The first thing that came to your mind while watching or reading the last two installments of "The Lord of the Rings" probably was not, "I wonder what the historical basis for this is?"
Much has been made of J.R.R. Tolkien's experiences in World War I as the emotional basis for his famed trilogy. But it should be remembered that this Catholic student of medieval history would consider the Battle of Chalons in 451 A.D. - when a massive makeshift coalition of Western forces led by a charismatic Roman general turned back Attila's voracious tide of Huns and barbarians - as a central event in the history of Western Civilization, as, indeed, it was.
Of course, since little is known about the details of the battle - estimates of the numbers of participants and casualties, for instance, vary tenfold between the ancient chroniclers and modern revisionists - it's possible that Tolkien's work had at least some influence on William Dietrich's latest novel, "The Scourge of God."
After all, the book is centered on a fellowship that includes a dwarf on a mission to save civilization and ends with an epic battle against the forces of darkness.
Dietrich, who scored big with "Hadrian's Wall," a novel of the Roman Empire in decline with a sympathetic portrayal of the British and Irish "barbarians," is far less ambiguous here. While giving nuance to Attila's character and creating a fictional Hun who has strong qualities but is still a man of his time and heritage, Dietrich also is highly critical of the flaws of the Roman Empire, Still, he leaves no doubt which side stands for any chance of progress for the human race.
Like "Hadrian's Wall," a star-crossed romance lies at the heart of "The Scourge of God." Young Jonas Alabanda, a scribe from Constantinople, is sent on a mission ostensibly to meet with Attila and negotiate a lower tribute than he has demanded.
One of Jonas' companions, however, has plans to assassinate the Hun warlord, and when the plot is revealed, Jonas finds himself a hostage in the barbarian camp. This gives him a chance to stay close to Ilana, a beautiful young Roman captive who has been promised to Skilla, the passionate young nephew of one of Attila's top lieutenants.
Aided by Zerco, a dwarf jester who plays the fool while gathering information for the Romans, Jonas plans to steal Attila's motivational talisman - a huge sword he claims as a gift from the ancient Roman gods - and make a daring escape (while rescuing Ilana, of course) to warn Rome of Attila's invasion plans.
The fictional parts of "Scourge" are not quite as good as those in "Hadrian's Wall," and having much of the action once again precipitated by a romance may strike some readers as Dietrich going to the well too often.
On the other hand, Jonas' transformation from scholar to warrior is convincing (and a bit Frodo-like), Ilana is a courageous and winning character, Zerco has unexpected depth, and the conflict between Jonas and Skilla takes an illuminating turn.
Dietrich does the best he can to fill in history's blanks, and the results seem a logical in most cases. His portrayal of Attila seems right; the raving, mindless beast of some tales could hardly have assembled the coalition of armies that threatened Rome.
Novels set in the Roman Empire have formed a thriving subgenre since the success of "Gladiator," and Dietrich has a place at the top of the heap. While lots of war novels and techno-thrillers posit a scenario where civilization hangs in the balance, Dietrich's "The Scourge of God" gives us a compelling narrative of a time when it really did.