Deus Lo Volt!

What Evan S. Connell has produced in Deus Lo Volt!: Chronicle of the Crusades is neither quite a chronicle nor, despite what its dust jacket indicates, a novel. Rather, Connell draws upon an extensive variety of medieval accounts written by participants or witnesses. He melds the tone of these into a coherent story supposedly written by an historical personage, Jean de Joinville, sometime in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. The result is, therefore, not exactly fiction, nor traditional historiography, and clearly not reportage.

On a purely mechanical level, Connell’s work touches on the postmodern obsession with the writing process itself, the elusive nature of truth, and how what one deems true depends upon perspective. For example, Pope Urban II at Clermont, France, in calling for the First Crusade gave rise to the refrain which became the battle-cry of the crusaders as well as the title of Connell’s narrative: Deus lo volt! (“The Lord wants it”). It is a frightening thought that any benevolent deity would will the slaughter and pain of the crusades, yet Muslims as well as Christians are equally convinced that they do their God’s will when they fight.

The historical sources from which Connell draws, though primarily Christian, differ markedly. Anna Comnena’s Alexiad (1148), a panegyric account of her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I, figures prominently, but there are many others as well: Fulcher of Chartes, Raymond of Argiles are two of these. These chroniclers appear through the paraphrase of Jean de Joinville, so their own perspectives acquire a further removal from events themselves.

Readers who know Connell’s writing from his immensely popular novels Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969) will probably be surprised at the weightiness of this work. There is none of the romantic lyricism of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (1581; Eng. trans. Jerusalem Delivered, 1560-1635), though many of its epic personalities appear in an intriguing but not quite historical light.