02 March, 2006

The Heaven Tree, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1960. Edition reviewed, Warner Futura 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0473-4

The Heaven Tree is set on the English-Welsh border in 1200–1215, during the reign of King John. All the main characters are fictional.

Harry Talvace is the younger son of a noble family, schooled at Shrewsbury Abbey with his childhood friend and foster-brother Adam, son of a villein* stonemason. Returning home to manage the estate books for his father, Harry’s sense of justice brings him into conflict with the law and with his father’s rights over the villeins on the estate. When he and Adam are falsely accused of poaching, they flee to Paris together to work as stonemasons on the great cathedrals.

Harry’s talent as a mason and stonecarver is noticed by Isambard, a nobleman returning from crusade to his home in Shropshire on the Anglo-Welsh border. He takes Harry and Adam with him to build him a magnificent church, the Heaven Tree of the title. With them goes Madonna Benedetta, a Venetian courtesan and Isambard’s mistress. She is in love with Harry, but Harry has eyes only for his childhood sweetheart Gilleis. Jealousy, injustice and bitter feuds with the Welsh conspire to push Harry into another fatal conflict with feudal law.

For me, one of the key strengths of the book is its unhurried pace and rich, evocative writing. The landscape and society of the time come vividly to life on the page. Feudal law, and its harshness to the have-nots on the wrong end of it, is portrayed with an immediacy that is inevitably missing from studies of social history. Similarly, the author brings out the excitement and creative spirit that must have gone into raising the great medieval churches. I’ve looked at and admired the wool churches in Suffolk villages - some of them, like Long Melford, resemble junior cathedrals - but this book makes me feel I understand a little about the craftsmen who built them. Another strength of the book is its characterisation. None of the main characters is entirely good or entirely bad, yet their different personalities and social positions bring them into terrible conflict with each other and with the social norms.

Some things did not work so well for me. I found the beginning unpromising, with a rather dull account of Harry and Adam joshing each other under the disapproving gaze of Harry’s brother Ebrard (who then all but vanishes from the story). Harry’s conflict with his family and in particular the scene where they are unjustly accused of poaching made me wonder if this was going to be a conventional Robin Hood sort of story. But after about 70 pages, when the boys are on their way to Paris, it picks up and then keeps getting better.

I also found it a little hard to be convinced that everyone is so absolutely constant in love. The characters fall in love at first sight (sometimes even before first sight) and then remain in love thereafter, no matter if it be unrequited or if years of separation intervene. There are no ill-considered infatuations to be grown out of, no-one is ever in any doubt, love never withers or fades away, and the women in particular love absolutely selflessly, without a trace of jealousy or reproach. This hangs together because all the main characters experience love in this way; a heart is given in an instant and never changed. I don't think it quite works for me.

A rich, dramatic tale of love, honour, injustice, jealousy and the joy of creativity in feudal England.

Has anyone else read it? And does this review tell you the sort of things you'd want to know to judge whether you'd like to read it or not? If not, what else would you like to see covered?

*villein: feudal serf, tenant entirely subject to lord or attached to manor. Villeins were unfree and could not leave their lord’s lands without his permission. They had to work a certain number of days each week on his land or on his projects, which could be altered at his discretion, could be sold along with their land and had very limited rights.


Bernita said...

I believe I have.
There are two volumes are there not?
Twisted love and honour as well, the inevitability of the same, and a spiritual triumph?
Magnificent in its characterization and conflicts and clever evasions of dominance, but one I could not bring myself to read again.

Rick said...

Wasn't Pargeter the same as "Ellis Peters" of the Brother Cadfael books? Or am I dreaming things.

I haven't read it, but the review pretty much covered what I would want to know. As for the Undying Love thing, perhaps that's a product of when it was written? In 1960, I suspect that people only fell out of love, or in love with the wrong person, in "racy" books. ;)

Bernita said...

No, you're not dreaming, Rick.
The same.

Carla said...

Re Ellis Peters: Quite right. I should have said that, because there's a certain similarity in style.

I think there are two more to make up a trilogy. I'll probably read them, but not right away, I think.

Undying Love - possibly, though I think it might be the author as much as the era. The same theme turns up in A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury and also in some of the Brother Cadfael mysteries.

Rick said...

Come to think of it, there is a distinct element of "undying love" in several Cadfael books.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Rick, now you say it, yes.

I've read the Heaven Tree trilogy some years ago and remember it as a nice read, but I don't remember the love. I tend to gloss over the romance stuff and go back to the male characters. :-)

Well, not in the way that I would not read those scenes as attentively as the rest of a book, but it's not what stays with me. What stayed was fe. the way Harry can't stop himself finishing the cathedral though it means his death, and the bodies in the river.

Carla said...

Gabriele, I agree. Harry's eagerness to finish the church (despite knowing it will bring his death) because the creative spirit in him cannot be denied, is extraordinary. I was trying to hint at that without giving too much away; I find it hard to know what to say in a review without spoiling the plot for anyone who hasn't read it! Any ideas?

Rick said...

Since the plot element's already been tipped, why will finishing the church bring Harry's death?

Carla said...

Okay, Rick, I'll try to explain. You may want to get yourself a coffee first :-)

Isambard is a man who will never, ever break his word. When he commissions Harry to build his church, he swears to Harry that he will never dismiss or harm him until the church is finished. Harry, who is also a man of his word, swears that he will not leave Isambard's employ until the church is finished.
Fast forward seven years and the church is almost complete. Isambard is in the middle of a blood feud with Llewelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales. A young boy of Llewelyn's household (rumoured to be Llewelyn's illegitimate son) is found by Harry after a Welsh raid on Isambard's property, and Isambard decides to hold the boy as a prisoner and hostage. He informs King John, who also hates Llewelyn, and King John tells Isambard to hang the boy as a lesson to Llewelyn to stop border raiding. (This is historically plausible as John is recorded as having hanged about two dozen Welsh child hostages in a separate incident). Harry regards the boy as his guest and so takes him secretly to safety in Wales. This is defying his lord and defying his king (since the order came from King John), so it carries the death penalty for treason.
Instead of fleeing to safety in Wales with the boy, Harry keeps his original oath to Isambard and goes back to finish the church, knowing he is under sentence of death.
Isambard keeps his original oath to Harry that he will never take action against Harry until the church is finished. So the death sentence cannot be carried out until the church is finished.
Consequently, finishing the church will result in Harry's death.
Does that make sense?

Rick said...

Yes, it does make sense, in a grim sort of way.

Though I can't help thinking that Harry should have done a Shaherazade (sp?) - easy to do, since it has been said that a Gothic church was never really completed anyway; the whole style lends itself to unending modifications and additions, even with the church finished in the practical sense of being fully usable.

Of course, then Pargeter wouldn't have had a plot!

Carla said...

Harry actually half-intends to do that, but the creative urge in him drives him to finish the church and not to add extraneous twiddly bits that would spoil its unity.

I'd guess that one reason a medieval church was never 'finished' is because most of them took so long to build that they were the product of several successive architects and masons, all of whom had a slightly different vision (like writers who can't resist 'improving' on other people's copy!). Harry's fictional church (at least, I assume it's fictional; I haven't bothered to try to find out if it's based on a real one) is unusual in that it's the product of seven years work by a single creative mind. To Harry it seems as important as a child, if not more so, and he can no more stop it growing or spoil it with unecessary additions than he could mutilate a child.

Rick said...

For story reasons this makes perfect sense, and your point about multi-generation projects with successive designers is also true. Still, my gut feeling is that a Gothic church is truly different from, say, a Greek temple, in that it always invites the possibility of further development.

I'm reminded of a saying I got from Arthur C. Clarke (who didn't invent it, but doesn't name his source): "No work of art is ever finished, only abandoned." Something I'm acutely aware of when writing!

Carla said...

Now this is where you need the opinion of an expert on architecture :-) Can Greek temples get to the point where you really can't add another frieze or another statue or carve some more decoration on the column capitals or paint something? I honestly don't know. I can see that the shape would get finished, but Edith Pargeter's description of the church is also all about light and space, and that seems a similar sort of concept. I'm out of my depth here.

I've seen that quote adapted specifically to writing, something like 'No piece of writing is ever finished, it is merely due.' I wonder who first said it?

Rick said...

On architecture I'm out of my depth, too.

I think I've seen that writing-specific version of the quote, too. As a segue that could go in Bernita's comments today, I think of the revision process as ending when further revision becomes "horizontal" - when I feel that further changes (in substance, I mean, not proofing and the like) are no longer making things better.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I've done a bit research about Gothic cathedrals in Germany. Here's a chapter from my online travel Diary about a journey to the German Hansa Towns at the Baltic Sea I undertook in spring 2004. It deals with the philosophical and theological aspects of church building. It is written for a broader audience, though, not an academic paper.

The diary never got finished because the lack of feedback, perhaps it was still too 'academic'. I had a feeling I wrote just for me and that was no fun. Maybe I should take it up again if I can find some readers. :-)

Carla said...

Rick - mathematicians call that the asymptote, where a function approaches a particular value but never reaches it. I think editing may actually follow a J-shaped curve in some cases; the first few edits are an improvement, but after a certain point it can start to do more harm than good. Which is what Harry is feeling and why he can't do a Scheherazade - further additions would make his church worse. (By the way, Gabriele's link differentiates between Gothic, which is about light and space and is the period of Harry's church, and the later Flamboyant which is very highly decorated and might lend itself more to continuous addition.)

Gabriele - very interesting post, thank you for the link. The broken bells make a very poignant image. Your description of light and the shape of space is just what Edith Pargeter describes about Harry's church.
You might find more readers if you link the diary off your website; blog posts tend to roll off the end into oblivion. Is there more of it?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Thank you, Carla.

I had the Travel diary as separate blog at first, but merged it with The Lost Fort after it never took off. And since there are posts about other, shorter journeys in the main blog as well, it makes sense. If I'd put all the travel stuff in a separate blog, The Lost Fort would have almost no pictures, and those are part of the attraction of my blog.

There are two more posts, Introduction 1 and 2. I've linked them from my sidebar.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review - many thanks.

I read the trilogy in my 20's in the late 1960's and loved them. I'm inclined to agree that this whole life-long love thing was a reflection of the time the books were written. However, it always stuck me that there was a touch of the Abelard and Heloise love story about it, which made it believable and comfortably set it into that historic period.

Carla, did you go on to review the two other books? Yet again, there is that continuous thread of love for the young Harry by the two strong protagonists in the trilogy.

All that aside, I have always felt that calling Harry's cathedral the Heaven Tree was most apt and I have never looked at a cathedral in the same way since.

Based on the pleasure I had reading Pargeter's trilogy, I was equally thrilled with "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follet, when I came across it a couple of decades later.

Carla said...

Hello Anonymous and welcome. Yes, there are echoes of Heloise and Abelard. I reviewed The Green Branch (here, if interested). I've read The Scarlet Seed (heartbreaking!) but haven't reviewed it yet.
I agree, I've looked at church architecture with new eyes ever since reading The Heaven Tree. I wonder if Edith Pargeter felt something of the same delight in creation with her writing as Harry feels with his church?