The end of chivalry

Art comes to life in medieval Yorkshire. By Robert Winder; Morality Play by Barry Unsworth Hamish Hamilton, pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Anyone reading Barry Unsworth's new novel will be able to put their finger on the precise moment when a quite mundane exercise in medieval splitter-splatter suddenly becomes extremely interesting. It comes on page 63. Up to this point very little has happened, A 14th-century cleric has teamed up with a troupe of travelling actors who are on their way to Durham to perform a Christmas pageant. We know it is the 14th century because people say things like: "He never fell save by intention" and "artem illam ignominiosam". The actors have stopped at a small Yorkshire town to bury one of their number who has died on the road, but soon find themselves drawn into a murder intrigue. This story is narrated by the cleric, and it is his character - at once wide-eyed, God-fearing and priggish - that sets the tone.

It occupies a third of the book, this medieval scene setting, and it is perfectly well done. But its only narrative purpose is to bring the actors to the town where their adventure will begin, and this could have been achieved in a single paragraph. The streets are buzzing with news of a local murder: a young boy was found strangled and - horror of horrors - the killer was a woman. She has been tried and sentenced to death, so the atmosphere in the town is morbid and hushed. The actors persevere with their version of Adam and Eve in the garden, but it's a flop. Everyone has seen it before, and anyway the book was much better. They pass the hat round and barely raise enough to pay the rent.

At this point the book leaps from the grave. The head of the acting troupe comes up with a wonderful, daring idea. "Good people," he says to his cast, "We must play the murder." Centuries of obedience to the sacred authorities are shrugged off in a superb, instantaneous breakthrough: the actors are about to stage a brave demotic rebellion and introduce a heady charge of real life into their theatre. Naturally, the motives are mixed - the driving force is that it seems a surefire way to make a killing at the box office. But it is still an authentic and suggestive eruption. And from this point on, the novel jumps to its feet and dances.

To start with, the plot becomes exciting. As the actors research their play they become detectives, interviewing witnesses and piecing together the drama. More important, the book's preoccupations crystallise in a flash. The novel becomes a teasing dramatisation of the relations between art and life. In their play, the actors effectively solve the murder without realising it. Fired by their new-found freedom they improvise, speculate and magically come close to telling the true story.

But just as truth begins to enter and enlarge the play, so the theatrical pageantry of life comes more clearly into focus. The actors attend a tournament, where assorted flowers of chivalry dressed in iron and silk clout each other's heads off. The play of knights, which seemed a fixed part of the social constellation, now loks like a colourful sideshow. "It is the common people that win battles, the archers and pikemen", the narrator says, "while the knights and their warhorses flounder in blood and are butchered together. And so they turn to sport. They deck themselves out to kill in play."

The novel ends up as a cunning excursion into the whole idea of acting, in life as in art. At one point, dizzy with success, the lead actor takes off his mask, another bold breach of the rules - or the roles. By now all the characters seem like actors playing out roles in life's tragicomedy.

Unsworth explores all this in a nice linguistic key that is archaic without labouring the point. He seems happy, though, to risk falling between stools. As a murder mystery the novel is rather short on psychological and forensic detail. Anyone brought up on Hannibal Lecter will be used to sharper psychological insights than the grandiose who-can-read-the- ways-of-men interpretations offered towards the end. Yet in another way the novel is perhaps too psychological. As in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the narrator is a theologian turned detective. But he lacks the scholarly sangfroid of Eco's hero: he believes in all the hobgoblins and ghouls that haunt the medieval landscape. It is hard for a modern reader to buy this kind of credulity when it is offered in a realistic, rather than a fanciful way. The novel takes off mainly when it disobeys the conventional demands for "credible" characters and becomes a pure parable. It is, after all, 400 years since Don Quixote's chivalrous dreams were kicked in the shins by real life. And few eyebrows will be raised by the suggestion that beneath his finery the medieval lord was a crude and brutal knave.