The Iron King (1955): Maurice Druon


The Accursed Kings: Book I

I imagine many of you will already have tackled this book, which was published in a new edition with much fanfare about a year ago. I’m fully aware that I’m late to the party: I remember that Helen read it, and liked it, in March last year. As Helen mentioned, the quote blazoned on the cover from George R.R. Martin (‘This is the original Game of Thrones‘) has actually worked against the book in some ways: some eager fantasy readers have ended up with rather more medieval intrigue and rather fewer direwolves than they’d counted on, and so some reviews have been critical because people have, fundamentally, just been expecting the wrong kind of book.

Now, I was reconciled to the lack of direwolves, but I’m going to diverge slightly from Helen’s opinion in any case, because the book unfortunately didn’t impress me all that much. However, I am in a minority. The fifth book in the series has now been translated (each instalment lovingly bearing that Martin quote on the cover), and so they’re obviously doing very well and there are lots of people who are itching to discover what happens to the Capetian royal family. It remains to be seen whether I’m going to carry on with the later books in the series – and perhaps, if I do, they’ll grow on me – but at the moment I feel rather lukewarm about it all.

The historical setting promised a lot: opening in 1314, the book shows us the closing stages of Philip IV of France’s struggle against the Templars. After having worked closely with the Order for many years, Philip’s friendship with the Grand Master has soured as he grows to resent the Knights’ political power and – more significantly – their rich properties and wealth. As he struggles to build a strong modern state, Philip angles to arrogate the Templars’ treasures to the Crown for the greater glory of France. To do this, he allows his advisers to push him into an act which would once have seemed inconceivable: the arrest and execution of the Templars’ highest officials for heresy. This decision will have tragic and unimaginable consequences. As the Grand Master Jacques de Molay prepares to burn, he unleashes a stinging curse against Philip and his heirs: ‘Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation!’

This first novel deals with the immediate consequences of that curse, which begins to work its poison with the discovery of the infidelity of Philip’s two daughters-in-law, Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy. This only serves to heighten the weakness of Philip’s three sons; the unhappiness of his daughter Isabella, married to the lacklustre Edward II of England; and the overall fragility of the Capetian dynasty. As the royal family collapses in on itself, publicly and painfully, other factions seek to either manipulate events for their own interests, or to protect themselves in a world where wealth and success suddenly becomes a handicap, liable to be seized. As the king’s advisers squabble among themselves and play out their antagonisms, the Lombard bankers of Paris find themselves the new target in the wake of the Templars’ fall – and must pool their wits to prevent their banking houses from being drained by the avaricious Philip.

It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And it’s just a shame that the way the story’s told doesn’t make it feel as gripping and dramatic as it could have been. As ever, I wonder how much is due to the original text and how much to the translation. Druon’s series has been phenomenally successful in its native France, where The Iron King was published in 1955, with a couple of TV series to its name. It was translated into English virtually straight away, and I think I’m right in saying that the original translation is the same as that published in the new edition. I do slightly wonder why Harper didn’t commission a new translation when they decided to bring the novels back into print: I am not able to judge the accuracy, but the English prose feels dated and, worst of all, it has a slightly archaic pedantry which undermines even the most exciting moments of the novel.

Few of the characters had enough personality to really endear themselves to me. The one exception was Robert of Artois, who was so cheerfully open about his ambition and his desire to get the best deal for himself out of any situation. Otherwise the book fell into the old trap of telling rather than showing. Too many of the characters were defined by little more than a token character trait: weak; shameless; cold; noble; proud; flirtatious; and so forth. Perhaps some of the characterisation was weakened by the translation; but there’s no way to hide the fact that the plot moves with the speed and method of a careful chess game. Despite being of a respectable thickness, much of the book feels like little more than the groundwork for the later series (until the final chapters, when Druon abruptly decides that things are going to start happening). That’s all well and good, but such an approach only works if the first book is successful enough that the reader wants to proceed to the rest of the series. And at the moment, as I said earlier, I’m not sure I do.

As an example of historical fiction from the 1950s, this is not an outright bad book, but nor does it thrillingly transcend its period: I found it mediocre, compared to other novels I’ve read from that date. It was better and more enjoyable than both Waltari’s poorly-edited Etruscan, and the notoriously bodice-ripping Angélique but it doesn’t hold a candle to the cool elegance of Marguerite Yourcenar or the historical authority of Mary Renault, both of whom were also publishing at this time. It may be that later books in Druon’s series succeed in creating a richer, more gripping world with more sophisticated characterisation, but this first novel unfortunately didn’t offer the level of engagement that I’d been hoping for in such a popular book. The fact remains, however, that this is one of the lesser-travelled paths of historical fiction and it may well be that my curiosity about the history overcomes my current qualms about the quality of the writing or translation. Until then, please do feel free to persuade me onward if you’ve read the later books and feel that there’s a development in style – or if you feel that I’ve completely missed the point!

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8 thoughts on “The Iron King (1955): Maurice Druon

  1. Helen says:

    Sorry you didn't enjoy this as much as I did, but I do understand your feelings about the translation. I'm in a minority, I think, because I actually seem to prefer translations that feel old-fashioned and archaic! I still haven't had a chance to read the second in the series but when I do I'll let you know if there is any change in the style.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Helen – yes, please do let me know if you read on and things perk up a bit. I was really hoping to enjoy it because we have such similar tastes, but in this instance I think I just didn't find the style engaging enough. Having said that, the actual history behind the story is so fascinating that I wish I'd gelled with the writing a bit more. To be honest with you, I might just be in a grumpy reading mood at the moment *Grins*.

    And let's look on the bright side: at least this is proper, old-school historical fiction and it's great that it's evidently so popular and successful, because it'll show that there's an appetite out there for more than Tudor bodice-rippers. 😉

    *Edited for typos*

  3. Heloise says:

    lol, I'm surprised they did not print George R.R. Martin's name any larger on the cover – this is such a shamelessly blatant attampt to make the distracted buyer think Martin is the author of the novel, they might have gone all the way and made his name as large as or even larger than Druon's. 😛

    And this shows once again that reading too many great books just spoils you for the mediocre stuff…

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    You know, that hadn't crossed my mind but I think you might actually be right… How funny.

    Apart from that little glitch, I must say that I'm quite impressed with the covers I've seen for this series. For once the publishers have decided not to go for the usual historical-fiction motif of the headless-woman-in-medieval-costume-standing-by-a-window-in-the-act-of-turning. And the result is a series of covers that look effective, sophisticated, equally appealing to both genders, and (at least in this case) give the impression that the artist has read the book. As you and I know, that is never a given! The crown / cross / fleur-de-lys combo is very striking. Of course, you could then argue that these quite simple covers with their striking motifs are probably inspired by the cover art for “A Song of Ice and Fire”… and we're back to Martin again…

  5. Heloise says:

    Hehe – “Distracted” is my middle name, so when I first saw the picture of the cover in your post I actually did read it as “George R.R.Martin – The Iron King” and even briefly wondered why I had never heard of this book of his 😛

    But I agree on the cover, it really is quite good, but I also think that this is probably because it's aimed at readers of George R.R. Martin rather than Philippa Gregory. I like the German cover, too, only the French one is… not so impressive.

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    For me, the German one actually *looks* a bit like a fantasy novel with the flaming cross… but yes… you're right about the French one. Yet more proof that French historical fiction is not complete without Gerard Depardieu.

  7. RT says:

    Hi Leander – belatedly catching up with your blog. I have read the fourth in this series and am going to take it upon myself to dissuade you from persevering with it! I was HUGELY disappointed. I simply could not reconcile the quite frankly dull and lifeless tale I found with the glowing reviews it had garnered …

  8. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello RT – well, I must confess that I did have your earlier comments in mind when I was reading it! For now, anyway, there are plenty of books out there that have a better claim on my attention – but it's rather disappointing to hear that you don't think it gets into its stride even by the fourth book. What a shame!

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