Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Westward Ho!" and the Futility Of Revenge

I finished reading Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! yesterday and gave it an A- rating. I didn't enjoy Kingsley's other books very much (Water Babies, Madam How And Lady Why) but perhaps it was only because I was a little too young for them when I read them. (Kingsley has a habit of writing children's books for adults:) However, this is definitely my favorite of his works. In Westward Ho, Kingsley brings the Elizabethan era to life through his hero, Amyas Leigh. One good thing about the book is that Kingsley is able to form Amyas' complicated character, while writing about history at the same time. However, though the history in the book is vivid and detailed, the truth Kingsley works hardest to express is the futility of revenge.

Revenge. The book is seething with it. It is in the 1570s and war with Spain is becoming increasingly bitter. The Catholics and Protestants have been struggling for years. Both sides are fighting venomously and both have tasted enough of cruelty to be harsh.

It is into such an atmosphere that Amyas Leigh is born in Bideford, Devon. He spends his childhood dreaming of becoming a sailor and fighting the "Spanish idolaters" in the Indies. As a very young man he falls in love with Rose Salterne. Unfortunately, Amyas is not the only one in love with Rose Salterne. Rose happens to be the town belle and Amyas has not a few rivals to vie with. One of the said rivals turns out to be his older brother, Frank. Unknown to Amyas, Frank has been in love with Rose for even longer than his brother. When Amyas tells his brother of his passion for Rose, Frank resolves to let his brother have her. Amyas accidentally overhears Frank telling his mother of this resolution and is so horrified that he also resolves to give up his sweetheart.

After this event, Amyas sails to Ireland and fights the Jesuits and Irish Catholics there. On this expedition, he captures a haughty Spanish lord, Don Guzman Maria Magdalena Sotomayor de Soto. While the Don is waiting to be ransomed, he goes to Bideford and falls in love with poor Rose Salterne. Rose runs away to the Indies with the Don and, when Amyas returns home, he vows to seek her. His brother, who is generally so gentle and quiet, elects to go with him, and a great many of Rose Salterne's old admirers are also eager to join this expedition.

In the Indies, Amyas and his brother sneak up to the Don's palace one night. There they hear Rose speaking to an spy who is attempting to convert her to Catholicism and threatening her with the Inquisition. Listening to the conversation, Amyas and Frank are able to discover that she is actually married to the Don and this is a relief to both of them. However, they are almost immediately discovered and the island awakes in a flurry to attack the English spies. Amyas and Frank try to run to their ship but Frank is shot and captured.

When Amyas learns that his brother and Rose Salterne were tortured and burned in Spain, a fire of hate is kindled in his heart, and he vows eternal war with the Spaniards to avenge his brother. Throughout the rest of the book, this hatred can be seen to increase constantly and to turn the innocent, gallant, Amyas into a bitter, vengeful, tormented young man.

Towards the end of the book, Amyas is given a chance to chase Don Guzman and get his ultimate revenge. While crew is going after the Spanish galleon, the following scene takes place aboard his ship (named...guess...Vengeance).

"That one fixed thought of selfish vengeance has possessed his whole mind; he forgets England's present need, her past triumph, his own safety, everything but his brother's blood. And yet this is the day for which he has been longing ever since he brought home that magic horn as a fifteen years boy; the day when he should find himself face to face with an invader, and that invader Antichrist himself. He believed for years with Drake, Hawkins, Grenvile and Raleigh, that he was called and sent into the world only to fight the Spaniard: and he is fighting him now, in such a cause, for such a stake, within such battle-lists as he will never see again: and yet he is not content; and while throughout that gallant fleet, whole crews are receiving the Communion side by side, and rising with cheerful faces to shake hands and rejoice that they are sharers in Britain's Salamis, Amyas turns away from the holy elements.

'I cannot communicate, Sir John. Charity with all men? I hate, if ever man hated on earth.'

'You hate the Lord's foes only, Captain Leigh.'

'No, Jack, I hate my own as well.'

'But no one in the fleet, sir?'

'...No, Jack, I hate one of whom you know; and somehow that hatred of him keeps me from loving any human being. I am in love and charity with no man, Sir John Brimblecombe -- not even with you!'"

Amyas gets so eaten up by this "one great revenge that blackened all his soul" that when his enemy's ship sinks, instead of rejoicing in triumph, "'Shame!' cried Amyas, hurling his sword far into the sea, 'to lose my right! when it was in my very grasp! Unmerciful!'" It is the "unmerciful!" in this outburst that caught my attention, and that is because it is so ironic.

I am not going to finish the story and tell you what happens, (No, Amyas doesn't turn into Darth Vader) so if you're still interested you'll have to read it for yourselves.

This is a grotesquely simple summary of a complicated story, filled with numerous plots and ideas, so don't be discouraged by it. I am only trying to track the "Revenge" thread in the book.
The concept of revenge seems to be following me around a lot lately. It is, of course, the main theme in Hamlet, the Shakespeare play I'm reading this month, and then last night we finally got to watch episodes IV, V and VI of Star Wars, another story that deals with hate and revenge at least, very well. It is truly amazing (and horrifying) to look at all of the examples in literature and history where a hero is corrupted by the burning desire for REVENGE.

This quote, perhaps, summarizes these ideas very well: "A true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him but because he loves what is behind him." -Anonymous

Seize The Day!

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