Friday, November 21, 2014

The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Like Ivanhoe’s rowdy cousin
This historical adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was originally published in 1891. The story takes place in 1366 and is loosely based on a real-life company of mercenaries known as the White Company. This novel of knights and chivalry goes to show what most readers of classic adventure literature already know: never underestimate the influence of Sir Walter Scott. Like almost every other novelist prior to World War II, Conan Doyle owes a big debt to Scott’s historical novels. Some scenes here, like a jousting match and an archery contest, feel almost as if lifted directly from Scott’s Ivanhoe, yet Conan Doyle puts his own signature stamp on the subject matter, and in many qualities this work of the student surpasses those of the master.

At the Cistercian Abbey of Beaulieu, in Hampshire, England, one of the monks, Brother John of Hordle, is expelled from the order for some shamefully randy behavior involving wine and women. Simultaneously, Alleyne Edricson, an orphaned youth who has been raised and educated at the Abbey, having reached twenty years of age, is sent forth from this sheltered environment to make his way in the world. This odd couple meets up with a third traveler, Samkin Aylward, a career military man, who informs them of a company of soldiers that will be voyaging to France in search of fortune and glory. The trio sets off in search of Sir Nigel Loring, the noble knight who commands this hardy band.

Besides Sherlock Holmes, Sir Nigel is one of Conan Doyle’s most memorable and lovable characters. This valiant soldier, renowned for his skill and bravery, possesses the short stature, bald pate, and dwindling eyesight of Mr. Magoo. He’s always on the lookout for ways to “advance” himself, meaning any duels to fight, maidens to rescue, or suicide missions to undertake that will contribute to his legendary reputation. Conan Doyle beautifully captures the rough-and-tumble world of these itinerant swordsmen and archers, with a sense of humor that’s much more appealing than Scott’s propensity for overly poetic romanticism.

One thing the novel is lacking is an overarching quest that might serve to unify the book into a cohesive whole. It reads more like a comic book series than a novel. The heroes drift from adventure to adventure, supporting characters come and go, but there’s no single compelling mission that must be accomplished. The soldiers spend most of the novel marching off to war, but it isn’t until the last few chapters that the reader really figures out who they’ll be fighting and what they’re fighting for. Conan Doyle expects his readers to be familiar with the complex political situation of the 14th century, and provides little historical context or explanation. At times he commits the sin so common to Scott: too much atmosphere and not enough plot. He heaps on the local color by the shovel-load, creating a vivid period atmosphere, but is it really necessary to know the life story of every peasant the adventurers pass on the road? The battle scenes are exciting, brutal, and at times surprisingly gory, but they are few and far between.

Ivanhoe may be a more innovative, profound, and important work of literature, but The White Company is simply more fun and entertaining. If you’re in the mood for a rollicking tale of knights and chivalry, this is one of the best examples out there. And if you like this one, Conan Doyle also published a prequel, entitled Sir Nigel, in 1906.

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