Thursday, August 2, 2012

Conan Doyle's The White Company

Of all the genres in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (and he wrote in just about all of them from science fiction to gothic horror) it was historical fiction in which he considered he had done his finest work. It was Sherlock Holmes who made him a household name but it was books like The White Company for which he hoped to be remembered.

The White Company was published in 1891 and was an immediate success. It remained extremely popular for many years. True devotees of historical fiction are inclined to think that perhaps Conan Doyle wasn’t so far from the mark in his fondness for his works in this genre.

In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny brought about a temporary cessation of hostilities in the Hundred Years’ War. It left large numbers of soldiers of various nationalities more or less unemployed and many of them banded together in free companies. These free companies fought as mercenaries but many were no better than well-organised gangs of bandits. The most famous by far was The White Company. Under Sir John Hawkwood they hired themselves out, very successfully, as condottieri in the wars in Italy.

Conan Doyle’s novel was inspired rather loosely by the adventures of the real-life White Company but shifts the scene of action to Spain. The idea is that part of the White Company was left behind in the English-occupied parts of France and spent their time merrily pillaging and plundering whilst awaiting the arrival of a new commander, Sir Nigel Loring.

The White Company and Sir Nigel Loring are not however the book’s initial focus. Conan Doyle’s story begins in the Cistercian Abbey at Beaulieu where two novices leave the order, for very different reasons. Hordle John is thrown out of the order while the departure of Alleyne, regarded as a very promising novice, is a source of great regret to the Abbot. 

Alleyne, through whose eyes the events of the books are seen (although it is actually narrated in the third person) is the brother of the Socman of Minstead. His is a very old and distinguished family now fallen on somewhat hard times. Alleyne’s father had made a rather curious will. Alleyne was to be brought up by the monks but upon reaching his twentieth year he was to spend a year in the outside world before making his choice between the monastic life and the secular world.

That time has now come and Alleyne, a good-natured and rather pious young man, sets off to find his brother. He is rather shocked by life outside the cloisters but soon finds himself with two travelling companions who are destined to play a very large part in his life. One is the aforementioned Hordle John, a hot-tempered but fundamentally decent giant of a man. The other is Samkin Aylward, a tough old English archer and a member of the White Company, who has been despatched to England with a message to Sir Nigel Loring inviting him to take command of the remnant of the company.

Aylward has little trouble in persuading Hordle John to return to France with him to take up the life of a member of the famous free company. He makes the same offer to Alleyne who initially refuses, but after the meeting with his brother goes very badly indeed Alleyne decides to accept the offer as well.

Sir Nigel Loring turns out to be a very remarkable character indeed, a small middle-aged balding man who is nonetheless one of the fiercest fighters in Christendom. He is also a man of very high chivalric ideals, and a man of considerable if rather eccentric charm. He is happy to take the command but he has no intention of leading a rabble of freebooters. He intends to offer his sword once again to Edward, the Black Prince. Loring had served the prince at the great battle of Poitiers and his devotion to the prince knows no bounds. The Black Prince is about to embark on another bold adventure, to restore Don Pedro to the throne of Castile.

On their way to join the Black Prince Sir Nigel and his followers (a small troop of men-at-arms and archers that now includes Sam Aylward and Hordle John with Alleyne acting as squire to the famous knight) will encounter many adventures and it is this journey that comprises the bulk of the book. They will, amongst other things, battle pirates and find themselves in the middle of a peasant uprising. When they finally reach Spain the White Company will find itself fighting for its very survival against overwhelming odds.

In real life the Black Prince’s Spanish venture would have unhappy consequences. Pedro, known as Pedro the Cruel, was a bad king and the entire campaign turned out to be an exercise in futility since Pedro was no sooner restored to his throne than he was murdered. One of the interesting features of the novel is that it avoids taking an overly patriotic or excessively pro-English point of view. The devastation that English armies wrought on the French countryside and the viciousness of the free companies are not glossed over. The Black Prince was, sad to say, one of the pioneers of the concept of total war and his methods left a trail of misery behind them, a point Conan Doyle also does not attempt to evade. Conan Doyle does not try to disguise the basic cynicism of the Black Prince’s Castilian adventure and Pedro is portrayed as a particularly nasty piece of work.

Conan Doyle had an unsurpassed gift for creating extraordinary larger-than-life characters whose faults are as fascinating as their virtues and Sir Nigel Loring is one of his greatest creations. Loring is certainly a valiant and virtuous hero but at times it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Conan Doyle is rather gently mocking him and his obsession with chivalry. As the novel makes clear, idealistic views of chivalry all too often come up against brutal realities. That’s not to say that the tone of the book is cynical. Sir Nigel is an admirable character and if at times he is being gently mocked it is done with affection. Sir Nigel is at times almost like Don Quixote - he thinks he sees a brave knight on a great warhorse approaching with whom he can contend for honour but it usually just turns out to be a peaceable merchant on a mule. Sir Nigel’s eyesight is not what it was!

Conan Doyle also does his best to capture the more naïve aspects of the medieval mindset - even tough grizzled old warriors are only too willing to believe fake holy men with  bogus relics to sell. It never seems to occur to them that if every nail from the True Cross that is offered for sale were real than the cross must have had many many thousands of nails! The medieval world encompassed both extreme violence and extreme piety and a kind of child-like innocence that went hand-in-glove with greed and cynicism. Maybe the novel doesn’t show us the Middle Ages as they really were but it does show us another world, a world where people’s motivations are very different from our own. Even if it’s the Middle Ages as legend it’s a vivid and fascinating picture, and perhaps the Middle Ages of the imagination is preferable to the Middle Ages of reality.

There is action aplenty, there is some sly humour and there is friendship and camaraderie, and there is love, both of the courtly variety and of the more profane variety. There is heroism and there is villainy and there are characters who combine both attributes in an uneasy mixture.

This is one of the great classics of historical fiction and it’s a must-read for any lover of the genre.

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