December 06, 2003

The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle is remembered for Sherlock Holmes, but it's his historical novels--and this one chief among them--that he really loved. I'd heard about The White Company for years before I ever actually found a copy on-line. I was immediately enchanted.

That was some years ago, and since then I'd been looking for a paperback edition to no avail. It seems the book isn't very popular, which is a shame. I finally located a library edition, in hardcover with a library binding and illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. It was expensive, but it was worth it, for this is seriously good stuff.

It is the time of the Hundred Years War. When William Duke of Normandy defeated the Saxons to become King of England, he didn't relinquish his French territory. And often enough his successors not only attempted to expand English holdings in France, they tried to take the French crown as well. The war dragged on for a century, with occasional fits of peace, and it is during one of these that our story takes place.

It is the tale of a young man who has been raised in a monastery from his earliest days. He's just turned twenty, and though he loves the cloister his father's arrangement with the monks is that he must spend the next year in the world before he can elect to become a monk and dwell in the cloister all of his days. (His father was clearly a man of sense.) He immediately falls in with interesting folks, and shortly, to his surprise, his finds himself squire to the famous (if impoverished) knight Sir Nigel Loring. With Sir Nigel he travels to France, for Sir Nigel is going there to take command of a troop called the White Company and lead them into battle in Spain for England and Prince Edward.

Let me tell you, if you want knights in armor, and chivalry, and tournaments, and all that sort of high-flown thing this is the book for you. More than that, it's a celebration of the manly virtues: honor, honesty, stoicism, courage, and similar things American society would do well to rediscover.

It is a tad anti-clerical--monks, friars, and so forth are described in no very admirable terms--whereas Sir Nigel and his fellow knights are (for the most part) described in glowing terms with every sign of sincerity. There are good monks, certainly, and knights who fail to achieve every knightly virtue, but it seems clear where Doyle's sympathies lie. And so I was interested to read in an afterword that indeed, Doyle had given up on religion as a moral foundation for society, and he honestly favored a return to the knightly virtues as a replacement. Amazing.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 6, 2003 07:52 PM