Thursday, September 4, 2014

"Be brave and pure, fearless to the strong and humble to the weak."

It's well-known that Arthur Conan Doyle didn't want to write as many Sherlock Holmes stories as he did--he tired of the Great Detective and, besides, all the furor over Holmes was taking attention away from his historical novels. It was these that Doyle was most proud of.

And with good reason. The White Company (1891), for instance, is absolutely epic.

It's set during the years 1366/67, right smack in the middle of the Hundred Years War--in which England and France are fighting over control of France. The novel's protagonist, though, isn't a soldier. At least not at first.

Alleyne Edricson was the younger son of a nobleman who had been raised in a monastery. As the novel opens, we learn that he would just as soon stay there--content with a quiet life of religious observance. But part of the deal his now-dead father had made was that he would go out into the world for a year before making a final decision.

This leads Alleyne into adventure, war, danger, and the constant threat of death. He turns out to be pretty good at that sort of thing.

Doyle builds both his characterizations and his plot logically and effectively. Soon, various circumstances result in Alleyne serving as a squire to Sir Nigel Loring, a knight who is traveling to France to take command of three hundred archers known as the White Company. By now, we've also met an expert bowman named Samkin Aylward and a big guy known as Hordle John--two men who become Alleyne's best friends and
companions in adventure.

Doyle makes all of these characters seem real, giving them vivid personalities and believable motivations. Sir Nigel is especially notable--a small man getting on in years and with weak eyesight, he's still the best swordsman in Europe and he represents the best aspects of chivalry--always eager to gain honor in combat, but conscious of his duty to his king, his country and those who serve under him. A less talented author would have turned Sir Nigel into a wooden stereotype. Doyle presents him to us as a living, breathing person who just happens to be an epic hero. My favorite knight would still have to be Sir Roger de Tourneville, but Sir Nigel gives him a run for his money. It's a pretty close call.

Nigel's also got a beautiful, tempestuous and intelligent daughter. Alleyne falls in love with her, which means he'll have to prove himself to be worthy of knighthood before he can ask her hand in marriage. He'll get plenty of opportunities.

About two-thirds of the novel consists of Sir Nigel and his companions traveling to France to meet up with the White Company, but they have plenty of adventures along the way, including a fight against a pair of pirate ships while crossing the Channel and the desperate defense of a castle keep against a blood-mad band of peasants.

But as wonderfully exciting as all that is, nothing that comes before matches the battle scene that comes at the novel's climax. The White Company, greatly outnumbered, defends a hill against an overwhelming force of French and Spanish troops. It is one of the most intense and thrilling battle sequences I've ever read.

There's a lot of other aspects to the novel that make it so good. Colorful supporting characters; moments of true humor; small vignettes that give us a panorama of 14th Century life on many levels; prose that uses archaic grammar and is peppered with obscure words, but still flows along smoothly and is often a joy to read.

So I don't blame Doyle at all for saying that The White Company was worth 100 Holmes stories. I don't agree--I'm not sure Doyle ever fully appreciated just how awesome Sherlock Holmes is. But his historical novels should also be remembered fondly. They are the stuff that legends are made of.

You can access the novel online HERE.

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