Medieval adventure stories seldom get the attention they deserve. Stevenson's The Black Arrow is lost in the shadow of Kidnapped; Twain's almost wholly-forgotten Joan of Arc is marginalized by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Louis L'Amour's The Walking Drum is probably his best novel, and is now barely remembered.
The saddest loss is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company, set in the 100 Years' War and peopled with the kind of freebooters, scoundrels, wenches, knights, and clergy found in Chaucer's Canterbury. It follows Alleyne Edricson through his knighthood, travels and combat with Sir Nigel Loring and the White Company, a band of mercenary archers.
Known for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Challenger, Doyle is at his best here. Balancing rapid narration with an almost tongue-in-cheek Medieval archaic tone, he transports the Middle Ages with all their violence, bawdiness, humor, pain, terror and bizarre superstitions to wherever the reader happens to be.
The plot of The White Company is fairly unimportant. The delight comes from descriptions of English and French armies full of dirty soldiers and flying banners, tender love scenes, chaotic battles, leering bandits, the sound of church bells calling lords and peasants to Holy Mass. We get caught up in the pageantry because Doyle is clearly caught up in it himself.
Books like this are rare. Either the author gets carried away portraying the evils of Medieval society, or he romanticizes it, or he imports a lot of completely irrelevant historical information. Doyle is restrained, giving us enough detail to provide a sense of time and place, and then demonstrating how humanity, in all its splendor and squalor, has changed very little.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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