Friday, March 13, 2015

Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

An underwhelming prequel to The White Company
Sir Nigel, a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was originally published in 1906. It is a prequel to his 1891 novel The White Company. Here we learn how Sir Nigel Loring, one of the most beloved characters from that earlier work, became a knight in the first place. Readers of The White Company will recognize many of the same characters, including the indefatigable archer Samkin Aylward, the formidable knight Sir John Chandos, and the virtuous Lady Mary Buttesthorne. You should definitely read the two stories in publication order rather than in chronological order, because Sir Nigel contains some spoilers that give away the ending of The White Company.

The story of Sir Nigel opens in 1350, during the Hundred Years’ War. Nigel Loring is the son of a celebrated knight, but since his parents’ deaths the family has fallen on hard times. Nigel lives with his grandmother in Tilford Manor, in Surrey. They continually face persecution by the monks of a nearby abbey who are constantly trying to steal their land, either through lawsuits or just plain encroachment. Nigel desires to follow in his father’s footsteps by seeking knightly honor in the service of the king. He becomes a squire to Sir John Chandos, and accompanies him on an expedition to France. Before departing on his quest, Nigel makes a vow to perform three valorous deeds of honor.

Thus the novel promises us at least a trio of satisfying action sequences, and for the most part it delivers on that promise. The problem is that in between Nigel’s honorable feats lie some pretty tedious scenes of talk and more talk. If you are looking for a novel that captures the romantic charm of this chivalrous age, nobody does it better than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The atmosphere he creates in The White Company and Sir Nigel is more engaging and entertaining, at least for modern readers, than even the celebrated works of Sir Walter Scott. The problem with this book, however, is that while it’s crammed with atmosphere, the plot feels underwhelmingly slow and sparse. The first seven or eight chapters of the book, before Nigel sets out on his life-changing journey, are quite boring. It’s like sitting through the umpteenth variation of Spider-Man’s origin story when all you want is to see him fight Dr. Octopus. The fact that Nigel sleeps through the book’s first major battle doesn’t help either. Also, because this is a historical novel, Conan Doyle feels the need to introduce dozens of real-life knights into the proceedings, often distracting from the adventures of the title character.

Something else that’s missing from this book is the sense of humor so prevalent in The White Company. In that book, Sir Nigel was an elder knight, who exhibited some of the comic characteristics of Mr. Magoo. In this novel, he is an earnest young man coming of age, which is harder to make fun of. As a result, with the exception of a few violent scenes, it often reads as young adult literature, like something that might be serialized in Boys’ Life magazine.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this novel is all bad. There are some exciting and memorable scenes here, including jousts, naval battles, and the storming of castles. Overall, however, I found it inferior to The White Company and thus somewhat of a disappointment. Still, a mediocre book by Conan Doyle is probably superior to 90% of what’s available today in this genre.

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