Chivalric deeds, bloody battles, bouts with ships, deeds of arms, chevauchées, robber barons and clever archers (Samkin Aylward!!) abound in this nice prequel to The White Company which follows the younger years of Sir Nigel, a minor noble of a house of great renown for the bravery of his knights, now down on its fortune after the premature death of its Lord (whose memory of heroic deeds is humorously capped by a I-slipped-on-a-bar-of soap kind of demise) and plagued by greedy men of the cloth brandishing injunctions like swords.
“Well, well, the law is the law, and if you can use it to hurt, it is still lawful to do so”
The young and stalwart (and broke) squire Nigel dreams to live the life of the true knight, full of justice, honor, loyalty, courtesy and bravery. “Young and hot-headed with wild visions of dashing deeds and knight errantry”, as skilled as candid, Nigel embarks in the adventure of his life and the reader follows him as he encounters his chivalrous warhorse, faces bureaucrat clergy, obstructs petty nobles and promises the love of his life to return after “worshipfully winning worship” following his King and Prince in France, “that land of chivalry and glory, the stage where name and fame were to be”.
From the English countryside to Poitiers, Doyle depicts the society of the time, its customs and particularly the flaws and virtues of its human types, the social inequality, with many parallels to the contemporary world. Although somewhat patronizing, he describes the bickering between “great England and gallant France” with subtle humor and piquant satire and he doesn’t spare the church nor the “men of blood and coat-armor” nor the commoners nor the extreme notions of war as a romantic affair, as the ideals of chivalry celebrated it and of war as mindless butchery waged by people without honor.
“War was a rude game with death for the stake, and the forfeit was always claimed on the one side and paid on the other without doubt or hesitation. Only the knight might be spared, since his ransom made him worth more alive than dead.”
Highly documented, masterfully detailed with a rich prose, the historical research feels accurate and vivid: battles, implements, strategies, tactics, horses, ships, tourneys, arms and armors, furniture, heraldry, venery, finery, but also themes like the decline of the heavy chivalry with the introduction of gunpowder and the first signs of erosion of the superiority of English bowmen, the generational contrasts between older and younger knights or the pragmatic thinking of the lower classes, to whom the nobles and the church with all their pretty speeches and veneer of superiority owe, in the end, their status and means for their sport (at home with levies and taxes, on the field with plunder, violence and levies and taxes).
“Oh, these sordid material things, which come between our dreams and their fulfillment!”
Doyle uses the narrative technique of the omniscient narrator, who recounts the tale from the viewpoint of his contemporary society’s moral achievements, smiling kindly upon the deeds of his ancestors -“the rumor of noble lives, the record of valor and truth, can never die, but lives on in the soul of the people”-, at the bravery and idealism of some as opposed to the ravenous appetites of others, “hares to the strong and wolves to the weak”.
I particularly delighted in the moral conundrum of fighting for honor or fighting for money and the consequences of putting plunder before food, not to mention the humorous happy-go-lucky killing sprees, the pageant-style catwalk show of coats-of-arms, the practice of hurrying ransom prizes to the rear during a battle (or driving a dagger home when the means of a would-be prisoner proved unsatisfactory) and with all of this, the valor of many knights following royalty on the battlefield and Nigel’s restless pursuit of a “chance of knightly venture and honorable advancement”.
"A truce!" Here was an end to all their fine dreams.”
I would advise starting with The White Company nonetheless, foreknowledge of the events doesn't hinder the fun and the epilogue of Sir Nigel assumes having read the other book. In a way, Sir Nigel spoils the ending of the White Company and not the other way about. Also, while this one is pleasant and interesting for the reader who likes a solid historical background on the wars and society of that time, the smaller cast of characters and relatively shorter tale are less engaging than The White Company’s. I struggled a little to keep the rhythm, even if I was more familiar with the writing style and Doyle’s characters, which represent keen caricatures, fitting to the tale and its spirit, but not meant to offer an immersive experience to the reader. At any rate, the shining contrast between Nigel and Aylward (or nobles and commoners) is source of a constant delight, as are the witty remarks of the worldwise Saxon and the (hack and slash) romantic notions of the Norman squire. Definitely recommended to all who liked the White Company.
“And lastly there is a journey that you shall make.”
The man’s face lengthened. “Where you order I must go,” said he; “but I pray you that it is not the Holy Land.”
"Nay," said Nigel; "but it is to a land which is holy to me. You will make your way back to Southampton."
"I know it well. I helped to burn it down some years ago."