As mayhap I’ve mentioned before, I have always loved me some Medieval Times, but I spent all my formal history training studying American history. I like to be hands on, and there wasn’t a whole lot of Medieval England up in Columbia, South Carolina.
All right, there was a little bit because we South Carolinians are nothing if not all about keeping the past alive, but let’s just say the Colonial Period and American Civil War were a lot more accessible.
I have to feed my Medieval Times habit with books, which is why I picked up a copy of J. Anderson Coats’s The Wicked and the Just. That, and I love the title. It is a shivery title, by which I mean the sound of the words gives me shivers. I always read a book whose title gives me shivers, no matter what it’s about.
My dear friend and I have very different tastes in books. I like historical fiction and swords-and-sorcery fantasy, and she likes contemporary fiction and supernatural fantasy. I am simplifying both our tastes, of course, but you get the idea. We joke that if one of us likes a book, the other one is sure to hate it. (Not entirely true, but often. If we both like a book, you know it must be good. Oh, and we both like dystopian fiction.) We both geek out over books and are constantly trying to trick each other into reading our own favorites. Because that’s what friends are for.
“I’m reading a great book,” I told her, with obvious history nerd glee. “It’s set in English-occupied Wales in the thirteenth century.”
That’s probably not what I should have led with, because she gave me raised eyebrows and the pseudo-polite, “Mmm hmm…,” which is what I give her when she tries to tell me about books in which there really were witches in Salem.
For a couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to think about what I could say about The Wicked and the Just that wouldn’t make me look bad. You see, there are two narrators: Cecily is an English girl, and Gwenhwyfar is a Welsh girl who serves in Cecily’s father’s townhouse in a walled city. Cecily is kind of a spoiled brat who doesn’t realize how good she’s got it, and Gwenhwyfar is just consumed by hating the English and trying to survive.
And I like Cecily so much better. I get Cecily. Cecily has First World Problems. I have First World Problems. Cecily is kind of a snarky snob. I definitely have those tendencies.
It’s no wonder, really, that I don’t get Gwenhwyfar as much as I get Cecily. I sympathize, but I can’t empathize. Like Cecily and her father, like most of the middle class, I have no idea what true poverty looks like. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never feared for my physical safety. Like most of the people I know, I was born among the privileged of this world. Even when we think we’re not privileged, perhaps because, like Cecily, we can’t always keep up with the neighbors down the street—we are. I have lived inside the walls.
Five years ago, I started teaching English at a community college. That experience has given me many glimpses of what life is like outside the walls of middle class comfort. It was my first opportunity, really, to look and to see. Like Cecily outside the walls, I saw a world I literally did not know existed. I suppose I knew it intellectually—but only in a very detached, academic way.
The climactic event of the book reminds us that people will only be pushed so far, and that, for those of us who live inside the walls, ignorance is bliss for only so long. Eventually, we have to look and see. And hopefully, as we learn to do that, we move toward a better world for everyone.
History holds patterns of oppression, violence, rebellion, crushed rebellion. The hope is that, like Cecily, we all manage to find a way to see beyond the walls.