Many people neglect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s military and medieval fiction. Prior to this, I have reviewed The Adventures of Gerard, which follows the sometimes grave and sometimes comedic adventures of a French dragoon during the Napoleonic Wars. Now, I turn my attention to Doyle’s romance of the Hundred Years’ War: The White Company. One senses that Doyle immersed himself in the period, both its history and its literature. (In the preface to Sir Nigel, the prequel to this book, he lists some excellent resources on the medieval age.) As far as this medievalist can tell, Doyle makes no factual errors on the equipment, weapons, clothing, economy, or habits of the people.
One does wonder whether he lets some of his ideas about the French Revolution get mixed into his description of the impoverished people of France and their wealthy overlords. However, there can be no doubt that interminable war had reduced the people of France to a sorry state, even if not entirely reminiscent of late 18th century France. One finds the character of the longbow men well delineated. The chivalric attitudes of the nobles drop easily from the mouths of the characters, just as they would have from the knights of old. At the same time, their chivalry adjusts to the real world situations in which they find themselves.
People have the mistaken idea of chivalry as purely artistic invention. One must remember how important honesty and, by extension, honor were in ancient and medieval times. Holding true to standards of chivalry stood as the easiest way to advance in the esteem of one’s fellows. Sure, chivalry came about by the Church and romantic authors attempting to circumscribe the lords’ martial vigor and lust for glory by the light of the Catholic faith. But, the upper classes had fondly taken up these ideals by the time of the Hundred Years’ War. Indeed, chivalry predominated as the martial ideal until its influence petered out on the bloody fields of Dixie in the 19th century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of medieval nobility stands as the most accurate you will come across outside of the pages of Sir Walter Scott and is more readable besides.
The White Company follows Allan, a cloister-bred young man, in his journey outside of his abbey’s walls. His father had requested that Allan be permitted one year to see the world in order to decide whether he wishes to remain within the abbey or enter the world. This journey leads to him being betrayed by his only brother, meeting two stalwart friends (one of whom is an exile from the same abbey), and entering the wars in France under the banner of Sir Nigel Lorring. The adventure constantly becomes more compelling as he fights brigands, then pirates on the high seas, and lastly enlists in a deadly campaign to secure King Pedro of Spain, an ally of the Black Prince, on the throne.
The reader is in for a real treat. The action is almost non-stop, and the characters are vivid and varied. Doyle’s portraits of King Edward III, the Black Prince, Sir John Chandos, and others will stick with me as I read the history of the Hundred Years’ War. I can see a lover of fantasy, historical fiction, or medieval romances happily picking up this book. The only things which detracted from my enjoyment were the attacks on the contemplative life. It is treated as a dull, unmanly, and self-serving manner of living. An active life in the world is treated as more joyful and full of service. Indeed, the whole novel asks the question of which is better: a prayerful, contemplative life or an active life of chivalry. In Doyle’s opinion, women bring out more of man’s finer qualities than God! Still The White Company is a thrilling historical read.