Pelayo: A Story of the Goth by William Gilmore Simms
(Matt’s Note: I’m currently employed by the William Gilmore Simms Initiatives as a researcher and database specialist. As a part of this work, I’m reading and writing new introductions to a few Simms novels that have been out of print for over 150 years, hoping to bring at least new scholarly attention to them. This is the first of the novels I’m working on, and I’ve just finished reading it. While my critical introduction will be a fairly robust examination of the work, this is, as the title says, a brief commentary, that provides my most general reactions to the book and what Simms is doing in it.)
A flawed novel, with odd bits that read more like an Elizabethan play than prose fiction, and a plot that is at times too complicated, and some really over-the-top scenes. Simms conceived of this work as the first of a two-novel series that would tell of the last days of Gothic Spain, and the sequel was supposed to tie up the complex plot (I’ll be reading the sequel soon). In that, I can cut him some slack. Yet, Pelayo still has its flaws.
Nevertheless, I still find this to be a solid, and in a lot of ways very good, novel. As an adventure story, it’s top-notch. Intriguingly, it works quite well as a “novel of ideas.” Simms seems be trying to take the concepts of the American Revolution and write this novel of Gothic Spain through those , challenging us to think about liberty, good government, justice, and the roles we owe to one another politically, as well. And in doing this, Simms also sets these political ideals against their personal costs, and shows us some deeply complicated characters struggling to act with virtue. The heroes of the work come off as almost myopic in their monomaniacal pursuits of liberty; Simms forces us to ask if their virtues are, in fact, vices. In this, he seems to be channeling an Aristotelian notion of virtue.
An imperfect, though nevertheless interesting and in many ways quite good, novel, that is rarely read today, but would find an audience amongst readers who enjoy the headier, more philosophical types of historical fiction and fantasy. If you’re of one of those types, it’s worth picking up.