I live in a cold part of the world, so you might think that at this time of the year I’d be looking for escape in stories set in the tropics. But I find the books that bring me joy in the winter tend to be set in this season, in the Middle Ages in Europe.
One of them is Connie Willis’s 1992 time-travel novel, Doomsday Book. Another is Umberto Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose, published in 1980.
I say “books”, but one of them is a play: The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, published in 1966. The 1968 film version, starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, is one of the best movies ever made. (There’s also a later version with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, two fine actors, but it can’t hold a candle to the first). The published play makes excellent reading; every line of dialogue is perfect, and the stage directions bring an extra joy you can’t get without reading the original.
ELEANOR: (Surveying the holly.) I’d say that’s all the jollying this room can stand.
The play describes King Henry II of England and his fractious family, when they gather for Christmas in northern France in 1183. The season is there in the title, and it refers both to the literal setting and to the stage of Henry’s life.
When you live in a cold place, it become an undeniable presence in your life. Even if, in our time, it only means taking an extra few minutes to dress to go out, or scraping your car windshield, or wiping your fogged glasses when you step onto the bus, it can be a bit exhausting. Life in the winter comes with tiny but constant reminders that we survive in nature by dint of Promethean ingenuity. [Read more…]