Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Towers of Bois-Maury 2 - Eloise de Montgri

Published in 1985, "Eloise de Montegri" was Hermann Huppen's second "Towers of Bois-Maury" album, and it was clear that commercial consideration wasn't on the author's mind. Of the characters introduced in the first volume, only Aymar and Oliver return, and then in a supporting role at best. Gone are also the vestiges of courtly duels and medieval courtesy, replaced by the desolation of a destroyed fiefdom. The volume opens with a ruse designed to plunder the castle walls and closes with a desperate attempt of the remaining peasants united around the underage scion to desperately wring out some of the spoils of their attacker's plunder, to try and rebuild their land.

Thus, the bulk of the volume takes place in dreary winter months in a desolate forest, where the survivors impatiently scramble, their goings on continually interrupted by the arrival of third parties, going across the land to further their own ends. This is how both the title character and Aymar and his page come to the dukedom and stay, however brief, to try and resolve the conflict in light of their own interests. Curiously, "Eloise de Montgri" also sports a clear villain in the form of the bandit leader, a disfigured man hiding under the guise of a shepherd, complete with a mask made out of the ram's hide. The shepherd acts as a sinister figure until his motives are revealed to tie into Eloise's own trek across medieval France, leading to his actions seeming downright sensible when faced with the peasant's siege at the album's climax.

Despite being bookended by two siege scenes of wholesome slaughter, "Eloise de Montgri" also offers a particularly ominous scene of Aymar and Oliver seeking the hospitality of the eccentric man, when they first arrive in the region. The reader is completely aware of the shepherd's cutthroat nature, but the sequence where the protagonists ask him for the shelter just keeps stretching, teasing out the confrontation that could happen at any moment. That it never arrives speaks not only of Hermann's mastery of pacing and atmosphere, but also of a realistic depiction of the bandit leader, who no matter the ferocity recognizes that he's surrounded by battle hardened nobility.

Yet, even with so much of the key plot points centered around the decisions of the down on their luck lords and ladies, Hermann is very careful to establish a common man perspective pertaining to the surviving peasant's attempt to get through the winter in their improvised huts. This is roughly the role Gereon played in "Babette", and which he will continue in the remaining albums of the first five volumes, but here it's shifted to a toothless old man, despised even by his family for not giving up his hen to the starving survivors. Where the stone mason roughly still fits into the role of a roguish action hero, the snide old man prefers to keep out of the way, and basically narrates the tribulations of the peasants, while talking to his cherished Adelgunde.

Such a passive character wouldn't be out of place in a period drama centered around the fatigued life of the impoverished in middle ages, but Hermann gives him almost a central role in "Eloise de Montgri". Ordered by young sir Basil to give up the hen if she doesn't hatch any eggs come spring time, his subplot is lighthearted and refreshing, if unexpected, serving to soften up some of the dire predicaments in the next to the lawless land. Following the shepherd's gang attack on the castle, the last vestiges of the order come in the form of surviving priest, acting as a mentor to the scion, and a single guard, who carried the boy out of during the carnage and now tries to turn the peasants into an army capable of fighting back if they find the bandits.

Introducing a third strain of several poor man hiding close to the huts and stealing grain from the huts illustrates the writer/artist's determination to provide a realistic narrative, which is all the more impressive given the brevity of the plot. Yet, despite the many narrative threads that intersects and work towards the loud conclusion, Hermann's signature slow pace and humanity still come out, based largely on the care given to details and a palpable passion the author feels towards the material. The old man, no matter how pathetic and demented, still feels sympathetic, and the reader likewise identifies with each of these characters, and their yearnings, no matter how petty or grandiose.

Given that most of these characters don't reappear in later volumes, Hermann seems to imply that it doesn't really matter whether their long term prospects work out completely in their favor, but only that in the short amount of time he covers in this period of destabilization in their lives, the author gets across a particular situation typical of the time, and rendered with utmost believability. Of course, this doesn't prevent the titular Eloise from achieving at least some kind of closure relative to her tragic past, but her situation still bears analyzing. Namely, along with the already glimpsed Alda, she is Hermann's strongest realized female character in "Towers of Bois-Maury", albeit the only one capable of defending herself physically. Armed with a crossbow and doing her best to look princely, her long trek still shows signs on her, which is never more apparent then in the compromise she is forced to in order to get Aymar on her and Basil's side.

Because, no matter her determination to get back to the man who destroyed her life, Eloise is still feminine and it's this quality that humanizes her when compared to the typical fantasy bad girl. Her attempt to convince Aymar to follow through on the peasants' decision to strike back at the shepherd is basically to seduce him, with the creator clearly showing the reader that this goes beyond the typical wink and an ambiguous comment such as in so much of genre's offerings. She gives herself completely to the knight, but perhaps the key to understanding her decision comes with the focus the creator pays to Bois-Maury's page. By cutting to the ever sacrificing Oliver, spending the winter night in the cold, Hermann seems to imply that her decision is also class based. Thus, the act of a desperate woman could be taken to imply that she is also seeking a long denied sense of physical pleasure from her peer, which certainly seems to go with the lush depictions of her body.

That Hermann waits for her almost motherly trek to the caves with Basil in tow to reveal details of her past, reaffirms Eloise's femininity and the psychological terror that lead to such a change. As depicted, the young princess was a nobleman's daughter whose innocent love lead her to the machinations of a jealous cousin, leading to the loss of innocence in the character, and her forthcoming compromise. Once again, the writer/artist elaborates on the notions of idealism and chivalry, when faced with the dreariness of unforgiving life in the middle ages. As always, the decisions these nobles make to reaffirm their class status parallel Aymar's greatest desire, to return to his lands, with the reader left to ponder which of these grapples with lofty goals and their subsequent follow through will equal that of Aymar and Oliver's, should they ever return to Bois Maury.

Thankfully, the outsider's perspective, and the humanity inherent in all of the author's characters, help ground the plot, and show how all of these interests still intersect in something resembling the benefit of all, save the shepherd and his group of bandits. By using the space available to depict the common people as banding with the nobles primarily as a means to benefit from the stability of feudal institutions, such as they are even in the ramshackle remains of the dukedom, it's easy to see how those further off would be enticed to band with the villain. To ensure warmth and food, everyone, from the serf to the pillager and the grain stealer is forced to admit that the unwelcome forest, with it's meager givings won't be enough to provide, orienting all of them in turn to the lord Basil's authority, however insignificant and unwanted. This gives the young boy the illusion of being at the front of both a personal vendetta and a real threat to his rule, but also forces the much older and wiser people in his vicinity to adhere to their roles in face of the catastrophe that reaffirms the feudal system.

The ensuing raid is surprisingly realistic and heartfelt, with Aymar trying to steer the hungry and downtrodden into at least some semblance of a strategy, with the peasants winning the day through cowardice and trickery. There is no feeling of victory at seeing the slaughter of shepherd's men, and the subsequent rebuilding of the fallen fiefdom. Just as with the early spring around these rugged characters,  their efforts exhibit a notable progress, but only in the sense of returning to the familiar, less unbearable way of life. This because the attack is carried through in a way parallel to shepherd's own deception, as depicted in the opening pages of the attack on the nobleman's castle. Still, all of this brings Eloise face to face with the man who brought her so much pain, with the confrontation once again depicted as necessary, but also severely understated. Hermann tries to execute the act of violence with as much subtlety as possible, achieving a beautifully paced scene that is almost elegiac in what it leaves unsaid.

Except for some of the clarity problems involving a sudden shift to another new arrival to the forest, a seeming necessity of a dense plot carried out in the most naturally laid out way, the writer/artist's storytelling is nearly flawless. The chief problems any of the new readers could have is the complete break with epic fantasy inherent in the genre, as Huppen achieves perhaps the most down to Earth entry in the series. Despite the presence of a masked villain, two raids and a princess trained to fight as a man, the creator renders all of these with little details, telling of the banality common to all. The schemer and the sinister figure ends up being simply a warlord forced to use his cunning to attack smaller nobles in order to procures a wealth for him and his gang, who number less than a dozen, against the lord and lady who try their best to live up to their title, again it's the protagonists that are shown to rise above their assigned roles.

Both Aymar and the old man with his hen see the events as a necessary evil they must participate in some form in, before leaving to their own concerns, the first physically and the latter symbolically. Basil's lordship is reasserted, Eloise has had her revenge, but the protagonists don't feel like what follows need their continued attention. Aymar at least has a clear goal that contextualizes his wandering knight role as something more than a simple excuse for new adventures in exotic locales, and "Eloise de Montgri" can be taken as no more then a simple stop along the way, enabling the writer/artist to proceed with a singular medieval scenario, as he proceeds to continually rework the series to it's benefit, supplementing a clear formula to a finite narrative that is all the more engrossing as the result.

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