Envisioning Henry V: Fortune Made His Sword by Martha Rofheart

First, the story behind the reading of the book. The book turned up in one of the 70 boxes of books that were my husband’s dowry (we had to install a separate “library shed” with 500 linear feet of bookshelves because the many book cases in the house itself were insufficient.) In the process of cataloging the collection, I pulled out a pile of “do we want to keep this?” books. Fortune Made His Sword was a 1972 book club edition, on surprisingly good paper. Dave’s story is that he belonged to the book club and kept forgetting to send in the reply forms, so he’d keep receiving the books. That explains in part why he had a historical novel about Henry V of England, although his reading tastes are so diverse, you never know.

Second, the story behind the book itself. Martha Rofheart was a stage actress in the 1940s and 50s, which gave her a familiarity with Shakespeare’s “Chronicles” plays. In addition, her family background is Welsh (her birth name was Jones). This was the first of a number of historical novels, including one about Owen Glendower (who appears in this book) and another about Sappho.

Now to the book itself. Ah, King Harry! Is it possible to write about the man without thinking of what Shakespeare did with him? That speech before Agincourt? And Owen Glendower! What a delicious character! In Henry IV, Part I, he claims to be able to “summon spirits from the vasty deep,” to which Hotspur replies — in one of my all-time favorite lines, “Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?” So what are we to expect from a novelization of these people — by an actress, no less?

I don’t care how good Rofheart was as an actress, it was worth waiting for her to come to her senses as a writer. She doesn’t take Shakespeare as gospel, nor does she take perverse delight in going against Shakespearean expectations. Her Owen is a man of reason and science, such as was possible in an age when knowledge was indistinguishable from witchcraft. About her Hotspur, the less said about him, the better. Her Harry is complex, passionate, not always likeable, but greatly loved and loving. By far, her best character is her own creation, Owen’s illegitimate daughter Morgan, who offers not only perspective but a consistent moral compass for the story.

We begin with Harry as a child, “We are not the true kings of England, though my father wore the crown before me. I knew this, I think, from my earliest years when King Richard was our liege lord…” and proceed with a different viewpoint character for each section: young Harry, Morgan ab Owen, the king’s fool, an English knight-at-arms (and inspired choice for the telling of the Battle of Agincourt), Katherine of Valois, and Henry again, the dying king.

In the epilog, Morgan muses, “I have thought long about Harry, especially since he died, some seven years ago. They say he grew very hard in his last years; when I knew him he was tender and of a sweet reason. But war is not a gentle school, and killing is not done kindly. Perhaps, if I had stayed — but that is a presumptuous thought, and beside, I could not. I had seen already what way he was shaping his fate, Harry.”

I am not a historian. As far as I can tell, Rofheart is reasonably accurate as to personages and events. Her fidelity in the depiction of the lives of those characters is less important to me than her consistency. She neither white-washes everyday events and living conditions under a romantic miasma nor inflicts discourses on How Bad It Was on the hapless reader. This is not our world, and it may be a world that never existed, but it is a world unto itself, consistent and vivid in a way that makes absolute sense to the people who live in it. One of my personal measures of a historical novel is whether it makes me want to run out and learn everything I can about the people and their times. Fortune Made His Sword certainly did that, so by my standard it is a success.

Even as a novel, aside from any reference to actual events, the book succeeds as well. For a first novel, it succeeds astonishingly well; each voice is clear and distinct, so that very shortly into each section I felt as if I had made a new friend, and when I met them from another character’s story, I felt glad to hear more of their adventures. While each section expresses a different personality, the overall style has a wonderful rhythm, easy enough for the modern reader yet paced so that I wanted to slow down and savor it, and yet gently evoking a different time and way of speech. The actress in the author had a fine ear for such things.

I believe the book’s out of print, but used copies, both hardback and mass market paper, are readily available. It’s well worth tracking them down.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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Envisioning Henry V: Fortune Made His Sword by Martha Rofheart — 4 Comments

  1. This is not our world, and it may be a world that never existed, but it is a world unto itself, consistent and vivid in a way that makes absolute sense to the people who live in it.

    That’s in a nutshell the way I regard historical novels. (Though admittedly, it can be harder to squint past details that I know are not right when the novel is set in a period I have read a great deal of primary source material in.)

  2. I think we as writers all have to grapple with “never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and this is even more the case with historical fiction. The story has to have a shape and internal consistency, whereas life is, as Mark Twain put it, “one damned thing after another.”

    Nothing in this book rang those alarm bells except Henry’s cause of death. The history books say dysentery, but it didn’t read that way. However, the medical details were vague enough so I was never sure what she meant except that clearly it involved his liver, plus attacks of angina. Who knows how many ailments he had, from all those years of drinking, etc.?