So, he is alive, with the monks, protecting “the relic”. The Englishman was here, in Ireland, although I thought I got rid of him, once and for all, five years ago. I thanked my luck when he left Constantinople, his presence disturbed and irritated me. When I left that city for England, to offer my respects to the king, I found out that he was there, making trouble. Nevertheless, I decided to use his presence for my own advantage. I told the king that one of his brother’s men was inciting his people to rebellion, saying that King Richard Lion Heart was alive. I remembered his majesty that one of the many pretenders to the throne could use his testimony to brand him as unlawful usurper. I know who this “traitor” was; there were not many crusaders, survivors of the third, with a big black cross tattooed in the back. I warned king John, Dugald accompanied the soldiers and pointed at him. He was captured. But the king has failed me. He told me that everything was settled, but he lied. Of course, he thought that to abandon him in a small boat, without food nor water, with the flesh of his back whipped to the bone would be as good as to kill him without passing the sentence. The king has not been the only one to fail me, those painted beasts also. I gave them precise instructions: Fournier and the Englishman should die, the relic stolen. The other monks could live, I did not care for them.

I feel rage grow inside me. The bastard babe-slayer, as I called him that night in Constantinople, can ruin everything. I’ve worked so hard for his, all my life. I changed my destiny with my own hands. There can only be one Baron de Merville, our property cannot be divided. It is the custom that all goes to the elder brother, and the second is destined to the church. In our case it was my father who decided who was the older between my twin brother and myself. When questioned, the terrified midwife said she couldn’t say who saw the light first, covered with blood and mucosity as we were. She made a knot to our umbilical cords, but had to help also my mother. It was not an easy delivery; she had a heavy haemorrhage and was too busy trying not to die, she couldn’t care less about birthright those moments. Therefore, once cleaned and bathed, my father had to decide who would be the heir, and he chose Guy. On seeing me, he said that all that black hair in the head of a new born was surely a sign of the evil, and that dedicating my life to God I will clean, not only the original sin, but also that touch of evil in me. Poor father, equanimity has never been his forte. Thus, as my father thought me wicked even when I wasn’t, I decided to prove him right. For him I was only Guy’s corrupt copy. He was kind and generous as I was rude and selfish. Although we were identical, the pale blue of my brother’s eyes were, according to the baron, clear and bright, while mine were unsettling. His smile broad and honest, while I could only smirk, and his nose straight and noble, while mine menacing as a bird of prey’s peak.

We went to Ireland when we were boys. Growing up, my brother proved also meek and coward. How would he as Baron of Merville hold the lands that my father conquered with fire and steel? But he was not weak to my father’s eyes, of course. I was condemned to study my prayers and my Latin while he trained, without success. I was as good with books as he with swords. When I was fourteen I decided to settle the matter, once and for all. Despite our differences, my brother and I shared a passion: hunting. A dangerous sport. I confess it was not easy to prepare the accident. My father was particularly over anxious with everything concerning his favourite son. I managed, during a moment of distraction, to loosen his horse’s belts. I challenged him to a race inside the woods chasing a fox. As I expected, after a few jumps over some scattered trunks he fell from his horse. Providence lent me also a hand: he broke his neck on falling, although I had my dagger in my hand when I approached him, just in case I had to help him with the passing.

My mother did not put up with the mourning, and she followed his son a little time afterwards. Poor stupid thing as she was, I think she felt I had something to do with the business, and she always looked scared to death near me. My father spent a fortune in masses for Guy, started to use a hair shirt and to confess daily. The day of the burial he summoned me: “Raymond” – he said – “I will not deny you what’s yours by right, I will never cover the family with shame. But know that the very day you come to age you will not receive a single coin for me for your maintenance. When I die everything will be yours. Not before. Prove me that you deserve the name of Baron de Merville”.

I didn’t even argue his decision, I expected it. I went back to Rouen, and lived with some relatives. I considered the next crusade (there will always be another crusade) as my only chance to make fortune. Most of the knights searched in crusades money and recognition, but died in the East, or returned crippled and poor. I wouldn’t be one of them. I joined the flood of French knights headed to Venice, where we waited to embark. It took quite a long time to the pope and the Serenissima to establish the terms of the agreement, the amount of money that we were supposed to get and never received, and the number of galleys that would take us to the East.

I met him in Venice. He had a name, and a voice, there. An Englishman, knight of King Richard Lion Heart. He hoped to find him -or his body- near Jerusalem. But we were not headed to the holy city. Politics and religion make strange allies, and instead of fighting the infidel in Jerusalem we were to help the deposed king of the Byzantines to retake his throne. That was real good news to me. Constantinople busted with gold, and I wanted my share. I needed as much as I could get to achieve what I had in mind.

Things went better than I expected. The Englishman proved an excellent warrior. When we entered Constantinople we sacked together the house of a certain Genovese merchant, rich as Craessus. He seemed possessed by a demon. I took also that paste that he got from the Syrian merchant, much less than the amount he swallowed-up, anyway. It just quieted the bites of hunger in my stomach and gave me a little bit of euphoria, but it didn’t change me. I guess that the drug only liberates your real self. The Englishman reputes himself a knight, noble as King Arthur, but he is a monster, actually. I know that’s what I am. I’ve heard it all my lifetime.

The morning after, when the effect of the drug vanished, I did not remember him what he did in that house. I let him live in his righteous lie, condemning me from his high pedestal of chivalry values every time I stole gold, commerced with false relics, or sold prisoners as slaves. But one night, I made him face reality when we were playing dice: “your lucky will be over soon, you bastard babe-slayer”. How beautiful that moment was. The horror in his eyes, the abyss when he remembered everything: the red pulp of a child’s brain staining a wall that was white before we destroyed that family. I heard that he left the city some weeks later. I had to stay six more months in that shit hole before I got the money I needed to return to my dear father Baron de Merville with a small army of my own, richer than he will ever be. I’ve spent the last five years proving him to deserve my title, enduring his hypocrisy and cowardice, the masses before and after every manslaughter, trying to clean up his soul. It’s so easy to gain absolution: send a coffer filled with gold to the holy father, and he will send you back a nice parchment, sealed with lead and wax, pardoning you all sins imaginable. My father has not realised that the king of England is our only possible ally and protector. Not God. Who can not care less of us.

When I heard about Friar Geraldus’ mission I offered myself to escort him and the “relic” to Rome. With a small detour in England, hosted by king John. I’m sure Geraldus would have made a mess at the beginning, but not for long. I was determined to let him the glory of having convinced king John of England to deliver the holy relic to Saint Matthias to pope Innocence III.

I should be headed to the English court now. I’m not supposed to be here, hunting three monks and a “mute” in the bogs. If only he had died when he had to.

This is the backstory I have imagined for Raymond de Merville in his own words. It’s related with the previous post, the backstory of the Mute. I have placed it, in the timeline of “Pilgrimage”, when Raymond and his men are chasing the monks and the mute in the forest.

The mute

poster copy BW no words

– Tell me: how does a man without a tongue confess his sins?

– We pray for him

I have a tongue, but I don’t speak. Should I open my mouth I’d scream, or go mad. Perhaps I’d return to the sea to let the ocean swallow me up. I can’t speak, I won’t do it, not until the very end. Indeed, it is a very pleasant thing to have good people praying for me. Raymond has always had the skill to read any situation on the spot. To know people. I thought, a long time ago, that I could do it also, but I was wrong. I thought I knew him. I trusted him, although only in the very beginning of our acquittance. I even thought, waiting to embark in Venice, that we were alike, but we are not. Otherwise he’d also scream, or bit his tongue. He would, if he believed. Although all the things that I have seen I still believe in God. How can, a man like me? I don’t know. I stand on my knees for hours, and I let Friar Ciàran prayers fall upon me. He has also seen the evil, he’s hold the sword but nevertheless, he can speak. Because he has not done what I did. What would they all think of me? Would young Diarmuid still tell me about the soul of the razor-shell if he knew that once I plucked a babe by the legs as he plucked that mollusc and dashed his brains off against a wall while his mother screamed just as long as it took Raymond to cut her throat? A family of Genovese merchants. Theirs was the only house still intact in the centre of Constantinople.

I’ve tried to justify the deed, afterwards. We were hungry, pillage was the only way to get the money we were promised. I was confused. During the siege of the city the food was scarce and I cheated hunger chewing a sticky paste. One of the many Syrian merchants that fluttered around our camp had a reputation for obtaining the impossible. I asked him to find ašīš; I saw the Nizaris transformed by it during the other crusade. I swallowed all I had left when the walls of the city collapsed. I’d not need it any more. But I forgot everything. It was Raymond who made me remember. Two weeks later. We were playing dice, I was winning all the games.

“Your luck will be over soon, you bastard babe slayer” – he said in his bad English with Norman “r”s. I think I got pale. As pale as could become my face burned by the Eastern sun. I knew he was right as soon as he said it.

“You forgot?” – he continued, turning his head, looking innocently at me. I remember his blue eyes, that smirk and that false expression of candid innocence. “Apologies, Englishman. But I must say that you scared me that night”. He lifted the tiny wooden barrel containing the dice. He threw. “Double six! Bon, my luck is changing, finally”. The last sound I heard leaving that tavern was his laughter.

I cursed Raymond for reminding me of the babe. He knew that my mind had wiped out everything, but he kept it for himself until the appropriate moment arrived. I could not stand his company as much as I did before, in Venice, or during the siege. He was trying desperately to make as much money as he could, he repeated that he needed it to pay a group of armed men of his own, that he would need them back in Ireland. He disappeared for days with a strange-looking priest, searching for gold. He commerced with false relics, sold prisoners as slaves. I always reputed myself better than he, nobler, braver. He could not stand my haughty looks, my contempt towards him and he revenged the best way he could: putting me in front of the evidence. I wasn’t better than he.

The following days I tried to make terms with that part of me, and I made my living as a hired sword. When there’s a king to depose there’re many feuds to settle. It was necessary to wipe out the followers of the old usurper. I am good at killing, I made that for years. Those days it gave a new thrill to me. I took a certain pleasure to take away the life of someone that could defend himself: beat, thrust, slash, and then the next. One night the subject in my list escaped, and I chased him near the harbour. He entered a small house, I could hear him hiding in a tiny room, trying his best to conceal his breath, speaking to someone. I stormed into: a woman cried, she was holding a child in her arms, and I froze. It could have been easy for me to kill the man and let the woman go. Even when he took the baby from her arms and threatened to kill it.

“As if that would stop me” – I said. I left the room, the house and the city. I embarked in the first ship to Europe and after two months in Venice I returned to England. I still talked, those days, but very little. And when I opened my mouth it was to say that king Richard Lion Heart was alive and that he would return from the East to claim his kingdom. I knew it was a lie but people would believe anything they wanted. The friars that what we are carrying in that coffer burns infidels. I knew it was the lighting during the storm that made the reliquary hot. And that the water of that small river was not haunted by a bad fairy. When I returned to England people wanted king Richard, and I gave them that illusion. But some dreams do not last long. I was imprisoned by king John’s orders, my atonement finally began. I thanked every whiplash, every punch. When there was very little left of me they didn’t know if I was telling the truth about Richard. I never confessed. Therefore the king, afraid that his brother may return, and knowing that I was close to him during the third crusade, decided to let me live… If I survived the ocean, the hunger and the thirst.

I look different now. In Constantinople my nose was straight, my hair short and I shaved whenever I could; but I know that Raymond and Dougald had recognised me. Every time they look at me, and after what he has told me after cutting the hands of the poachers, I’m beginning to understand why I’m here. And why God has crossed our paths again. I just have to wait, I’m sure that Raymond will offer me the chance to make His will. My will.

I wrote in my Pilgrimage review that I’d have liked to learn more about Raymond and the mute. I have placed this monologue of the mute, in the film timeline, right after Raymond faces the mute for the first time. I’ve written in a previous post not to write fiction in English any more. But this came to my head in English. My apologies for the mistakes.

Raymond the desired

After waiting patiently two years (my “Pilgrimage” folder in my HD is dated June 2015 – no comment), I have been able to watch the movie. I wonder if the DVD would ever have been released if Tom Holland were not the new Spiderman. Whatever the reason, finally this film has been released, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

This is my very personal review of the film, full of spoilers.

The triumphal entry of Raymond de Merville in the film

Pope Innocence III has ordered a cistercian monk (Stanley Webber) to bring to Rome a sacred relic kept in a distant Irish monastery. The pilgrimage of this group of monks will reveal itself full of perils, not only from the gaelic natives, but also from the Norman knights deputied for their protection. The group from the monastery is formed by three friars, a young novice (Tom Holland), and a “converso” (John Bernthal), that arrived to the community five years before in mysterious circumstances.

In Jamie Hannigan’s script there’s small room for surprises. As soon as Raymond de Merville, the Norman knight, appears on screen, we know that the monks’ pilgrimage is condemned to failure. Should this be an opera, when Raymond takes off the helmet in his first scene, the movement would have been accompanied by sombre string and brass notes, as those of Scarpia in Tosca.

Even if we don’t give importance to the fact that when the novice surprises Raymond flying a messenger pigeon he over reacts (the following challenge of the mute in the novice’s defence anticipates their final epic fight), it is obvious that, when Raymond disappears just in time to avoid an ambush in the forest by the same celtic tribe he’s supposed to chase, he’s the deus-ex-machina of the attack. Nevertheless, in my opinion, if the predictability of the plot can be a weakness for many, it is not for me. The mania in recent years for twisted plots and surprises may result in a unintelligible chaos full of gaps and plot holes. Better to tell a “simple” story well than trying to build an Inception-like plot without success.

The author has chosen to leave the backstory of the characters untold, but I think that the relationship between Raymond and the Mute would have deserved more space. It has been hinted with very few but powerful lines, but unfortunately without any previous knowledge of what was the Constantinople siege during the fourth crusade those lines are less effective.

Luckily for me I have still fresh in mind a reading of some months ago, Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, the story of a knight belonging to the king Federico Barbarossa’s retinue. The protagonist witnesses the most important historical facts during is long life, including Constantinople’s siege. The fourth crusade and this siege were characterised by relics’ commerce and its utmost cruelty.

The crusaders pillaged the city, trying to take by the force all the money that they were promised but, as usually happen in medieval wars, not paid. We all know that crusades were a bloody business, as Ridley Scott showed in his film, or for instance, the ghastly episode of the so-called Children’s Crusade. The fourth crusade and Constantinople’s siege added to the usual amount of cruelty the fact that, although the excuse was, as for the previous ones, the retake of Jerusalem, the first result was the taking of the Christian city of Zara and then was decided to destitute the head of the bizyantine empire in Constantinople. It was not a fight against Muslims, but Christians, with the ultimate objective to pillage as much as possible. As Raymond says when referring to the strange tool he will use to torture one of the monks:

“I got this from a priest in Constantinople. A strange man. He used it to persuade the Greeks to tell us where they’ve hidden all of their gold from their churches”


There was other method apart from direct robbery to make money: to pillage the relics hold in the city’s churches, or directly to create them. This is a paragraph of Eco’s “Baudolino” (the poor translation is mine)

That’s not a bad idea – said Boidi – you go into cemeteries and you find Saint Paul’s chin, perhaps not the head but Saint John the Baptist’s left arm, and so on, the remains of Saint Agatha, Saint Lawrence, those of the prophets Daniel, Samuel and Isaiah, Saint Helen’s skull, a piece of the Apostle Philip head.

Not only that – said Pevere, eager for what was to come – you only have to dig deeper and you find a piece of Bethlem’s manger, a tiny tiny piece, just not to realise where it comes from.

We will make relics as never seen before – said the Poet – but we’ll also remake those existing already, because prices of those known go up and up.

We know that Raymond was in Constantinople, and that he witnessed probably the commerce and creation of sacred relics. Some as improbable as a flask of Virgin Mary’s milk, the thorns of Christ’s crown, fragments of his cloak, skulls, limbs or organs of many apostles, saints and prophets.

No wonder that when greeting Friar Geraldus he asks him if he has taken his “souvenir”, later he will define the coffer containing the relic a “pretty box”, and when he learns the story of the precious relic (the stone that dashed off Saint Matthias’ brains and that burned afterwards all the pagans that touched it) he only says full of sceptical sarcasm: 

Raymond knows that most probably that is not the very stone that killed the saint, but acknowledges its value: it’s believed that it is. Therefore, when his plan to stole the relic to offer it to king John in order to “blackmail” with it the Pope himself is aborted by the mute, he knows he can replace it with any other rock in Ireland:

Even if we don’t find the relic another stone will do. We’ll put it in a pretty box and people will accept it. Even a king. Or a pope.

but not as long as the group of monks remain alive. Chances are simple: if they give up the stone they live because they can grant for its authenticity; otherwise, they must die.

What is Raymond backstory apart from what we know? Perhaps some years before he joined the crusaders in Venice (the sponsor of the crusade) while his father remained in Ireland to conquer gaelic territory and when he returned, years later, he was “damaged goods”. He got, during that fight, not only scars on his face, but also on his soul. The aim of that sacred venture was reduced to the end to manslaughter, serial rape, and massive killing of Greek Christians and European merchants. When he returned, transformed in a ruthless war machine, he despised his father for his “easy life” and cowardice. But he found was also despised by the men who remained in Ireland and do not recognise him any more. Raymond will revenge of all of them. Fournier, faithful to his father, will fall during the orchestrated ambush of the Celtic warriors. His father, that has become a coward who wants to obtain the salvation of his soul by donating “that rock” to the Pope, in his plans will be defeated and mocked by his own despicable son. No wonder also, being Raymond the archetypal villain that he is, that he is loyal to that wicked king John of the Robin Hood saga (following Guy of Gisborne’s footsteps 😉 ).

The biggest mystery in Pilgrimage is the mute played by John Bernthal. According to friar Ciàran, the herbalist (played wonderfully by John Lynch: the most authentic “tortured person” ever seen on screen), he arrived to the monastery five summers before, in a small boat without food nor water, and has never spoken a word. It is his body that speaks for him: strong, muscular, with a big cross tattooed in his back, that is also full of scars.

Tom Holland, Richard Armitage and John Bernthal. Original screenshot released by producer.

Raymond and his men recognise him. The knight pretends not to be sure where he has seen him, but I think he recognises him on the spot. Perhaps the mute was a veteran of the third crusade, the so-called Crusade of the Kings, and was loyal to Richard Lion Heart. Maybe his differences with Raymond began in Venice, the gathering departing port of the fourth crusade, and the conflict arrived to its peak in Constantinople. Which were the sins that, according to Raymond, the mute had to expiate?

Why was he stranded in the Irish coast, too shocked to utter a word and with his back covered by whip scars? I’d like to think that he opposed in Constantinople not also to Raymond’s loyalty to King John, but also to his methods. One thing was to fight by the side of the Lion Heart against Saladdin’s soldiers, and other to cut merchants’ throats, rape their daughters and destroy Christian churches in Constantinople.

The conflict between the cistercian monk (Stanley Webber) and the novice is more evident in the film. To return to Umberto Eco, Fra Geraldus is a mix of the diehard Bernardo Guy, and the fanatic Jorge the Venerable. Geraldus is a strong believer of the official militant church of those days. To him, there’s only one truth, there’s only one vision of the Church and God. There’s room only for piety, not for pity: the pope wants the relic, and he will have it, no matter what it takes. He will sacrifice without a second thought friar Ciàran and the mute. Or even the novice, when he gets in his way, and eventually himself, dragged to the bottom of the Irish sea by his own fanaticism.

Fra Geraldus’ single-minded fanatic view of religion will open the eyes of the novice. The herbalist, a father-figure for him as William of Baskerville was for Adso (Umberto Eco looms again and again throughout this story), will sacrifice his life for all of them, dying with the name of Christ in his lips. It will take few days for the novice to open his eyes: the sight of Geraldus’ fanaticism destroying also his close-friend, the Mute, is more than he can bear. When the last of the monks die wounded by the arrow of one of Raymond’s men, he realises that the rock that he has carried through the forest and the bog is nothing but a dead weight far away from what Christianity really is: the religion of the honest sacrifice of the herbalist and the simple life in the small monastery by the sea in the far west of the known world, not that of kings, soldiers and the pope of Rome.

Pilgrimage is a highly enjoyable film: the cast is perfect for every role, and all the actors make an incredible work. Richard Armitage plays the perfect villain, cynical and ruthless: he has a goal and he does everything to achieve it. The use he makes of the English language accentuates what Raymond is: an alien. Still no Englishman but no longer a Norman from Rouen, someone that has seen what man can be at his worse and that he accepts and supports it in order to achieve his goal: power and recognition for his family.

John Bernthal plays the soldier with post traumatic disorder with great skill; the mute is not an easy role to play and he does it without following the easy path of an exaggerated histrionics. The untold story of the mute is in John Bernthal’s eyes. And he nails it.

Tom Holland, the novice, is the look of the audience, that faces the cruelty of the medieval ages for the first time: the punishment of poachers that fish in Baron of Merville’s lands, the ambush of the Celts to the monks and the final duel between Sir Raymond and the mute. The violent ambush in the forest is useful to understand the mute as a deathly war machine.

The score is brilliant, and the Irish landscape a protagonist by itself. The big issue of this film is that 90 minutes are definitely too few, and prevent the transformation of this Pilgrimage from enjoyable to epic. I can imagine what this story could have been with double budget and thirty more minutes of footage. But with the same actors; I doubt this story would have been told so well with a different cast.