Géza Gárdonyi's 1899 novel 'Eclipse of the Crescent Moon' is, according to a recent survey, Hungary`s best loved book. It is a story of romance, courage, dastardly villains and deeds of daring - a boisterous, `Boys Own` style tale.
The Siege of Eger - bronze relief at castle entrance
Hollywood could make a thrilling, big budget, Braveheart-esque movie out of this, it has been adapted for the screen twice, once in 1923 and again in1968.
The Hungarian title is `Egri Csillagok` which literally translates as `Eger`s Stars`, but, wisely I think, the translator opted for the title `Eclipse of the Crescent Moon`
It is also a novel that would probably be consigned to the bargain bin were it not for one detail: `Eclipse of the Crescent Moon` takes place against the backdrop of one of the most celebrated episodes in Hungarian history, the 1552 siege of Eger Castle.
The Ottomans were sweeping all before them as they advanced into Europe.
That was before they reached the small border fortress of Eger in October of 1552. Sources give varying accounts as to the size of the Turkish force but it is thought to have numbered around 40000.
Including peasants, women and children, the Eger garrison was barely 2000 strong. A true David-Goliath clash.
Expecting an easy victory, the besiegers launched attack after attack but to no avail and after 25 days they withdrew.(For a more detailed account of the siege, please go here)
Admittedly, it was not because they had been beaten, but because they felt it was too risky to overwinter in Hungary; on their journey to Eger, they had adopted a policy of `slash and burn`, thus destroying any hope they had of living off the countryside. They had no option but to break off the attack and retire to a safe haven.
That is the history that lies behind the novel.
The characters are also based on historical figures, Gergely Bornemissza, the leading protagonist, was an officer during the actual siege. Little is known of him, but Gárdonyi builds him a story as he does with all the actors in the story.
The main plot concerns a love affair between Bornemissza and a certain Cecey Éva over a 25 year period.
He is the son of an impoverished, single mother, she the daughter of a wealthy landowner. They survive being captured by the Turks, Éva`s betrothal to another man, a botched attempt to free her father from prison in Istanbul, the kidnapping of their son and the siege of Eger.
The`Eclipse of the Crescent Moon` is, as is plain to see from the above plot synopsis, an adventure romance and fans of the genre will just eat this up.
For the `lay` reader, however, it is the second half that interests. An account of the preparations for the siege and the actual siege itself, it displays a high degree of historical accuracy.
Reading the`Eclipse of the Crescent Moon` before you come to Eger (or while you`re here), really adds to the visit, in fact, I would go so far as to say it is an absolute necessity.
Wandering around the castle walls with the evocative descriptions of Gardonyi`s prose ringing in your ears makes what would be a rather sterile experience, very rewarding.
To those readers who have visited Eger or are planning to visit Eger, `Eclipse of the Crescent Moon` is an interesting and captivating read. But it cannot be said to have literary merit.
Those with no interest in Eger might enjoy the exciting story; it is, after all, a ripping yarn, vividly told, with all the elements of a story of its type but so are a million and one books and many of them are better written than this.
In short then, if you have any connection with Eger or Hungary, then I highly recommend this book.