Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ronald Welch – Knight Crusader (1954)

This was a book which I had very fond childhood memories of, which, I discovered upon investigation, is now a collector’s item – I had to get a university library copy. The narrative follows the journey to manhood of Philip d’Aubigny, a young noble in twelfth-century ‘Outremer’ (the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, conquered in the First Crusade). Philip undergoes challenges involving clashes with the forces of Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), capture, encounters with the Assassins and with his own countrymen in the struggle between Richard and John.

This was a work well worth revisiting (and, incidentally, one which won the Carnegie Medal in the year of its publication). Welch’s depiction of the intricate history of the Crusaders during this period is fascinating and evocative without being dry, avoiding the danger of the text seeming a vehicle for the history. Landscape and architecture, in particular, are strengths – I found myself researching, for example, Krak des Chevaliers.

For a work written in 1954, the religious and racial politics are very progressive – Welch finds much to admire in the people and civilisation of the ‘Infidel,’ while the Crusaders themselves, and English society, are by no means presented in a rosy light. This is not to say that the Crusades, and the world of medieval chivalry, are not presented in a romantic light – reading the book, I remembered the childhood allure that that society had held for me, rather than the clichéd boys-own fantasies with which this milieu mostly seems to be associated (though that spirit of hardy adventure is alive and kicking in this work, in which there are essentially no women whatsoever). But the romance is tempered with a noticeable dose of realism – the reader may be reminded of other works such as the battle scenes in C. S. Lewis’s The Horse And His Boy, or T. H. White’s The Sword In The Stone (the first part of his wonderful and neglected book, The Once and Future King). As in the latter work, as well as valiant heroism, there is moving tragedy here, too.

Perhaps my only criticism is that Philip himself is one of those characters who rarely if ever puts a foot wrong, praised by all, virtuous and courageous, and ultimately successful in all his endeavours. Although his character develops to some extent over the course of the novel – which develops episodically, dealing with the major events in Philip’s early life, rather than in a strictly continuous narrative -one wishes that he would show a little more humanity, that his experiences would make of him a more complex character. Nonetheless, Knight Crusader was a work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and one which has a great deal to offer in terms of atmosphere, history and sheer storytelling punch.

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