Poul Anderson: A Midsummer Tempest

Cover of A Midsummer Tempest by Poul AndersonValeria whirled. Her finger stabbed at Rupert. “You talked about Hamlet and Macbeth—as if they were both real,” she cried. “Contemporaries, even. You said you’d met Oberon and … Titania … yourself. Well, did Romeo and Juliet ever live? King Lear? Falstaff? Othello? You mentioned cannon in Hamlet’s time. How about, by God, how about a University of Wittenberg already then? Did they have clocks that struck the hour in Julius Caesar’s days? Was Richard the Third really a hunchbacked monster? Did Bohemia ever have a seacoast? Does witchcraft work?”
To each flung question, Rupert nodded, as if these were blows hurled upon him.

I’ve written about Poul Anderson before, when I reviewed a pair of his fantasy novels, Three Hearts And Three Lions and The Broken Sword. A prolific and inventive science fiction and fantasy writer with a very distinctive, consciously archaic style of writing, he’s probably still my favourite genre writer. And this is probably my favourite of his novels. I’ve reread it many times, and always found something new in it that I hadn’t noticed before.

A Midsummer Tempest was published in 1974, when Anderson was entering his long heyday, which spanned the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. My own copy is the hardcover Severn House edition of 1976, which was a reissue of the 1975 Orbit edition. These two share the same cover art (uncredited in my copy), which is certainly the best of all the editions of this book, and fairly screams its Seventies credentials.

The title echoes two of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Which is a hint about what’s to follow.

The story opens in 1644 at the Battle of Marston Moor during the English Civil War, where we encounter two of the novel’s main characters: the historical Prince Rupert of The Rhine and his fictional attendant, the dragoon Will Fairweather, fighting on the side of the Royalists. We get another Shakespeare reference in the title of the first chapter: “Thunder And Lightning. A Heath About To Be Blasted”. The battle proceeds in historical detail until the Royalist defeat, when Rupert is captured by the Parliamentarian forces. (In reality, he managed to hide in a beanfield and evade capture; in the novel, he is captured in a beanfield after his horse breaks a leg.)

And the alert reader (I confess I was not this alert when I first read the book) will also notice that, as the chapter draws to a close, the characters break into rhyming iambic verse:

“Mesim ’twar wise we haul our skins from heare.” panted the dragoon, “while still they may hold wine.”
“And while I yet may hope to bring together men enough that they can cover their retreat … and mine,” Rupert said.

The pun about wine skins, issued in comic dialect by Will Fairweather, feels Shakespearean too.

Will flees the approaching Parliamentarians, leaving Rupert to be apprehended. Rupert is then held captive on the estate of Parliamentarian Sir Malachi Shelgrave, where he meets the third major character, Shelgrave’s niece and ward, Jennifer Alayne. At this point, we also discover something else strange about Rupert’s world—the Industrial Revolution has arrived a century early, with steam locomotives and coal-powered factories embraced by the Puritan Parliamentarians. And we learn something about why Shakespeare is so ever-present in the narrative. Here’s Sir Malachi explaining to Rupert that we’ve long known the Earth to be a sphere:

[…] It has indeed been known since ancient times. Why, even in a dim and pagan Britain, before the Romans came, the fact stood forth.”
Rupert’s resentment drowned in interest. “How so?”
“Did not the anguished Lear cry out, ‘Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!‘? I dare not claim the great Historian divinely was inspired; but with most scholars, I do believe he rendered truth exactly.”

In Rupert’s world, Shakespeare’s writings are not fictional, but matters of historical record! And this is the central conceit of Midsummer Tempest—that everything Shakespeare wrote is true, including his idea that Bohemia had a coastline, and that there were chiming clocks in Ancient Rome. This latter (along with several other Shakespearean anachronisms) means that technology advanced more quickly in the world of Midsummer Tempest, shifting the Industrial Revolution into the midst of the English Civil War.

Will and Jennifer team up to spring Rupert from captivity. The three then encounter another consequence of Shakespeare’s historicity in their world—fairies exist. Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies described in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are opposed to Parliamentarian rule, both because the Roundheads’ dour Puritanism denies the pagan supernatural, and because the nascent Industrial Revolution is destroying the natural world the fairies inhabit. To combat the Parliamentarians, they ask Rupert and his friends to retrieve the book of magic that the magician Prospero threw into the sea, as recorded in The Tempest.

And from there, it’s a rollicking adventure as the protagonists are chased across Europe by Puritan forces, trying to reach Prospero’s elusive island in the Mediterranean, retrieve his book of spells, and get back to England in time to bolster the Royalist cause. There is romance, deception and betrayal, stolen trains and peril at sea, and a surprisingly technological solution to retrieving Prospero’s book. The characters continue to break into blank verse, rhyming couplets and even (in Jennifer’s case) manage to declaim an entire honest-to-god sonnet in conversational tones. Will, the obligatory Shakespearean comic relief, is a fount of puns and double entendres. Other characters unconsciously deliver distorted versions of famous Shakespearean lines, as when Will complains that the construction of their boat makes it difficult to steer, and Rupert responds:

“The fault, brute steersman, lies not in her spars but in thyself.”

And there are nods to other sources, too. A minor character has the same name as a major character in Robert Heinlein’s novella “If This Goes On—“. There’s a walk-on part for a character from Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. And (perhaps most strangely) a magic spell that echoes the mysterious coded words that appear in Rembrandt’s etching “A Scholar In his Study“.

And it all builds to a climax that feels like a pagan version of Arthur Machen’s famous short story, “The Bowmen”.

So it’s clever and delightfully complicated, and all delivered in Anderson’s ringing prose. Exactly my kind of book, really.

The Old Phoenix

Another plot element deserves a mention. I thought I’d hive it off into its own section, since it’s too complicated and extraneous to plonk down in the middle of an already cluttered review.

Anderson had a problem with this narrative. He had this lovely idea, in which the works of Shakespeare give rise to a world in which Cavaliers embrace nature magic so as to overcome Roundheads armed with industrial technology. But how could he explain this to his readers, when his characters are necessarily completely unaware of the unusual nature of their own world? In Three Hearts And Three Lions (1961) he had described a world in which Carolingian legend is true—but his protagonist was transported there from our world, and was able to figure out what was going on, thereby informing the reader. And in his novel Operation Chaos (1971) he described an alternate America in which magic works, but his characters were able to speculate (for the benefit of the reader) about how their world might have been very different if the principles of magic had not been discovered and codified.

Neither of these options was available for this one, but he somehow needed to give the reader a little lecture before too much of the plot elapsed. Enter the Old Phoenix, a sort of inter-dimensional tavern that flits between Anderson’s alternate worlds. If you are a key player in your world’s history, and if you need shelter where none exists, the Old Phoenix will turn up. You can stay there for one night, but must leave in the morning, and the only fee charged is for you to tell your story. It’s a traditional old pub, full of oak panelling and brass, run by a cosy couple who are known by different names to their various guests, and who speak all languages that have ever been spoken. In a corner stands a globe of the world, “marking in special colors places like Atlantis and Huy Braseal”.

Cover of Losers' Night by Poul AndersonAnderson enjoyed the idea of the Old Phoenix enough to return to it in two short stories, “House Rule” (1976) and “Losers’ Night” (1991), and it’s from that latter story I take this description:

Space-time is many-branched, perhaps infinitely so. There seems to be little we can imagine which is not reality somewhere among yonder histories. Out of them, into the Old Phoenix, for a night, have come—I have heard, or seen for myself—not only the likes of Theseus, Scheherazade, Falstaff, Holger Danske, Huck Finn, Irene Adler, Red Hanrahan, blind Rhysling—but a Zenobia who won free of Rome, an Abélard who remained a whole man, a Rupert of the Rhine who outfought Cromwell, a Tecumtha who preserved his nation—

So when Rupert and Will are on the verge of capture by the Parliamentarians, The Old Phoenix appears to them. And among the guests that night are Valeria Matuchek, from the world of Operation Chaos, and Holger Carlsen, the protagonist of Three Hearts And Three Lions. Valeria eventually figures out the nature of Rupert and Will’s world and explains it to them (and us)—and that’s what’s going on in the quotation at the head of this post.

Harry Turtledove paid the place one last fond visit after Anderson’s death, in his short story “The Man Who Came Late” (2014), part of a festschrift in Anderson’s honour, entitled Multiverse.

4 thoughts on “Poul Anderson: A Midsummer Tempest”

  1. Anderson has been a favoutite author of mine since I first started reading him in the 1970’s. However I have always had a dislike for most ‘Fantasy’ books so have shied away from reading books like these but they sound like a bit of fun.

    But I do wonder if my relative lack of Shakespearian knowledge would be a hindrance.

    1. Knowing the two core plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest is certainly an advantage, as is a bit of knowledge of English Civil War history. I think it does tend to make this one a bit niche in its appeal, which is a shame, because Anderson clearly lavished a great deal of love and attention on it.

  2. I have read some books about the Civil War. I am reasonably familiar with the plot and characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    More importantly (joking of course)

    I watched By the Sword Divided back in the 1980’s. And I saw Mickey Rooney play Puck!

    Plus I have watched Forbidden Planet a few times so I am sure I know all about The Tempest 🙂

    1. Ah yes–the scene in which the shipwrecked party use force fields and ray guns to battle Caliban is one of he most memorable parts of The Tempest.

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