WHILE the Oz and Doctor Dolittle books were passionate favorites and a series about Freddy the Pig by Walter R. Brooks was admired even more, the most influential books of my childhood were two fat volumes in heavily varnished, drab library bindings, one a child's history of France, the other the story of England.

I forget their titles but I repeatedly checked them out from the public library and spent hours devouring their contents. This was history organized by reign -- Edward was a good king and Mary a bad queen and that sort of thing -- but it was really history as romantic escapism: knights, turreted castles, treachery, tournaments, Agincourt and Cr,ecy, the Oriflamme and St. Denis, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the Princes in the Tower, the Dauphin in the Temple.

Today I intellectually know it was Whig history, Protestant in bias, but open my heart and it will say Calais and Aquitaine belongs to the Plantagents and Marie de Medici was too evil for words, not to mention the Duc de Guise. And down deep I also know that the barons of Runnymede once gathered in my backyard in Dubuque, Iowa, where I too signed Magna Carta, just before I went on the Crusades.