The 1920s saw the publication of two novels that are now recognized as classics of heroic fantasy. The first of these was The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison in 1922, arguably the best novel of its kind ever written, and two years later Lord Dunsany’s splendid The King of Elfland’s Daughter appeared. These books were first-class contributions to a field that had until that time had been limited to a handful of works written in the previous century by William Morris.
Morris’s books were essentially romances, set in imaginary lands and utilizing the props of magic, with the best of them being The Well at the World’s End and The Sundering Flood. Although the latter title featured battles between opposing armies, it was Eddison who gave heroic fantasy the hard edges of violent action and dark sorcery; these were aspects that ultimately came to define the bulk of a genre that was to prove extremely popular although that popularity was not to be fully achieved until decades later.
Another heroic fantasy title was unobtrusively published in 1927, one of the first novels of its kind: Gerfalcon, by the British author, Leslie Barringer, set in an imaginary version of fourteenth-century medieval France. The book is by no means a classic to compare with the Eddison and Dunsany titles, but few books ever have been. Barringer’s work does not have the sweeping majesty of the world of the Worm or the poetic beauty that haunts Elfland, nor can it rival the narrative drive and pure joyous storytelling of either of its eminent predecessors. However, it remains an entertaining book that ably sets the scene for its two sequels, Joris of the Rock (1929) and The Shy Leopardess (1948), the three novels together forming The Neustrian Cycle.
Leslie Barringer (1895–1968) was not a prolific fiction writer. Apart from this trio of Neustrian books, he wrote three historical novels, Kay the Left-Handed (1935), Know Ye Not Agincourt? (1936), and The Rose in Splendour (1953), together with one contemporary children’s story, Rescue in Ravensdale (1946, under the pseudonym Esmé Cartmell). He was a member of an Ambulance unit in France in the First World War but was wounded in action and returned to England in 1917. He subsequently worked as a civil servant, as a book editor, and as a contributor to children’s encyclopedias.
The alternate medieval world that he created in The Neustrian Cycle is a land where the Merovingian rulers were never deposed and where consequently Neustria—which did exist as the western part of the Frankish realm until the eighth century—remained a powerful and independent kingdom. It is a place of knights and jousting, chivalry and etiquette, but also a place of lawlessness and banditry beyond the safe havens of the castles and towns, and even those safe havens can be menaced and threatened. There is a consistent undertone of violence in Neustria as well as the lesser but widespread influence of witchcraft with both elements influencing the pattern of life and the way in which it is lived. The three books together form a loose trilogy charting the turbulent history of Neustria over a period of more than two decades as seen through the eyes of key figures in the events.
Gerfalcon is the story of Raoul, who is the heir to the unprepossessing barony of Marckmont, orphaned at a young age and brought up by his grandmother, Adela. On her death, he finds himself the ward of his uncle, the boorish Count Armand of Ger, who has little time for the boy and who treats him with contempt. At seventeen, Raoul has a long and unhappy year at Ger stretching before him until he can assume the baronetcy of Marckmont, and he flees, hoping he might find a place to stay until his eighteenth birthday.
After much incident, he finds himself employed as a page under an assumed name at the Rock of Campscapel, a fortress above the town of Alanol that is ruled by Lorin the Butcher and Red Jehan, two evil brothers with mad lusts for blood and womenfolk, respectively. The grim fortress is the scene of violence and debauchery, and after the capture of the Count Saint-Aunay and his retinue, a drunken orgy of brutality and rape ensues. Raoul, unable to simply stand by and watch the horrors that are unfolding, kills the Butcher and makes his escape through a secret passage that he has discovered.
After becoming the Viscount of Ger when Armand’s apoplectic fit leaves him dying, Raoul receives a plea for help from Alanol. Red Jehan is now in full power at Campscapel, and at the end of each day “night spewed lust and murder from the barbican” as he relentlessly ravages the town. Raoul realizes that this is an opportunity for him to utilize the secret of the hidden way into the castle, and this sets in motion the train of events and their culmination on what comes to be known as “Raoul’s Day.”
After a diversion for a brutal but triumphant engagement with Easterling pirates at Merlin’s Cove, Raoul and his forces reach the Rock, enter through the secret passage, and in a welter of blood, Red Jehan is killed and Campscapel is taken. There is still one last battle to be fought in Gramberge against Joris of the Rock and his outlaw band. Raoul and a few companions defend the belfry against the onslaught of the outlaws, and a bloody fight ensues until help from Ger arrives in the nick of time.
The story is rounded and satisfactory with the strong undercurrent of Raoul’s journey into adulthood consistently interesting. His obsessive and unrequited love for the beautiful Yseult dictates many of his actions until he is rejected by her, accepting then that his love must be platonic. When he does finally acknowledge that and realizes that there is someone nearer at hand who is far more worthy of his affection, his life is changed for the better, and he finds the fulfilment that he has been seeking.
The book is descriptively forceful, and Neustria is well delineated. It is not a huge area but the author takes the opportunity to define it fully via Raoul’s wanderings before he becomes the Viscount. There are fierce battles at Merlin’s Cove, at the Rock of Campscapel, and at Gramberge, all vividly portrayed and compellingly written. Barringer’s depictions of frantic action and violent death are impressive in both their concise prose and their astute pacing.
E.R. Eddison had included mild sexual encounters in The Worm Ouroboros, and the carnal aspect of Neustrian life also figures in Gerfalcon. Nor are the realities of violent death in the fourteenth century overlooked, and there are scenes of horrific impact as, for instance, when Raoul sees the brutally maimed and tortured Count Saint-Aunay in Lorin’s lair at Campscapel, a sight which leads him to take the Butcher’s life.
Memorable characters people Gerfalcon. Apart from Raoul himself, there is the enigmatic Red Anne, who is the Mistress of the Coven of the Singing Stones and a woman of much beauty; Lys, the sensual young witch whose desire for Raoul is thwarted by his own unreciprocated love for Yseult; the evil duo, Lorin the Butcher and Red Jehan; Raoul’s staunch friends, the Englishman Jon Doust and Nino da Chiostra of Tuscany; and Reine, whose understated presence throughout ultimately comes to mean very much.
Gerfalcon was followed by Joris of the Rock, which appeared in 1929. The infamous Joris is mentioned several times in the first book but is not encountered until its end and then only briefly at Gramberge. The leader of a formidable force of outlaws, Joris is much feared and notorious for his merciless and cruel ways. He is the bastard son of a nobleman, tall, golden haired, blue-eyed and bearded, fawn-clad, initially seeming reminiscent of Robin Hood, although a part of the dialogue demonstrates the truth of the matter: “Let Joris plunder the rich ... so be it he does such courtesy to the poor.” He has a certain charm, but that is counteracted by the black anger that thoughts of his all-consuming but futile love for Red Anne (the mistress of Lorin the Butcher) bring about; he is also driven to mad rage by Latin phraseology, which reminds him of the burning of his mother as a witch.
His nature is emphasized in the first chapter of the book. Eighteen-year old Tiphaine de Ath, recently orphaned, is on her way to the Tower of Ath to live with her uncle, accompanied by his younger brother, the Franciscan monk, Eugenius. They encounter Joris near Olencourt; he saves the girl from a sexual assault and seems courteous and chivalrous—until in a fit of evil fury he murders Eugenius and rapes Tiphaine. Nine months later in the Tower of Ath, Tiphaine gives birth to Gilles, but then comes the horror of the Jacquerie—a bloody and ill-fated peasant uprising—which sees Ath sacked and its inhabitants killed. The baby Gilles survives, and is mistakenly assumed to be Juhel, the heir to Ath, taken away to the northern coast by the Prior of Saint Eloy-over-Hardonel.
In the meantime, Joris is building an army of cutthroats and ruffians at his impregnable redoubt, the Rock. He remains obsessed by Red Anne, although it is to be ten years before his love is consummated; this happens when the events of Gerfalcon impinge. After the death of Lorin, her lover and protector, Anne was forced to flee Campscapel to escape the hatred of Red Jehan, and she then meets and joins Joris and his band. The events of Gerfalcon again encroach as the final action of that first book, the siege of the tower in Gramberge, is shown from the opponent’s point of view.
Juhel has in the interim become third page to Robin Barberghe. A miserable time ensues with Juhel bullied and beaten until he meets Raoul of Ger in Belsaunt. Raoul clearly sees a kindred spirit in Juhel and is reminded of his own wretched time under Armand at Ger. He takes the 14-year-old as his own second page, and a new life begins for him. Juhel also gives in to his uncertain and half-formed desires by taking a serving girl to bed, disappointing himself for surrendering to what he considers his baser instincts.
Six months later, war is in the air as rebels seek to usurp the throne. Matters resolve at a mighty clash at Pont-de-Foy, where a hundred thousand men contest. The battle moves to and fro, but a strategic move by Raoul, taking a key bridge, sways matters, and soon the rebels are defeated, their leaders dead. Joris then becomes a hunted man as Raoul—now Lieutenant General in the North—scours the countryside to end the outlaw menace once and for all. Months go by, and Joris’s band is steadily reduced in number until finally he is alone with his enemies closing in. By chance, he meets Red Anne one last time and finds that she has become a nun; he murders her in a rage but then finds himself confronted by Juhel—whom he knows to be his own son, having overheard a secret conversation—but Juhel kills him before he can reveal the truth.
Juhel faced death and killing for the first time at Pont-de-Foy and found it exciting but terrifying, its aftermath leaving him as disillusioned and soiled as his sexual encounter those few months earlier; he ponders his position as a man if he cannot take joy and satisfaction from such “masculine” pursuits. He is further sickened at his own act of violence in killing Joris and decides to join the Church in what is a somewhat downbeat ending, emphasizing that to one person at least, the “romance” of the Neustrian age and in particular the carnality of love and the savageness of death is unpalatable and not something that can be easily borne.
Elements of fantasy are minor in the first book but stronger in Joris of the Rock. Casting a spell that nearly kills a servant, Red Anne is able to see into the future where Joris is renowned and feared throughout Neustria; she also attends a Black Mass at the Singing Stones and summons a demon spirit from the Pit as well as the shade of Lys, who committed suicide the day before. Joris is chilled by what he witnesses but accepts that this is a part of who and what Red Anne is.
As in Gerfalcon, Barringer displays a flair for fast-paced gripping prose throughout Joris of the Rock, most notably in the Battle of Pont-de-Foy, which is exciting and action-packed, and his descriptive writing also impresses. For a flavor of this, here is the evocative start of chapter 9, “The Spires of Hautarroy”:
Night in the ancient city. The moon a glittering silver disk emerging from swift, translucent cloud. Beyond the open doors the archbishop’s terrace, flagged and dully gleaming, with shrubs in stone vases; beyond again, mysterious blackness of trees, where a nightingale had sung and fallen silent. Beneath each door and window the dainty shadows of clambering roses, dancing in shapes of moonlight that slanted across the floor.
In 1948, nearly two decades after his second literary foray into Neustria, Barringer returned there for one final time with The Shy Leopardess, which starts ten years after the conclusion of Joris of the Rock. The Black Plague is stalking the land, and there are incursions from Franconian robber barons and the outlaw leader Turlequin, once an underling of Joris. Yolande of Baraine, the Shy Leopardess of the title, is the 14-year-old daughter of Duke Englebert and is betrothed to the Duke of Boqueron. When he dies of the plague, her future is uncertain, but worse is to come as outlaws led by Turlequin attack the castle at Pardelin and kill all within, including Yolande’s father. Yolande is taken for ransom, but then Count Azo of Montguiscard arrives and kills the outlaws, supposedly including Turlequin. Yolande is rescued, but all her family and servants are dead, including the pages, Lioncel and Diomede, who were her closest friends.
Azo’s star waxes as he leads an army against Franconian invaders and wins the day. Now Yolande’s guardian, he arranges for her marriage to his son, Balthasar, who reveals his true character when he drunkenly throws Yolande’s kitten to his hunting dogs. She has never liked Balthasar, but now she hates him. Raoul of Ger, her cousin, is at the betrothal ceremony and shows himself to be her friend, promising that if ever she needs him, she should send him the magic square that he has given her, and he will then come to her.
Unknown to Yolande, her two pages survived the massacre at Pardelin and witnessed what really happened, the bandit Turlequin having been in league with Azo, who had planned the raid to ensure that he would come into possession of the duchy, confirming Duke Englebert’s earlier comment to his daughter “Never trust a Montguiscard.” Realizing that their story is not only unlikely to be believed but will also put their lives in danger, the two boys assume new identities and become pages to Janus of the Silver Shield.
As both her sixteenth birthday and her wedding draw near, Yolande learns the true depths of Balthasar’s sadistic nature and dreads her approaching marriage. Lioncel and Diomede have befriended the dwarf, Quargis, and from a hidden viewpoint they witness Balthasar laughingly committing murder. They fear for Yolande’s future. They finally meet her in the guise of itinerant minstrels and tell her all that occurred at Pardelin and afterwards, which leads to her luring Balthasar to her father’s castle where he pays bloodily for his many crimes and cruelties.
During this whole time, Azo has been secretly plotting against the King, and when evidence of the conspiracy is revealed by Yolande and Raoul of Ger, matters are set to rights after a potent clash of opposing armies in the midst of a thunderstorm, a clash that culminates in total victory for the King’s forces. The consequences of that battle transform Yolande’s life completely, and she now seems destined to be the next Queen of Neustria. In the course of the novel she has changed from a demure and diffident young girl into a woman of the world.
As with the two earlier volumes, Barringer tells an interesting story particularly well. His astute mingling of politics, personalities, and passion forms the basis of a novel that most satisfactorily concludes an entertaining sequence of books. The author’s prose is consistently good with action scenes that are compellingly well described, and his plots are peopled with memorable characters who loom larger than life, both good and evil. Yolande in particular is fascinatingly depicted and is far from a conservative stereotype. Her conduct is unconventional—and possibly unique in the genre—for the way in which she sleeps with both Lioncel and Diomede with each unaware that he is not her only lover, and her final confrontation with Balthasar is as brutal as it is unexpected.
Rites of passage form the basis of each of the three narratives, and the very different journeys into adulthood of Raoul, Juhel, and Yolande are persuasive and integral parts of the overall story arc, supplementing rather than overshadowing events on the larger scale. Several characters appear in all of the narratives, most notably Raoul of Ger who is ultimately the major player in the series as a whole, onstage and offstage, his influence forceful and far-reaching.
Barringer was not a professional author, and his fiction career spanned more than a quarter of a century, which suggests his seven novels represent labors of love, the telling of tales that he wanted to tell in the way that he wanted to tell them. Those novels began and ended in Neustria, and the author’s literary creativity was such that his invented realm has a vigorous and appealing validity. Its allure is well portrayed, but so also is the harshness that can arise out of living in such perilous times. Neustria is no fairy-tale land, and violence—sudden and bloody—can and does occur with what can often be a bleak finality.
It is that prospect of the closeness of death that gives the characters their lust for living and for taking what gratification they can from the here and now. Life can be enjoyed to its fullest even in the knowledge that its nature may be transitory, and the acceptance of this philosophy enables such diverse personalities as Joris of the Rock and Raoul of Ger to thrive. And if good does ultimately defeat evil, it does not come about easily but involves significant effort as well as loss and disillusionment.
Gerfalcon and Joris of the Rock first appeared within a few years of The Worm Ouroboros and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and from a modern-day perspective, comparisons are unavoidable. It is certainly true to say that the Neustrian books cannot compare to the sheer brilliance of their predecessors, but if Leslie Barringer’s contribution to the worlds of heroic fantasy was not at that level, it was more than acceptable. All but forgotten though they now are, these are three entertaining books that reward the reader prepared to seek them out. The Neustrian Cycle novels may not have influenced the field in any significant way, but they do stand as fine examples of the art of imaginative literature.
Mike Barrett lives in Wilmington, Kent.