Maurice Druon was a French resistance hero, a Knight of the British Empire and a holder of the Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur. He was also a member of the Académie française and a celebrated novelist, best known for his series of seven historical novels under the title of The Accursed Kings, which were twice adapted for television. A passionate Anglophile, he was a great expert on all things English, including its medieval history, which provides great inspiration for the series. His many and diverse fans include George RR Martin, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin.
Maurice Druon aged 90 just a few days before his 91st birthday - image copyright of Pure People
A fitting tribute (in French) using the title of his final (and previously untranslated) volume of 'Les Rois Maudits' can be found here
Inducted as an 'Immortal' by the Académie Française here
Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur - image provided by Les Tresors du Musée
An affectionate cartoon of Maurice Druon by blogist - Alain Roche
From The Guardian - 5th April 2013
With its epic tale of battles and betrayals, The Accursed Kings shows why Druon is France's best historical novelist since Alexandre Dumas.
I never met Maurice Druon, alas (he died only a few years ago in 2009, and I regret that I never had the chance to shake his hand), but from all reports he was an extraordinary man. He was French, highly distinguished, a resistance fighter against the Nazis, a historian, a member of the French academy, a knight of the British Empire. You can read about his life on Wikipedia, and it makes quite a story in itself.
He wrote contemporary novels, short stories, a history of Paris and an amazing seven-volume series about King Philip IV of France, his sons and daughters, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, the roots of the hundred years war. The books were a huge success in France. So huge that they have formed the basis for two television series (neither is available dubbed or subtitled in English, to my annoyance) which are sometimes referred to as "the French I, Claudius". I think Druon is France's best historical novelist since Alexandre Dumas, père.
The English translations … well, the seventh volume has never been translated into English, and the first six are long out of print, available only in dusty hardcovers and tattered paperbacks from rare book dealers found on AbeBooks. But that's about to change, thanks to my own British publisher, HarperCollins, who are bringing The Accursed Kings back into print at long last.
The Accursed Kings has it all: iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin and swords, the doom of a great dynasty and all of it (or most of it) straight from the pages of history. And believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets. Whether you're a history buff or a fantasy fan, Druon's epic will keep you turning pages: it is the original game of thrones.
Novelist and co-author of the Chant des Partisans, adopted as the anthem of the French resistance
On 6 June 1944, General Charles de Gaulle announced to the French people on the BBC that the liberation was under way. His broadcast was followed by the stirring melody of the famous Chant des Partisans, a song just a year old, but one that had already become the unofficial anthem of the French resistance. Its haunting lyrics were co-authored by the French novelist Maurice Druon, who has died aged 90.
One Sunday afternoon in May 1943, at the Ashdown Park hotel in Surrey - an establishment much frequented by French exiles in London - Druon and his uncle Joseph Kessel had written the song's five verses, putting them to a melody they had heard sung in London by the Russian-born French cabaret singer Anna Marly.
It opens: "Friend, do you hear the dark flight of the crows over our plains? Friend, do you hear the dulled cries of the country in chains?" ["Ami, entends-tu le vol noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines? Ami, entends-tu les cris sourds du pays qu'on enchaîne?"]
The words were taken back to France and published in the resistance press. The theme tune was also whistled twice a day over the BBC to introduce the Free French radio programme Honneur et Patrie (one of the whistlers being Druon). It was first recorded by the singer Germaine Sablon for a propaganda film made by the director Alberto Cavalcanti, who was working in London for the Crown Film Unit. Soon it became widely known from its first line, "Ami, entends-tu?". To whistle a few bars in occupied France was to make a political statement. It has been recorded many times since, by singers ranging from Yves Montand to Johnny Hallyday.
Druon was born in Paris. He never knew his father, Lazare Kessel, a promising actor of Jewish Russian descent who committed suicide at the age of 20, when Maurice was two. His mother, also an actor, married the wealthy bourgeois René Druon de Reyniac, who brought him up as his own son in Normandy.
Although occasionally taken to see his Russian grandmother, Druon had little contact with his real father's family until his late teens, when he was taken in by his uncle, Joseph Kessel, a hard-drinking, womanising adventurer, earning his living as a journalist and novelist. He had been inconsolable at his brother's death, and he encouraged his nephew's literary ambitions, introducing him to the Paris literary scene. In 1938, Maurice married Geneviève Gregh, daughter of the poet Fernand Gregh, a former friend and classmate of Marcel Proust.
In 1940 Druon served in the cavalry. Demobilised after France's defeat, he joined his uncle on the Côte d'Azur. By 1941, they had both become involved in the resistance, but Kessel was too famous and indiscreet for his activities to remain unobserved, so they escaped across the Spanish border in December 1942, accompanied by Sablon, Kessel's mistress at the time. Having reached London via Portugal, they put themselves at the service of de Gaulle's Free French. Druon worked for Honneur et Patrie, while Kessel wrote in 1943 one of the most famous novels of resistance, L'Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows).
That same year, on a visit to London, one of the resistance leaders, Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie (whom Kessel had met 10 years earlier when both were being treated for drug addiction), suggested that Kessel and Druon might write a kind of resistance anthem. The Chant des Partisans was the result.
After the war, Druon embarked on a successful literary career, partly freeing himself from his uncle, whose personality was more wild and bohemian than his own. The first novel in his trilogy, Les Grandes Familles, won the coveted Prix Goncourt in 1948. Its account of the bitter rivalries within a family of industrialists in interwar France and its merciless depiction of the selfishness and ruthlessness of the bourgeoisie reflect Druon's broadly left-wing sympathies at this time.
He became increasingly conservative, however, and this is partly reflected in his six-volume historical novel sequence, Les Rois Maudits (The Accursed Kings), written between 1955 and 1960. It narrates the travails of the French monarchy in the period leading up to the hundred years war. If this monument tof middle brow storytelling had a message, it would be the very Gaullist idea that France needed strong leadership. In 1972, the series was made into a hugely successful television drama. Six years earlier, Druon was elected to the Académie française.
Although he was not really a political figure, Druon's status as a historic Gaullist, and his celebrity as a writer, prompted the Gaullist president Georges Pompidou to appoint him minister of culture in April 1973. This was a period when France was still deeply affected by the memory of the events of May 1968. Druon, now an establishment figure, immediately caused outrage in intellectual and artistic circles by announcing he was not going to subsidise artists with subversive intentions - "with a begging bowl in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other". He was unfairly accused of wanting to impose censorship. When Pompidou was replaced by the centrist Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in May 1974, Druon was dropped from the government. He continued a brief political career, as a deputy for Paris (1978-81) and a member of the European parliament (1979-80).
After 1980, he abandoned formal politics and devoted himself to being a grand old man of French letters as perpetual secretary of the Académie française (1985-99). He remained ardently committed to a vision of Gaullism as a moral inspiration rather than a concrete policy - "a reference for France for 100 years and perhaps more", as he once put it. One of the obsessions of his later years was the defence of the French language, but this did not stop him from being in some respects a kind of romantic Anglophile. One of the first pieces he published after the war had regretted that Churchill's famous proposal for a Franco-British union had not been adopted by the French government in 1940. He deplored British policy in the EU, but remained, like many former members of the Free French, eternally grateful for the role played by Britain during the war.
When the ashes of the resistance leader Jean Moulin were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris in 1964, the Chant des Partisans was solemnly played at the end of the ceremony. It has been officially inscribed by the French government as one of the three French national anthems along with the Marseillaise and the Chant du Depart. Druon reports that Kessel had said to him on the day they finished composing the lyrics: "You know, that is perhaps all that will remain of us." That may be true, but it means that, like Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, composer of the Marseillaise, the name of Druon will never be forgotten.
He is survived by his second wife, Madeleine Marignac, whom he married in 1968. Maurice Samuel Roger Charles Druon (Kessel), novelist, born 23 April 1918; died 14 April 2009
By Ben Milne BBC News Magazine 4th April 2014
TV series Game of Thrones - about to begin its fourth series - is frequently compared to fantasy creations such as the Lord of the Rings, but it owes an equally large debt to a cult French historical novelist.
Game of Thrones is "fantasy". The TV series, and the books on which it's based, A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, is set in mythical Westeros.
In the north, a massive wall of ice keeps out barbarian "wildlings" and zombie-like "white walkers". South of the wall, there's a bitter war between rival claimants for the Iron Throne and rule of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. Meanwhile, a princess (Daenerys), exiled to distant lands, is raising three dragons, and has rallied an army of freed slaves.
But Game of Thrones is full of intense political intrigue and gruesome deaths. War and its aftermath are described in brutal detail. Characters have sexual relationships, and sometimes even heroes die unexpectedly. Strip away the supernatural elements, and what is left looks more like a historical saga, chronicling all-too-human conflict.
Martin says one of his main inspirations was not fantasy, but a series of novels set in medieval France, little known or read in the English language. Les Rois Maudits (The Accursed Kings) was written by Maurice Druon between the mid-1950s and the 1970s. It's a seven-volume saga chronicling the dynastic fight for the French throne in the early part of the 14th Century, culminating in the Hundred Years War.
"The Accursed Kings has it all," writes Martin, in an introduction to a recently reissued translation. "Believe me, the Starks and the Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and Plantagenets. It is the original game of thrones."
Start reading The Accursed Kings, and the parallels become clear. Westeros has far more in common with Druon's depiction of medieval France, than it does with JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth. Both are feudal worlds, where power is determined by intrigue during peacetime, and bloody retribution during war. In the French court described by Druon, the words of a Martin character ring true: "Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
The Accursed Kings begins in 1314, the last year of Philip IV's reign. The king has crushed the powerful order of the Knights Templar and seized their riches. As the last head of the Templars is burned at the stake - condemned as a heretic on trumped-up charges - he utters an awful curse against the men who have sent him to his fate: "Accursed! Accursed! You shall be accursed to the thirteenth generation of your lines!"
Philip dies soon after, and his family is left to squabble for succession. In A Game of Thrones and The Accursed Kings, there are strikingly similar casts - a feeble but sadistic prince (Louis in the French book, Joffrey in Martin's) a vengeful princess (Isabella, Cersei), and competing Machiavellian schemers (Robert of Artois, Littlefinger). With both writers, the reader navigates the complicated plot through the viewpoints of less powerful figures, caught up in the wake of events.
"They're both epic novels which are character-driven," says Marc Denjean, a French admirer of Druon. "In A Game of Thrones, he [Martin] constructs a big political plot while Druon gets his from history, but in both situations, you're seeing history through the eye of small people."
Putting the two works side by side highlights how Martin's books have become, as some put it, "fantasy books for people who don't usually like fantasy". Martin's technique could be described as historical mash-up - the war between the Starks and the Lannisters resembles the War of the Roses, the Dothraki tribe - into which Daenerys is married at the beginning of the sequence - is akin to Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, while the Ironborn warriors have much in common with the Vikings. And the Wall of Westeros brings to mind either Hadrian's Wall or the Antonine Wall in northern Britain.
It's like history - but with the added suspense of not knowing who will win or lose. This element of Martin's work has gained him the admiration of some historians. "Different events - and different periods - elide to consistently potent and surprising effect. In Game of Thrones, episodes from the history of our own world lie in wait for the characters like booby traps," writes Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire, about the series.
For others, Game of Thrones has itself been a gateway into historical study. US writer Jamie Adair was inspired to begin the History Behind Game of Thrones blog. "To be honest I only expected to get a couple of blog posts out of it," he says (it's now about 180 pages long). "I didn't think the novels had that many historical parallels besides a few obvious ones with the War of the Roses.
"I keep writing the blog because it challenges me to explore new areas of history and look at it in different ways. For example, before the blog, I never would have chosen to read about siege warfare in the ancient world… but I end up seeing different patterns in history as a result."
Maurice Druon, who died in 2009, is barely known in the English-speaking world, but he enjoyed a considerable reputation as a man of letters in his home country. During World War Two he served under Charles de Gaulle and penned the patriotic anthem Chant Des Partisans. Later in life, he became head of the Academie Francaise, the august body which decides what is and what isn't allowed in the French language. Druon was staunchly against the creeping Anglicisation of French, although he apparently approved the words "tweed" and "birdie" into French dictionaries.
When Druon died in 2009, it was these achievements on which obituarists focused, not his historical saga - which seems to have been as Druon wished. "Les Rois Maudits was written to make money very quickly," says the Independent's French correspondent John Lichfield. "He himself was not very proud of it." Lichfield knew Druon, who he describes as "a sweet, generous, humorous man" who was also an ardent Anglophile. "He was someone who you came across a lot in English receptions at the embassy."
Denjean says that Les Rois Maudits passed from cult to mainstream success with a screen adaptation in the early 70s - a sort of French equivalent to I, Claudius. "It was a primetime TV show - these were the days when you had one or two channels and everyone would watch together." Druon was also among the approved list of French novelists approved in the USSR at that time. Later, Vladimir Putin was an admirer of Druon, meeting him several times.
Druon's books have waned in popularity even in France in recent years, according to Lichfield. "I wonder how many French Game of Thrones fans have even heard of him," he says. But history may be coming full circle. The Accursed Kings sequence is being reissued in English translation, complete with Martin's introduction. It may be that Druon will find a whole new audience on the recommendation of the writer his books influenced.
Page updated 17th September 2015