Marcus Tanner: 'Did you know that Dracula's best friend was a warrior bookworm?'

Marcus Tanner reveals how he uncovered the gripping subject of his new biography: the warrior, book-worm and friend of Dracula known as the Raven King

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 extract

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'

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week