August 23, 1572 — St. Bartholomew’s Eve. Man of Commerce and Soldier of Fortune Mattias Tannhauser rides into Paris, where all hell is about to break loose. At a tavern called The Red Ox, he pauses to take his repast and reflect upon the state of affairs in his adopted country…
“Tannhauser had abandoned all involvement and even interest in political matters, for there was nothing he could do to alter their course. The high and the mighty remained spellbound by their own self-importance; and their basest emotions turned history’s wheels. The rulers of France were no more corrupt and incompetent than those who governed anywhere else, but because he had come to love the country, their crimes caused him deeper despair. He brightened as the drink and pie arrived.”
As Congress shilly-shallied around with the fate of the U.S. economy earlier this week, loading legislation with gifts to their well-connected cronies or never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste power grabs, the passage above blasted like a clarion call into my consciousness.
And I recognized, not for the first time, that Mattias Tannhauser is the man of the hour.
Tannhauser is the protagonist of two magnificent novels by Tim Willocks: The Religion and The Twelve Children of Paris. In the first, Willocks flings his hero into the cauldron of the 1565 Great Siege of Malta, when the Ottoman Empire made a bid to destroy the knights of St. John, to extend their maritime power to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and threaten Italy.
In the second, Tannhauser is caught in the hideous abattoir that Paris became in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholic militias went berserk, slaughtering thousands of Protestants of every station.
In both situations, Tannhauser seeks to navigate through a churning, blood-red sea of fanaticism, political opportunism and shocking violence to preserve what amounts to a found family of the wayward, the misfit and the outcast.
The novels are not for everyone. They are graphically violent in the extreme, carnal, and the prose soars in poetic flights suited to the Renaissance setting. Those who love them love them ardently.
Captured as a youth in Hungary and raised as an Ottoman Janissary, Tannhauser is a man apart, a skeptic of all faiths, an arms dealer, a lover of women and of life. Willocks describes his hero thus:
“The key to Tannhauser for me was his love of life, which is rooted in both his vast curiosity about the world and his love for his companions. All his decisions and actions are motivated by these two characteristics. This is what makes him not only an adventurer but, as Chandler so wonderfully put it, ‘a man fit for adventure.’
“Mattias Tannhauser is a man in search of hidden and eternal truths, a man — though he doesn’t know it — in search of a family, a man in search of redemption from a terrible past, a man of tremendous learning, a man of the wide world, a man of adventure — and as loyal a friend as anyone, man or woman, could ever wish for. He’s also a healthy heterosexual, may God forgive him, and is inclined — when provoked — to acts of pitiless violence. Cut that into equal parts and I’d allow it was a fair measure of his character.”
Tannhauser’s appeal is distinctly modern — though not handled anachronistically. He is a hero of the “hard-boiled” school, his own agent amid hordes of cause-driven fanatics.
In the context of the current catastrophe, I find myself drawn back into the intense experience of The Twelve Children of Paris. The Religion is set amid the “Clash of Civilizations” between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Christian West. Twelve Children unfolds in a compressed 36-hour timeframe as a society rips itself apart in a welter of blood. The latter feels, at the present moment, more… on point.
We’re not there yet, but we can see it from here.
As Willocks notes in an interview at the Tannhauser’s Gate blog:
“It’s a portrait of the kind of human hell that we continue to create to this day – mass murder, the unleashing of repressed rage, the use of that rage by the power elites for their own narrow political gain… The massacre in Paris was particular, but its significance is universal and, it seems, eternal.”
Some may want to escape from the darkness and the fear — others will want to push through it. For the latter, Willocks is a fine guide.
From Tannhauser’s Gate:
“In truth I was very sorry to leave the world of the book and its characters behind. Though there is a huge amount of death in the book, the characters are so full of life – they love life in so many different ways – that I never found it depressing. To the contrary I found it inspiring. Amid the madness, they are perfectly sane, because they live only for what is of true value – friendship, loyalty, food, love, magic.
“At one point, as they embark on the last, desperate, gamble of their journey through absolute horror, Tannhauser says to Grégoire: ‘Let us see what metal we have made.’ What he means is that together they have made a kind of human and spiritual gold, which is the love they share, and which transcends all the death around them. This is where love discovers — or not — its greatest courage and beauty. It is because of the intensity of the horror around them that the survival of love has such value and such beauty, that in a moral wasteland of absolute darkness, hatred and blood, those fires of love burn all the brighter.
“That dialectic is at the centre of the book. It is full of paradox, contradiction and ambiguity – but that is life. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s extraordinary. It’s about love in action, in being, in actuality, not merely in feeling. These people truly love each other because they stake their lives on their love. They would rather love than live, if that be the choice.”
Willocks gets to the heart of a question that Rullman and I have wrestled with since before The Running Iron Report was launched — indeed, this matter is central to the reason we created this blog in the first place. When we’ve given up on the Empire of Nothing, into what social unit should we invest our faith, trust, love and effort?
“Community” is too amorphous, defined largely by mere proximity. The idea of the “tribe” has gained new appeal in recent years, with everyone from neo-pagans to Sebastian Junger seeking in the “tribe” a sense of identity and “connectedness.” I found the notion of “tribe” attractive for a time, but moved away from it. A real tribe is an organically developed entity, rooted in ethnicity, language, common myth and history and often in locality. It can’t simply be created. Modern notions of tribe are ersatz — and, anyway, tribalism has its downsides. We’re not looking to live like the Pashtun.
What Willocks depicts in both The Religion and Twelve Children is Tannhauser’s found family: a comrade-in-arms; a despised Jew; a damaged but transcendent young woman; a noblewoman in all senses of the term; orphaned children… a disparate family-of-choice. They are all foundlings – they are selected more by the hand of Fate than by any action of themselves or Tannhauser. And that family is everything. As Tannhauser tells a plotting courtier in Paris:
“My dearest friends are the only people I have. For their good, I’d kill anything that breathes.”
Violently expressed, as is Willocks’ wont — but isn’t that really what it all comes down to? Friendship.
Mattias Tannhauser is a man of his time — the brawling, burgeoning, expansive, curiously free era of the Renaissance — and a hero for our time. We can take inspiration from his Story, learn from his dark, heroic path in the world.
Put no faith in political saviors; trust not in institutions co-opted and corrupted by the mighty. Take care of your family — blood kin and found. Know your dearest friends — and what, for their good, you are willing to do.