What a cunning fellow Magnus Mills is. How on earth does he manage to keep us interested in a novel in which nothing much happens but the setting-up and taking-down of tents, the consumption of milk pudding, the building and dismantling of a trench and an earthen wall, and a dispute over a copper bath? It’s all as far from the pomp and glitz of the original Field of the Cloth of Gold in which Henry VIII and Francis I met in 1520 as it could possibly be; but that’s Mills’ method, to set up expectations that gently collapse into more expectations, seeming to come to not much in the end (rather like the meeting between Henry and Francis.)
But it’s not quite true that they come to nothing. Our prim, clerkly narrator is one of those people who’s always just a step behind, and quite frequently he wakes up to find things have changed without his quite realising how it happened. Always the appeaser, he watches on as the peaceful Great Field is occupied by people who, unlike him, seem to have a clear purpose, and only at the very end of the book does it dawn on him that this purpose is going to sweep him up into it.
The plot of this allegory-that-isn’t-really-an-allegory is simple. The narrator is the second occupant of the Great Field in the bend of a wide river. He pitches his tent and looks forward to a life of “peace and tranquillity”. It doesn’t trouble him when a few others arrive, or even when a huge and supremely well-organised group arrives:
Marvellous organizational skills, he says approvingly, iron discipline; proper plans and surveys; spacious thoroughfares; sophisticated drainage systems; monumental earthworks; communal kitchens and bakeries; bathhouses with hot water freely available. The list goes on and on.
Well, said Isabella, they may think they’re civilised, but they’re certainly not gentlemen. (113)
The narrator is the only one of the other occupants to accept the newcomers’ offer of a share of their surplus milk pudding, and he throws himself enthusiastically into their project of building a drainage trench and a wall across the field, surprised to find, when it’s finished, that the other tent-dwellers who were the early occupants see this as a hostile gesture designed to exclude them.
The field’s been spoilt, says Isabella. It’s lost its innocence. 113
Even when the newcomers leave (This is little more than a mere outpost in a far-flung province, says the leader, I’m afraid we’ve overreached ourselves) a new lot arrives, this time a rowdy, muscular group in longboats. Are you beginning to get the idea? Romans, Vikings? There’s a Druid-like figure and an Arthurian damsel. And the last arrival is a wild man from the desert, a visionary with a message of warning about the fate of his own people who once lived in a similarly idyllic field and were taken into slavery.
‘You should beware the depredations of outsiders,’ he said, ‘You may think that it couldn’t happen here, but I assure you it’s quite possible, especially if you’re divided amongst yourselves.’
He raised his finger and pointed northward.
‘That wall of turf,’ he proclaimed, ‘will divide and weaken you! You must tear it down at once!’ 187
True to form, our narrator ploddingly concludes that the wall won’t be torn down:
It was all very well for the multitude to applaud and cheer Hippo’s commandment, but I doubted if they realised how much hard work the job entailed. 189.
He just doesn’t get it, as usual, right till the very last line of the book. And then he does. A fall from innocence almost as shocking as that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Like an allegory, yes; like a fable, yes, in the elements of the story, but not in the telling. This worthy, pleasantly-dull, guileless voice potters through history preoccupied with the mundane minutiae of life, always hoping for ‘halcyon days.’ History, it seems, is what happens when most of us are pottering about in our tents, tightening the ropes and rearranging the cushions.
You’ll either get Magnus Mills or you won’t. And he’d be perfectly fine with that. We don’t all like milk pudding, even milk pudding made by the Romans.
Magnus Mills: The Field of The Cloth of Gold (Bloomsbury 2015)