Medieval adventure stories seldom get the attention they deserve. Stevenson'sThe Black Arrowislost in the shadow ofKidnapped; Twain's almost wholly-forgottenJoan of Arcismarginalized byThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Louis L'Amour'sThe Walking Drumisprobably his best novel, and is now barely remembered.
The saddest loss is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle'sThe 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 ofThe White Companyis 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, orhe romanticizes it, orhe imports a lot of completely irrelevanthistorical information. Doyleis restrained, giving us enough detail toprovide a sense of time and place, and then demonstrating how humanity, in all its splendor and squalor, has changed very little.
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