How I hated this book! How much I wanted to quit it, midway through! How much I enjoyed finishing it!
I couldn’t stand Francis Crawford of Lymond. Couldn’t believe that people still sung the praises of this series, begun in 1961, now, when surely people ought to have learned at some point that the loveable douchebag archetype is one that should be long dead. It’s a lesson the guys I play DnD with, regrettably, still have not learned: being an asshole is not a stylish character choice, or a trick of roleplaying par excellance. It’s just being an asshole. Lymond’s “guys want to be me, women want to sleep with me” affectation was gaggingly awful to have to stomach for the first 2/3 this book. The assertion, made repeatedly by those close to him overtly and covertly, that oh no, he’s just misunderstood, he’s really deeply sensitive inside and all the caprice and vanity is just a front — god, that gets old. Believing that kind of tripe is how your best friends end up dating jackasses for years, excusing every callous disregard or careless cruelty as just another instance of the carefully-constructed front masterminded to conceal the delicate flower within.
Typically, there is no delicate flower within. Just a run-of-the-mill dick. Of the kind that’s currently trending meme-wise, even:
But dammit, I bothered to finish this book — something I’d promised myself not to do anymore; to soldier through on books I am not enjoying solely for the purpose of finishing them — and I do like him. Because of a legal scene, of all things. And I detest legal scenes!
“Patriotism,” said Lymond, “like honesty is a luxury with a very high face value which is quickly pricing itself out of the spiritual market altogether.
[…] It is an emotion as well, and of course the emotion comes first. A child’s home and the ways of its life are sacrosanct, perfect, inviolate to the child. Add age; add security; add experience. In time we all admit our relatives and our neighbours, our fellow townsmen and even, perhaps, at last our fellow nationals to the threshold of tolerance. But the man living one inch beyond the boundary is an inveterate foe.
[…] Patriotism is a fine hothouse for maggots. It breeds intolerance; it forces a spindle-legged, spurious riot of colour.… A man of only moderate powers enjoys the special sanction of purpose, the sense of ceremony; the echo of mysterious, lost and royal things; a trace of the broad, plain childish virtues of myth and legend and ballad. He wants advancement—what simpler way is there? He’s tired of the little seasons and looks for movement and change and an edge of peril and excitement; he enjoys the flowering of small talents lost in the dry courses of daily life. For all these reasons, men at least once in their lives move the finger which will take them to battle for their country.…
“Patriotism,” said Lymond again. “It’s an opulent word, a mighty key to a royal Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Patriotism; loyalty; a true conviction that of all the troubled and striving world, the soil of one’s fathers is noblest and best. A celestial competition for the best breed of man; a vehicle for shedding boredom and exercising surplus power or surplus talents or surplus money; an immature and bigoted intolerance which becomes the coin of barter in the markets of power—
[…] These are not patriots but martyrs, dying in cheerful self-interest as the Christians died in the pleasant conviction of grace, leaving their example by chance to brood beneath the water and rise, miraculously, to refresh the centuries. The cry is raised: Our land is glorious under the sun. I have a need to believe it, they say. It is a virtue to believe it; and therefore I shall wring from this unassuming clod a passion and a power and a selflessness that otherwise would be laid unquickened in the grave.
[…] “And who shall say they are wrong?” said Lymond. “There are those who will always cleave to the living country, and who with their uprooted imaginations might well make of it an instrument for good. Is it quite beyond us in this land? Is there no one will take up this priceless thing and say, Here is a nation, with such a soul; with such talents; with these failings and this native worth? In what fashion can this one people be brought to live in full vigour and serenity, and who, in their compassion and wisdom, will take it and lead it into the path?”
In fiction, and for that matter in video games, I always enjoy most the fantastical stories that lean on love of country for their pillars. To a point. But unless our characters excavate those sunken pillars, realize the holes that riddle them and then decide whether to leave the foundation in place, holding up the ramshackle husk of the nation, or to let them topple — unless those dark places are entered (see: Malafrena, Tigana, and in a different way Stone’s Fall), it rings terribly hollow to me. For gapingly obvious reasons, I’m sure. Everyone should know better than to blindly respect the flap of a flag or the tattoo on a shoulder by now. If you probe deep enough to discover that those things are all that’s holding an individual together, and that without them, they are lost, fine, retreat. (As long as leaving them intact won’t harm others.) But if you’ve got a deeper framework that can withstand the self-interest and rot at the core of any scintillating spire of nation-based pride…cut it down. Call it out. Don’t make excuses for it.
Lymond’s comparison of patriotism with religion is not without cause. Blindly waving away the atrocities of your preferred group as insubstantial, too far past to be worth noting, or belonging to a group so wholly different than its current iteration that it might as well have been a different sect altogether, is as foolish as people claiming not to need to deal with their nation’s egregious past because “hey, I wasn’t there, why should I care?” Because you exist at the level of comfort you do only because those atrocities were committed, to some profit, which profits were built on over time at the expense of others and for your ultimate, present-day gain. And if you still want to go and chant the anthem or sing a hymn because it makes you feel part of a whole, and less alone, fine…but you need to not be the coward who refuses to look into the empty self-interested maw at the heart of it. Look at it, and deal with it, and move on, singing or not as you see fit. But you have to look, dammit. You cannot pledge your life and what you imagine to be your soul to empty motions gone through out of unexamined habit; out of sheer ethical laziness.
Lymond, to his credit, looks, and has known for years how fragile are the loyalties that snuff out the lives around him like candles. He knows the animalistic, inglorious roots of such loyalties. But he limps after their good graces anyway, not because of any starry-eyed belief in their moral superiority but only to pursue, at what he feels is quickly becoming the end of his life, a final glimpse of the love in which he began that life. All his flippancy and volatility and interminable classical quoting aside, he is hollow and worn and wants only to be liked, a little, and looked at without loathing or greed, a time or two before he dies.
If he were any less humbled I would have loathed him still. But he’s been carved as empty as a jack-o-lantern by the end, and he’s running out of candle to light what’s left. This is perhaps the only way the loveable asshole archetype is made palatable to me: run the much-vaunted rascal so raw through the gears of life that all that horrid facade fractures and splinters, and cuts him deeply as the shards fall around him. If he does not have to learn loss as part of his becoming, his roots don’t run deep enough to be worth digging up.