I haven’t touched a novel in a very long time, but this past week I read through Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Nothing too fantastic about it, but it was enjoyable. I noted a few places where I enjoyed his descriptions of 17th century Spain:
Here, the young narrator, Inigo, describes how the captain gave him a dagger after Inigo saved his life from an ambush the previous night.
The next day, I found a fine dagger on my pillow, recently purchased on Calle de los Espaderos: damascened handle, steel cross-guard, and along, finely tempered blade, slim and double-edged. It was one of those daggers our grandfathers called a misericordia, for it was used to put caballeros fallen in battle out of their misery. That was the first weapon I ever possessed, and I kept it, with great fondness, for twenty years, until one day in Rocroi I had to leave it buried between the fastenings of a Frenchman’s corselet. Which is actually not a bad end for a fine dagger like that one.
-Arturo Perez-Reverte, Captain Alatriste, p.172
Ah, those were the days when a young man of thirteen could be sent into the city from the countryside to be an apprentice. Is what we do now tremendously better?
I well remember – and I believe this happened during the festival of the bulls honoring the Prince of Wales, or perhaps a later one – that one of the beasts was so fierce that it could not be hamstrung or slowed. No one – not even the Spanish, Burgundian, and German guards ornamenting the plaza – dared go near it. Then, from the balcony of the Casa de la Panaderia, our good King Philip, calm as you please, asked on of the guards for his harquebus. Without losing a whit of royal composure or making any grandiose gestures, he casually took the gun, went down to the plaza, threw his cape over his shoulder, confidently requested his hat, and aimed so true that lifting the weapon, firing it, and dropping the bull were all one and the same motion.
The public exploded in applause and cheers, and for months the feat was celebrated in both prose and verse. Calderon, Hurtado de Mendoza, Alarcon, Velez de Guevara, Rojas, Saavedra Fajardo, and don Francisco de Quevedo himself – everyone at court capable of dipping a quill into and inkwell – invoked the Muses to immortalize the act and adulate the monarch, comparing him now with Jupiter sending down his bolt of lightning, now with Theseus slaying the bull at Marathon.
I tell these thing that Your mercies may see what Spain is, and what we Spaniards are like, how our good and gentle people have always been abused, and how easy, because of our generous impulses, it is to win us over, and push us to the brink of the abyss out of meanness or incompetence, when we have always deserved better. Had Philip IV commanded the glorious tercios of old, had he retaken Holland, conquered Louis XIII of France and his minister Richelieu, cleared the Atlantic of pirates and the Mediterranean of Turks, invaded England and raised the cross of Saint Andrew at the Tower of London and before the Sublime Porte, he could not have awakened as much enthusiasm among his subjects as he did with his elan in killing the bull.
Can you imagine President Obama winning acclaim for his prowess with a rifle during a public sport? Neither can I. The kings of old had their terrible shortcomings, to be sure, but there were times when they still had some class. Nowadays, politics has reduced men to a bad-joke caricatures of themselves.