In his last days, his conquests behind him, his glory assured, Matthias Corvinus ("the Raven King"), the 15th-century ruler of Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Transylvania, eastern Austria, Slovakia and Ruthenia, decided to build a library. Perhaps this great devotee of astrology was showing some prescience: perhaps he knew his greatest legacy would not be his conquests or his castles. His library, said to rival even the Vatican's, was a wonder. But of the 5,000 volumes he is said to have amassed, only 214 remain. What happened? The Turks happened. What was not squandered by his heirs or destroyed by pillage ended up in Europe's cultural cemetery, Constantinople, and was grubbed up by Europe's grave-robber, Venice.
Corvinus was the son of Janos Hunyadi, the great Transylvanian crusader in the wars waged to contain Turkish expansion in Europe. He had a lot to live up to, but was given a lot to trade off. He halted the Turks in Bosnia, humiliated the Holy Roman Empire, built palaces, forged alliances, was hailed as the saviour of Christendom, and died without a legitimate heir. Forty years after his death, the Turkish invasion of Hungary brought all his achievements to dust. All but one.
It's a deeply stirring story and Marcus Tanner, the Balkan correspondent at The Independent from 1988 to 1994, responds to it with an engaging mixture of passion and breeziness. Awarded the MBE in 1995 for services to literature, he has written on the Celts, Ireland, Croatia and Latvia, but with The Raven King, he has hit upon a fascinating yet little-known true-life tale that has all the hallmarks of gripping fiction.
In Central Europe, at least, Matthias Corvinus possesses the combined mystique of Pericles, King Arthur and Father Christmas. "I had no notion of the library – I only knew of him as a person that children sang nursery rhymes about," says Tanner. In Hungary, he's a philosopher king, a Renaissance sage. "In Slovenia, he's remembered as a fairy tale; he has a long beard and lives in a mountain. The cave in which he sleeps is guarded by ravens. And there's an annual festival held in his honour where they make these 'Matthias castles' out of snow. The villagers say he will come again to restore everything. When the apple blossom comes one year, Matthias will ride out. His wife, too, has completely changed. From being this Italian battle-axe, she's now this gracious beauty with flowing gold hair."
That this great figure of folklore should have been in life a profoundly modern and Western figure is not the paradox we might imagine, for Matthias was a great unifier of nations. After the failed uprising of 1848-9, a bitter, humiliated Hungary re-invented him as a Magyar patriot (that he was part- Romanian was ignored). Now there is some hope that his true status will be restored.
"He looks both forward and back," says Tanner. "You don't want to exaggerate the extent to which he was a modern European. But in a sense he was. Hungary then was amazingly confident and progressive. It wasn't based on one nationality at all. There were no anti-Semitic purges. No wonder he was beloved by Jews: they serenaded him in the city." This can be seen as a moral and intellectual victory over unpropitious origins. "He transcended his background. He was capable of retaining what he wanted from his roots without being encumbered by them."
This paragon of tolerance and magnanimity had some unlikely dinner guests – Vlad "the Impaler" Tepes (perhaps better known now as Dracula) being one. When I suggest that Matthias kept him as a sort of anti-mascot, a lightning rod to draw off divine wrath, Tanner hits me with an astonishing fact. "For an awful lot of what we know about Dracula, Matthias is the source, and he had a wicked sense of humour. There was the papal nuncio sitting there and Matthias would be saying: 'Of course, I haven't told you: he puts babies on spikes, he really enjoys cutting pregnant women to pieces and stuff.' Now the papal nuncio was writing this all down. I think Matthias got a real buzz out of that... he obviously didn't take it seriously. After all, he allowed his own cousin to marry Dracula... Matthias could say he had a Dracula at the end of the garden."
Any student of Balkan politics must enter a menagerie of contending national myths. In his time as Independent foreign correspondent, Tanner covered Bulgaria, Slovenia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Romania and Hungary, and warring claims have left him sceptical about assertions of ownership when we just don't know who arrived where first. "You'll meet Albanians who will tell you, 'Under that Serbian monastery is an Albanian Catholic church.'"
His book Last of the Celts showed a world in dissolution. I ask him if he's attracted to cultures whose abiding characteristic is delicacy. "True of the Celts, certainly: gossamer threads dissolving under harsh light. But with the Balkans what interested me was the question of national identity, its fluidity – the incidental way in which it arises... Most people would say the Croatians and the Celtic nations were in a very similar situation in the early 19th century. Those parallels interest me." He observes that a national language was re-forged in the Balkans while it was lost in the Celtic lands. Political will in the former case had much to do with it, but there is something else. I suggest the sheer difficulty of the Celtic languages, their eccentricity from the linguistic mainstream.
"Absolutely. I asked a Gaelic enthusiast in Scotland: 'Why have you never considered a revolution in your spelling, to make it simpler?' The response was outrage. 'In the Balkans there were these ruthless language reforms...' It seems that just as English was imposed on the Celtic lands, so were Slavic tongues re-imposed on the western Balkans.
Authors in the flesh rarely reflect the spirit of their writings and this is true of Tanner. The magisterial, sometimes sombre author is hardly discernible in the jovial, puckish figure opposite me. The subject of Matthias, I suggest, must have come as a relief after his work as a Balkan correspondent. "Absolutely. I don't regard him as a saint, I don't believe he wanted to save the world. I think he wanted to rule over a very big state. He took tons of money in taxes and spent it in a way which many would regard as pretty outrageous, but I did find his story incredibly optimistic. I enjoyed writing about Matthias because I did find him inspiring. He had a profound belief in the West – if you want to put it that way – optimistic, always fiddling around with crazy inventions, giving everything a go. It sounds ridiculous, but writing about his death left me in tears."
The story of the Raven King has itself all the lineaments of epic. His family arose from obscure Transylvanian origins; Matthias brought both his family and his nation to a simultaneous apogee. Then the nation fell, and its ruler's works were levelled. Then the light of his heritage began to glow again.
The story of the Turkish occupation remains a bitter one, however: "You could have been a child in the time of Matthias and grown up to see the annihilation of everything he built. Everything went – the churches, the palaces, even the towns. There's almost nothing in Hungary dating before 1680."
Tanner is not squeamish on the subject of the Ottoman legacy in the Balkans: "It was a disaster. On the edge of the Ottoman empire, it was a catastrophe: whole towns deported, churches destroyed, whole histories wiped out. Further in, it was a bit better."
In his book, Tanner highlights the paradox that of all Matthias's works, only the most delicate survive. "I found it so odd that the flimsiest of all his creations was still around. You hold this book and you know that Matthias held this little thing, like holding a little baby, and it's still there. The journey of these books is almost biblical."
He laughs when I ask what drew him to the Balkans: "I was sent there!" But before he became a journalist, Tanner trained as a priest (he studied theology at Cambridge). "I was taking these evening services for four, five people, sitting in this building that had been full in its heyday. It was all a bit much. It might have been different had I been a bit older, but in your mid-twenties... I would have been a disaster as a vicar. Also, I wasn't very sympathetic!
Well, Marcus Tanner is certainly no sentimentalist but I can't stamp my seal on this last self-assessment.
The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library By Marcus Tanner (Yale University Press £20)
'...Light fell on to jewel-encrusted veils, set in place to shield the most... cherished items from the bleaching sunlight. These books stood upright on snakeskin tripods, waiting for the hand of the King, Queen, or the librarians, to part the curtain and reveal the liquid colours beneath'