London. Similarly, Will Swyfte and his comrades were attacked in Alsatia when they were revealed as being outsiders.

Running in parallel with our fear of the unknown is moral-panic. Mark Chadbourn obviously respects Christopher Marlowe and his play The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The reaction by Will Swyfte's assistant Nathaniel Colt to Marlowe's play being performed is particularly telling:

"Is this truly a subject for entertainment? I have never seen the like before. It could drive women mad. And men too, for that matter" (The Scar-Crow Men, pg.30).

It is hard to imagine now how Marlowe's classic play could be considered outrageous, but at the time it was considered so. Now consider the reactions by our tabloid press to how shows today attempt to push the boundaries, and you will see however much things may change, many things remain the same.

One wonders whether the Scar-Crow Men themselves (duplicates of members of the Queen's court under the control of the Unseelie), could perhaps represent our fear of conversion to religious extremism. The population is told to be fearful and watchful, as anyone could be one of the duplicates, yet it is only the powers-that-be who are under the thrall of the Scar-Crows.

Despite this onslaught of fear, Will Swyfte remains loyal to his oath of learning how his true love Jenny vanished. Jenny's sister Grace, who remains close to Will, similarly refuses to succumb to her fear, and chooses to confront the enemy, demanding to know the truth behind her sister's disappearance. In so doing, they both choose to conquer their fear of the unknown.

Contrasting this, one wonders how Will's fellow spy, John Carpenter, will react to fear, given the pain he suffers in the conclusion to The Scar-Crow Men. Will John Carpenter choose to face his fears and demand justice, or will he be consumed by his fear and hatred?

If the primary theme of The Sword of Albion is fear, then in The Scar-Crow Men it is the power of authority. Sir Walsingham has died and been replaced by Lord Burghley. This new spy-master is less confident man, more concerned with his own personal gain. He forsakes intelligence from trusted sources for that which is more politically palatable. Thus England falls from being a united front to one that is divided. The effect of this division is highlighted within the first few pages of The Scar-Crow Men:

"Is this what it has come to?". Unable to contain his bitterness, Carpenter stalked around them his fists bunched. "We fight among ourselves while England slowly falls around us" (The Scar-Crow Men, pg. 23)

The Unseelie Court is another way in which power and authority are explored. Unseelie hold humanity in utter contempt, seeing them as little more than than sport: game-animals to be disposed of at their pleasure. As Fabian says to Will in The Scar-Crow Men:

"We can no longer choose to ignore your world. We must engage with it. We must control it, and control you, mortals, who once were mere sport to us when we failed to understand your wondrous capabilities, and who now may well be a threat, not only to us but to all there is. Your capacity for destruction, betrayal, inflicting pain, slaughtering your own..." He placed one hand on his forehead in disbelief. "You think you are the hero in this business, Master Swyfte. You are not. Humankind is a sickness, like the plague that rots your own bodies, and it must be cured." (The Scar-Crow Men, pg.379)

The Unseelie had once under-estimated humanity and exerted their control through fear, However, once humanity learned that the Fay were just as vulnerable and began resisting them, humanity became a threat to the Unseelie.

Religious corruption is a common theme in fiction, and none more so than here. King Philip II of Spain, residing within San Lorenzo de El Escorial, becomes easy prey to the carnal desires exuded by Malantha, and thus becomes her unwitting pawn. Noting King Philip II's reactions, it is obvious that he knows all too well that he is in the thrall of someone with less than noble intentions, but his carnal urges overwhelm his desire for spiritual purity and thus he is the architect of his own damnation.

The volumes of research that Mark Chadbourn performed in preparing for this series are evident. London is presented as a living breathing city that reeks of pollution and excess, at odds with the repressed values that the church espouses. The city itself is also beset with stark contrasts: London is the heart of England and home to the elite, yet deep within the city lie areas of abject poverty, such as the lawless area known as Alsatia.

I noted in The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull as it is known in America), as well as The Scar-Crow Men, the proliferation of masks throughout the novels. We encounter not only the literal masks that are worn by members of society during gatherings and masked balls, but also the metaphorical masks that we all use to hide our emotions. Sometimes this causes distress; for example, Will Swyfte refuses to reveal the true nature of the enemy to his apprentice Nathaniel Colt, yet it is this secrecy that causes a rift between the two friends.

We witness how the barely-contained psychopath Launceston, who takes pleasure in gruesome murder, hides behind the mask of being a respectable nobleman. Under the restraining guidance of his fellow spies, we see how his dubious talents are employed for the good of Queen and country. Perhaps this is something certain governments are not afraid to do today.

Also explored within the Swords of Albion series is war: not only the idea of a "just" war, but the evolving nature of warfare and the effect that war has upon the soldiers. The psychological repercussions are not lost upon Mark Chadbourn. Will Swyfte notes the strain caused by the dying screams, regardless of their nationality, during England's battle against the Spanish Armada.

The gunfire was so loud that every order, every conversation, was bellowed, but still the cries of the dying and and wounded rose above it. Will could see its chilling effect upon all on board The Tempest; though they were the enemy, the suffering of the Spanish left no one untouched. (Sword of Albion pg.521)

Within The Sword of Albion, we are introduced to the Silver Skull, a weapon of unimaginable power, capable of causing Bubonic plague within seconds. Given the weapon's capabilities, this is a clear parallel with biological Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Towards the end of The Sword of Albion, Will Swyfte learns the truth behind the ongoing battle against the Unseelie Court:

"This madness of ours will never end", Will said, his voice almost a whisper, "Each atrocity driving each of us to commit another in a spiral of horror" (Sword of Albion, pg. 583)

England's campaign against the Unseelie is a continuous state of cause-and-effect, as one retaliates against the other for the previous action. It is a war without end, and that is quite probably the most horrific part. This will never end until one side is utterly eliminated.

One thing that stands out from reading the Swords of Albion novels, is that when the English and Spanish manage to see past their differences, and join forces against their true foe of the Unseelie, then nothing is impossible. This was made evident early on in The Sword of Albion when Will Swyfte joined forces with the Spanish Spy Don Alonzo in order to escape from a bear pit. Together they were able to fight their way out of the pit and rescue their friends, whereas separately they would have perished. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

As with all great novels, Mark Chadbourn's Swords of Albion series offers a plethora of themes to consider without preaching: he asks the questions without answering them. In turn, Mark allows us to consider the world that Will Swyfte inhabits, and thus the world around us. Perhaps this was Mark's intention all along?

Page numbers refer to the 2011 Bamtam paperback editions of The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men, which are available online and in all good bookshops. Information has been taken from my interview with Mark Chadbourn in June 2011 and his talk at the Scar-Crow Men book launch. A third Swords of Albion novel, The Devil's Looking Glass, will be released later this year.


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