I loved this one. I'm very happy I discovered this pearl by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an author I've come to appreciate after reading all the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novellas available.
I was surprised to read Doyle engaged with a historical novel, and at the depth of his research. Also the writing style is quite different from the elegant, yet very fresh style employed in the Sherlock Holmes stories, it aims to capture the spirit of the time portrayed, which is the earlier part of the Hundred Years War.
This novel centers around four characters, mainly Alleyne Edricson and Sir Nigel Loring, and then the veteran archer Samkin Aylward and freshly recruited John of Hordle. The book is riddled with comic relief scenes, and it's intriguing to see how the author conveyed the medieval feel with impeccable British humor.
The descriptions of the landscape are lavish, rich, masterfully rendered, and those of the scenes, people and objects carefully depicted. I lack the historical background to judge the minutiae, but with a modern word, the world-building is truly compelling and I was amazed at Doyle's writing style versatility. The registry is intentionally archaic, probably to further immerse the reader in the epic of the time, but wholly understandable (just a little galore of thou, art, shalt, fain, rede and the likes, it's never bad to learn new words after all), even for me who read English as a secondary language. It's atmospheric!
The characters are wonderfully stereotyped, in a very clever manner because each integrates with the others to sweep the reader in the English countryside, on-board overloaded vessels, in the lists at Bordeaux, in the war-stricken French countryside until the lands of Spain. Doyle subtly, and none-too-subtly at times, intertwines his own views about classes, the roles of man and women in the society and the widespread inequality between peasants and gentles, highlighting the much more "advanced" philosophy of England (let's state facts, there's still a royal family in the UK) compared with the other rules of the period, and its archery might.
The book mainly follows pious Alleyne, when, being twenty of age, is released to the world from the abbey of Beaulieu as per his deceased sire's will, so he can see the world with his own eyes before committing his life one way of another. Doyle critics the church's tenets, petty rules and conservative attitude which ensnares men in a "narrow, stagnant circle of existence" with a sharp-edged sarcasm, but also through young Alleyne, grown-up but ignorant of the world, presents a colorful society rife with "injustice and violence and the hardness of man to man", where the lights and shadows of life are never clearly divided.
As he travels on, he meets with a motley of characters exacerbating the various aspects of humanity, the good and the bad, and he's soon accompanied by Sir Loring, the steadfast embodiment of the ballads' ideal of chivalry (at least in manner), roguish bear-sized John, still berated by his elder mother and witty, picaresque Aylward, whose vision of the world and manner of speech is a joy from start to end.
The reader learns with the naive protagonist that "what men are and what men profess to be are very wide asunder" and at times, "ignorance may be more precious than wisdom", so not to lose faith in your neighbor by too much cynicism.
The namesake White Company is met way into the second half of the book, but the tale centers around it and eventually the Spanish campaign of prince Edward of England.
The story is interesting, featuring kights, romance, family feuds, feat-of-arms, tilts, romance, battle, bloodshed, military strategies, a little coming-of-age ((view spoiler)) and it's quite fast-paced, even rushed at the end (I felt the last part could have been elaborated further); it's totally, utterly, absolutely hilarious, partial to the "grandeur anglaise" -but it's not impeding, apart probably from the scene of chapter XXIX- and describing human condition with a levity of great quality. Vividly recommended.
"Your Company has been, then, to bow knee before our holy father, the Pope Urban, the prop and centre of Christendom?" asked Alleyne, much interested. "Perchance you have yourself set eyes upon his august face?"
"Twice I saw him," said the archer [Aylward]. "He was a lean little rat of a man, with a scab on his chin. The first time we had five thousand crowns out of him, though he made much ado about it. The second time we asked ten thousand, but it was three days before we could come to terms, and I am of opinion myself that we might have done better by plundering the palace. His chamberlain and cardinals came forth, as I remember, to ask whether we would take seven thousand crowns with his blessing and a plenary absolution, or the ten thousand with his solemn ban by bell, book and candle. We were all of one mind that it was best to have the ten thousand with the curse...."