A thoughtful novel, written like a fable, that takes its inspiration from the settlement and invasion of the British Isles. While the book succeeds in exploring thorny issues such as immigration and religion without passing judgement, it also never feels like anything important is at stake.
The Romans are coming… with an excess of milk pudding!
All the pitches were marked out precisely. Each tent was identical in size, colour and shape; each faced in the same direction; and each was separated from the next by exactly the same interval. Several command tents stood slightly apart from the main group. Between them ran a parallel thoroughfare which we’d already nicknamed the ‘high street’ because it was so busy with uniformed people coming and going. Every tent had a white pennant flying from its peak. When the work was finished the new encampment dominated the entire south-eastern part of the field. Along its boundary ran a low picket fence, and at each corner stood a flagpole. The camp had come into existence during the course of a single day, the process being overseen by a surveyor, a quartermaster and an inspector of works. Their logistical proficiency was astonishing to behold, yet despite all this they’d managed to produce a surplus of milk pudding.
My knowledge of European history is sketchy at best so it wasn’t immediately evident to me that the events depicted in Magnus Mills’ The Field of The Cloth of Gold were modelled on the settlement and invasion of the British Isles. Not that it really matters because Mills short, but thoughtful novel, written in the style of a fable, is open to a variety of interpretations that go well beyond the historical antecedent.
The book is set in the Great Field, a lush and fertile expanse of land that is bordered by an untamed forest and a sparkling river. The Field is initially inhabited by a small, friendly but mostly disparate collection of individuals who set up their tents at different points of the compass. While never forming a community as such, there a sense of polite acceptance between the early settlers, a peaceful co-existence that might have lasted forever if not for the arrival of a large, organised group, clearly military in nature, who set up camp on the other side of the river. When the novel opens the original settlers have been invited by the new arrivals to come and share in a surplus of milk pudding. Aside from our happy go lucky narrator – we never learn his name – who heads off to the camp with his bowl and spoon the invitation is met with distrust and anxiety.
As I’ve already mentioned, the novel’s tone has a fable or fairytale-like quality. The story is bereft of talking animals and magical items but there’s something deliberately mythic about the Great Field. As I failed to make the historical connection I initially thought these green rolling hills were representative of the afterlife and the sparkling river was a tributary of the Styx. And while that (thankfully) doesn’t turn out to be the case that feeling of the otherworldly, a place so rich and fertile it couldn’t possibly exist in the real world, is maintained throughout. Even when darker events transpire, it still feels like were in Narnia rather than an analogue of the British Isles.
This tonal quality has its strengths and weaknesses. In terms of the strengths, it allows Mills to explore and discuss provocative issues, like immigration, or the environment or the role of religion, without necessarily passing judgement or pushing the reader in a particular direction. While our narrator would like it if people would just get along, it’s more an aspiration than a goal he’s actively seeking. In the same way, the novel doesn’t overtly critique the actions of the original settlers or those who come after. For example the large encampment mentioned above, who I assume are based on the Romans, construct a long narrow ditch that bisects the Great Field. Our narrator, excited to help with the project, sees the ditch as a drainage system to clear the Field when heavy rain falls. However, his compatriots see the large mounds of dirt as a wall, dividing one group of people from another. It’s an argument that’s never resolved. Whether it’s a wall or a drainage system ultimately depends on your view of immigration and the ‘outsider’.
The last third of the novel introduces a religion as a bedraggled man, Hollis, appears one night warning the settlers that if they don’t care for the Great Field it will ultimately be destroyed. This “prophet” is able to form a relationship with those in a position of power and this upsets the fragile harmony of the community. Suddenly, one group of settlers – the remnants of the organised force that left the Great Field when their supply lines became impractical – is singled out as a disruptive element. Their devotion to an ornate and beautiful bathtub, left by our Roman analogue, is seen by Hollis as unnatural. Whether the bath tub is a metaphor for the famed golden cow, or more likely pagan beliefs (like Mithras), it creates a religious divide in the Great Field. Our narrator is clearly less than impressed with Hollis and his religious fervour, and yet I never felt that Mills was critiquing religion (*cough* Christianity *cough*) per se but making the broader point that varied ideologies are a byproduct of people coming together.
My main issue with the book, however, stems from the fairy-tale flavour of the narrative. Because the narrator is so polite, so Enid Blyton-esque in his delivery, it never feels like that there’s anything at stake. Even the introduction of religion, while casting a shadow over the Great Field, is depicted more like a petty squabble between children rather than a threat to the inhabitants of the Great Field. I’m sure this is a deliberate move on the part of Mills. The fact that no-one dies, that there isn’t a single moment of violence, that even acts of sabotage between encampments are childish pranks rather than the actions of terrorists, is in keeping with the tone of the novel. In fact the biggest disappointment our narrator faces is when the “Romans” run out of milk pudding. I’m not arguing that The Field of The Cloth of Gold should have been awash in violence – though it would have made for a stark contrast… a fable that transforms into a Sam Peckinpah film – but there’s something one note about all the twee-ness. The novel needed a bit more crunch, a sense that all these changes – the arrival of invaders, the introduction of religion, the distrust of the ‘other’ – is genuinely going to change The Great Field forever.
Nevertheless this is still an interesting, thoughtful take on a number of thorny issues. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity and I liked how Mills, for the most part, refuses to pass judgement, allowing the reader to make up their own mind.