Peeps, how goes your day? You’re doing well? Feeling pretty good? Good, good. That will help make this news go down a bit easier: Richard Coeur de Lion is about to die. I’m pretty sure he’ll die today, painfully, and his brother John will succeed him, and disaster will follow. All in all, a sad day.
For those of you who are scratching your head and saying, “Huh? Didn’t Richard I die in 1199?”, you’re right, he did. But he’s about to again, on page 275 of Frank McLynn’s Richard and John: Kings at War. I’m now on page 250 or so, but I can see what’s coming (um, mostly because he did die in 1199, so this isn’t really news), and I’m sad.
Good history books tell their stories in such a way that the stories acquire an immediacy to them: things are not foretold; they are told; the events unfold on the page; you may know what’s going to happen in advance, but when they happen, they happen anew for you; they happen in a weird present looking back but nonetheless happening, gerund-ing sense. A death, a gross injustice, a senseless happenstance with grave consequences — you anticipate and dread them. You sigh, try to interleave lighter reading (perhaps Ellen Degeneres’s Seriously . . . I’m Kidding), finally resign yourself, mutter “let’s just get this over with”, and rush through the dreaded pages. Likewise — Machiavellian maneuvers, unadulterated bad judgement, utter disregard for others’ well-being– these things rile you up, you palpate the sense of unfairness. You wrinkle your nose, think to yourself “how did such a guy end up in a position of power?” and “Won’t somebody please do something to stop him?”, while being perfectly aware that these things happened, they already happened, centuries ago, and no, nobody can do anything to affect the past.
Reading history, in the presence of good history books, becomes sharing in that history, and sometimes, it becomes that cliché but descriptive “emotional investment”. This is why we have favorite historical persons, abiding curiosity in particular events, and why (I think) people become historians. It’s why we’re sad when Richard the Lionheart dies.