Sunday, May 15, 2016

The White Company

The White CompanyThe White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle

Most people are familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, yet, according to the afterward of this edition, this book was his personal favorite. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of his. While I enjoyed the tale, overall, it was just a bit too old-fashioned and stereotypically swashbuckling for my taste.

The book is a coming of age story of Alleyne Edricson, a young man who was raised in a monastery, and who leaves at age 20 to “see the world” before he makes a decision to commit to a religious life or not. He meets a bowman, fresh from the wars in France, who befriends him. After Alleyne is rejected by his brother, he decides to follow the bowman back to France in service to Sir Nigel Loring, a brave and chivalrous knight. Many thrilling adventures ensue, and the book ends on a predictably happy ending.

The setting of the book is the year 1366, during The Hundred Years War, in France and Spain. Medieval life is presented rather benignly, without much mention of the hardships of life for the peasants. Only in France do we see the privation endured by those not of noble birth. England is depicted as a bastion of freedom and justice. The battles are portrayed without much gory detail, and are always shown to be opportunities for the ideals of chivalry and bravery, instead of the butchery that they were.

Doyle is clearly enamored by the ‘nobility’ of chivalrous life. Over and over we are treated to Sir Nigel pontificating on opportunities to defend the honor of his wife against a noble opponent. In fact, I found Sir Nigel to be not a little unlike Don Quixote in his outlook. The only difference here is that Sir Nigel faces real opponents, not windmills.

The dialog is stilted, and quite flowery. I kept having flashbacks to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood movie! The story here is just as unrealistic. Not only is Alleyne handsome, he is said to be extremely talented in art, writing, and music. He never flinches from his duty, and basically has no flaws. Sir Nigel is also perfect, and the brave English soldiers are unwavering in their devotion to Sir Nigel and England.

The other thing that bothered me was Doyle’s continual denigration of monks and religion: real men go out and fight noble battles - they don’t stay home behind walls praying and leeching off of society, as monks do. While I am no fan of the church of that era, this simplistic view of what men should aspire to be is more than a little over the top.

I must call out the illustrations of this particular edition, done by the famous N. C. Wyeth. They are rich and beautiful, and are a wonderful addition to the narrative. Simply gorgeous!

Overall, this book is a typical swashbuckler, a la The Three Musketeers or Ivanhoe. Not very realistic, but especially for younger readers it’s probably quite the thrilling tale.

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