What "is" the "best" novel of Robert Shea? Opinions differ!
Eric Wagner loved Shike but was a bit disappointed by All Things Are Lights, as he says in the comment for this blog post.
Mike Shea, in this interview, thinks that his father's favorite book probably was Shaman: "I think SHAMAN. He was really into that book. It was a book that let him really dig into the history, drive all over the country, and learn about the subject matter. He never got to do that with his other historical books."
My favorite remains All Things Are Lights (with the caveat that I still haven't read the second Shike novel yet, I will read it in June).
I do have one ally: the late Patricia Monaghan, Shea's widow, who told me in a 2011 email, "All Things are Lights is my favorite of Bob's books."
I told Professor Monaghan that I'm very fond of the book and that I think of it as a kind of prequel to Illuminatus! She wrote back,
"I'm glad you like All Things, which is such a terrific book. You are right in the 'prequel' idea in that Bob's interest in secret societies and such folded over from Ill! to All Things, but there was not direct connection. What drove Bob as an historical novelist was an interest in the underdogs of history, the people who were 'lost' from a historical point of view. (I keep thinking that Saracen should be made into a movie, now, with the rise in interest in the Islamic world--but of course Bob's Muslim characters weren't terrorists! Well...they were...sort of....) The Cathars were persecuted in what was really a land-grab by the French against the Spanish--in Languedoc today, you can still see, in bars, maps of France before and after the 'Albigensian crusade,' which make very clear that France exploded in size after grabbing that land. Bob's last published book, Shaman, looked at the Black Hawk War from the Indian side. That was his way--always to focus on the 'other' in any historical situation."
Here is a brief plot summary for All Things Are Lights: It takes place in the 13th century, mostly in France and in Egypt, with the characters also in Cyprus for a spell, and with brief discussion of offstage doings in other places. It begins in March 1244, with the final stages of the Albigensian Crusade, with the action in the last part of the book taking place during the Seventh Crusade ((1248–1254).
The hero is Roland de Vency, a native of Languedoc in southern France. He's both a troubadour devoted to the notions of courtly love and a knight. He is quite familiar with Islam -- he even has learned Arabic during a sojourn in Sicily -- and he doesn't believe any religion is any better than any other, an unpopular opinion in Catholic France. He gets involved in France's two main crusades for personal reasons and not because he supports the aims of the wars. One of the main characters in the book is a member of the Knights Templar. He becomes Roland's best friend, and the reader learns a lot about the Templars, who are depicted sympathetically. Shea's book has a great villain, the Count de Gobignon, who uses his power to do terrible things, but who in his own mind is perfectly justified: He wants to rid France of heresy. He is thus a stand in for some of the main villains of history, such as Hitler and Stalin.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but in my subjective opinion All Things Are Lights is particularly well plotted. The end of the book has great dramatic tension, with most of the main characters unsure whether they will live or die.
As in Shea's other books, there's plenty of action, the historic scenes are colorful and well-drawn, and there is a strong love/romantic element. The fact that Roland is a troubadour allows Shea to turn up the dial to 11 on the romantic parts of the plot. In fact, the novel states explicitly that courtly love is tied to paganism, and two scenes involving the main romance in the novel are set near pagan sites, in Cyprus and Egypt. And in fact, Shea ties courtly love to sex magick, which in Cosmic Trigger I, Robert Anton Wilson depicts as possibly the main secret of the Illuminati, who have to avoid the attention of the Inquisition, depicted in All Things Are Lights as a major force in medieval France.
This isn't the only idea that ties All Things Are Lights to Illuminatus! The title itself comes from Illuminatus! where Simon Moon says, in a lecture to Joe Malik,
"An Irish Illuminatus of the ninth century, Scotus Ergina, put it very simply -- in five words of course -- when he said Omnia quia sunt, lumina sunt: 'All things that are, are lights.' "
While Shea never uses the "I" word, the Illuminati seem to be referenced pretty clearly in the text of All Things. At one point toward the end of the book, Roland's Templar friend, Guido, shares some important hidden facts with Roland about a secret group within the Knights Templar:
“Solomon’s temple harbors more secrets than you might guess,” said Guido. His voice was so soft that Roland had to strain to hear him. “I have permission to share some of that hidden knowledge with you. Roland, not all Knights Templar are merely what they purport to be. There exists within our order, another, secret order.”
The light filtering in through the narrow window was brighter now, and the prayer callers in the towers of Mansura’s mosques began their cries, reminding Roland that he was the prisoner of people who hated his kind, with good reason, and might at any moment decide to kill him.
Guido’s words made Roland want to draw back. He felt almost reluctant to hear more. He might, he suspected, learn things he would be better off not knowing.
“Guido, are you telling me that you are a heretic?”
In measured tones Guido said, “I am not a heretic. A heretic disagrees with the Church over this or that point of belief. I have left the Church far behind. I gave up everything when I joined the Templars - the little wealth I possessed, the love of women. I vowed to follow the orders of my superiors. I tell you in simple truth that I do not miss my past life. With my fellows, I have known, through the light imparted by my secret order, such bliss as no other Christians - except, I imagine, a few saints - have experienced on this earth.” He gripped Roland’s arm and stared into his eyes with a burning intensity. “Roland, I live in that state now, even as I talk to you.”
Roland looked deeper into his friend’s eyes and realized that what he was seeing was joy.
“You are a troubadour yourself, Guido,” Roland said. “You must know that those who practice courtly love attain the bliss you speak of. But we find it through the love of man and woman, not by giving up love.”
“Of course. But it is also possible to achieve the heights by constraining the appetite for physical love. There is one Light, but we need a window to see it, and in that window are panes of many different colors. Courtly lovers, Templars, Cathars, the masons’ guild, and many others have their representatives in our order. We have even forged secret links among Christians, Moslems, Jews, and men and women of other religions in far-off countries most people have never heard of.”
Roland was astounded. A secret organization of so many different kinds of people spread across the world, yet all sharing the same hidden knowledge of the inner light he had discovered as a troubadour - the vision made his head reel.
The book even has an indirect but clear reference to Discordianism. In Chapter 29, one of the main characters, Nicolette, who is married to the bad guy but the lover of Roland, goes off to an island to mourn after getting bad news. She finds herself in the ruins of an old pagan temple.
"She walked into the circle of columns and dropped to her knees on the marble floor. She looked for and found a carving that she and Roland had talked about the night they came here. It had fallen from the temple roof and showed a naked young man facing three naked women and holding out an apple to one of them. Roland had said the one receiving the apple was the Goddess of Love. She reached out and with her fingertips touched the smooth shoulder of the young man."
The apple is the golden apple of Eris, and the scene apparently depicts the Judgment of Paris, the mythological event that doomed Troy. Paris is completing the beauty contest by handing the apple to Aphrodite, thereby setting off events that will bring about the Trojan War, and creating two implacable enemies for Troy, beauty contest also-rans Hera and Athena.
In his "Historical Illuminatus" novels, Robert Anton Wilson has characters who apparently are ancestors of characters in Illuminatus!
Shea is more subtle, but there's also a possible reference in one of the minor characters. We are told that Roland has a sister named Fiorela, and that she lives in Naples. Roland mentions that she has married well, to "Lorenzo Celino, knight of the Holy Roman Empire. My mother writes that he is a thoroughly virtuous man, which is rare for one of the Emperor’s courtiers.”
Sigismundo Celine is a native of Naples, the main setting of The Earth Will Shake, 1982, Wilson's first novel in the series. All Things Are Lights appeared in 1986. "Celine" strikes me as an Anglization of "Celino." Roland also as a family resemblance to Hagbard Celine; both men are described as dark and with a prominent nose.
If you enjoy All Things Are Lights, you will want to know that Shea's two Saracen novels represent a sequel of sorts; one of the main characters, Simon de Gobignon, is Roland's son. The Saracen novels are set mostly in medieval Italy. In All Things Are Lights, the main Moslem general demand that King Louis promise a 20-year truce with the Moslem world as a condition of being freed, because the general needs time to deal with the Islamic world's main military menace, the Mongols; in Saracen, a flashback scene depicts the Battle of Ain Jalut, which as Shea says in an Historical Afterword in All Things Are Lights was one of the most important battles in world history.