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Sword of Zornhau

Past Lives: Ronald Welch's "Knight Crusader"

I remember – was it thirty years ago? - I was first up the ladder at Lanstephan Castle.

I remember too, the Old Man of the Mountain as he ordered a follower to jump from the heights, for no better reason than to prove the power of the Assassins.

And, I remember the Horns of Hattin. That day, I yearned for drink, but tasted only dust. My sword spilled the blood of Emirs, but it was a Turkish sherbet offered to a prisoner that quenched my thirst.

Thank you Ronald Welch.

Written by a soldier, "Knight Crusader" puts you there, in the shoes - saddle, more like - of Sir Philip de Aubigny of Blanche Garde.

Yes, like in "Eagle of the Ninth", the research has dated. He treats us to a long discourse on "banded mail", the full-faced bucket helms are probably fifty years too hi-tech, the use of a barrier in tournament is a tad precocious. God help me, Philip learns to lunge (!) from a Greek (!) fencing master, and medieval martial arts, for the most part, are dismissed as a matter of grunting and bashing. But, like Rosemary Sutcliff, he was using the best information he had to hand.

Yes, unlike in Eagle of the Ninth, you'll search in vain for women with agency, or religion, except where they are unavoidable parts of the landscape. This is a boy's book about a man's world, so we must forgive Welch the former sin. The latter, though, is harder to understand. In a novel about crusaders, not once does Philip reflect on his soul, or console himself that his father fell fighting the Infidel, and thus is assured a place in Heaven. Worse, he undergoes knighting, without keeping vigil in a church... the omission of which can only be deliberate. Contrast this with the personal piety of Marcus in "Eagle of the Ninth".

Even so, I'd rate this book as the equal of Rosemary Sutcliff's magnum opus. It sweeps from the Holy Land to Wales through a gritty, sweaty, world that feels so very real but also so very alien. The knights think like knights; pragmatic, but not quite soldiers. The barons vie for power like politicians, but driven by dynasty and religion, rather than party and doctrine. The fighting is brutal, just short of entrail-clutching, with characters dying on screen, and a dagger fight at the end in which nobody tells the hero, "Don't kill him, that'll make you as bad as him." (Philip wouldn't have heard him anyway; he was too busy hacking away at the other guy's mailed throat.)

Most of all, Ronald Welch does not question or improve on the period.

There's no hint of post-imperialism or liberalism... tensions exist between ruler and subject, masters beat servants, but things are as they are. And yet, people pay the price of their culture and accordingly die in droves. All is change. Welch does not yearn for a golden age that never was.

Beyond that, the books simply belong to different sub genres. Where Sutcliff gave us an intense but lyrical adventure story, two comrades against a landscape, Welch weaves a military story with armies clashing at the end of long chains of logistics, and the handling of your men being as important as the handling of your sword – I wonder if Bernard Cornwall read him?

So comparison is illuminating, but ultimately pointless. I count myself lucky to have read both books when I did, and fortunate that I can share them with my son.

They both beat the hell out of "That's not my tractor..." One nice thing about children is that they do grow up.

More blog entries at www.mharoldpage.com

Comments

I'm startled by your comparison on the grounds of portrayal of female characters. I loved Rosemary Sutcliff's novels - my childhood imagination spent quite a lot of time inhabiting them - but my main gripe with her is the total lack of memorable female characters. Aquila's wife in "The lantern Bearers" and the Queen and her daughter in "Mark of the Horse Lord" come nearest, but never caught my imagination the same way as the minor male characters {compare Brychan and Conn from the above two novels, to see what I mean.

Meanwhile, I recommend "Pagan's Crusade" by Catherine Jinks as a good, modern tale of the fall of Jerusalem from the point of view of a teenage protagonist {Pagan is 14 year old, Palestinian Christian and ex- Jerusalem city guard). It gets right both what the religion was, and what it wasn't.
Niether book has female protagonists. However, Eagle of the Ninth has well-drawn strong females as part of its plot, and part of the character's world. You could erase all the women from Knight Crusader, and the plot would be utterly unaffected.
Well-drawn, strong female characters in "Eagle of the Ninth"? Pity they never made any impression on me then, either then, or now, in retrospect. Sad, isn't it. Women integral to the plot, granted.

Also acknowledged, anything set AT the Crusades has its work cut out to include women! "The Talisman" by Scott manages it, though. The ornate style is now very out of fashion, but it's an old favourite of mine - and major early influence [sighs fondly].
Believe it or not, the Roman Legions weren't co-ed.
Have you even read "The Eagle of the Ninth" jordan179?

Since our hero, Marcus, is invalided out of the legions by the end of the opening chapters, legion composition is hardly relevant!

He spends most of the book looking for the Eagle of the Ninth legion amongst the wild Celtic tribes, who are most definitely co-ed. [And since the Ninth is the famous 'Lost Legion', don't expect them to turn up, either.]

And the above is, of course, ignoring the fact that the Roman legions in Britain, like most pre-modern professional armies, particularly on long postings, maintained an associated unofficial support organisation, which grew up around their forts to supply the material comfort of the men. The normal term of service was twenty-five years and they weren't celibate.

Or are you implying that there can only be a "strong, memorable female character" if she is in uniform?

Go read the book...

Do so before the film. I'd be very interested in your take on it.

I think you might also enjoy Knight Crusader, but I'm afraid the second hand copies tend to cost a fortune.
As I recall from 1st year Mediaeval History, there is evidence of noble women, not just camp followers, at Crusades. There is, for instance, a record somewhere of Saracens launching a raid and being pinned down by a woman in a green gown with a bow. They were so horrified by this affront to God and nature that she was instantly beheaded when captured. Also depends on which Crusading period we're talking about.
Good point. If you can remember the reference I'd be interested in following it up.
>anything set AT the Crusades has its work cut out to include women!

Knight Crusader had plenty of politics - a surprising amount, actually, for a children's book - at which women also played. Also, women historically acted as patrons. I'm not saying you could have had a central femal character, but they could have at least had roles.
I don't think I could pick up a 'touchy-feely' childrens book without feeling a littel squicky....
I hope it is only "my little tractor" that you are referring to!

I don't think I read any book like that as a child. [Which probably explains a lot.]
At the top of the book, it says it's a 'touchy-feely' book.

Your little tractor is not my concern either ;)

(Anonymous)

I think there is any hope for the tractor book; it stands convicted by its own confession. I was trying to save the rest of this thread from the charge of guilt by association.

They are tactile, and much enjoyed by both child and hormone-drenched parent alike. It is, however, a relief to inhale the crisp air of the Middle Ages.
My kids had a ducky book that possessed a squeaker under the front cover. I was ever so glad when they outgrew the squeaky duck book!
Heh. I think all childrens books should be told like Susan Sto Helit would tell them: "And the Jack chopped down the beanstalk adding ecological vandalism and murder to the charges of enticement, fraud and burglary previously mentioned. . ."

I've always wanted to write a crusader book, I mean yes they were for the most part awful evil people but they're just so fascinating.

So, how did Kurtzhau take it?
Do you not think you're judging an entirely different epoch by your own moral sdtandards? I really don't think you can accuse the Crusaders of being 'awful and evil' with any validity anymore than you can describe the Turks who overran Constantinople in that way.
I said for the most the part, things like the atrocities at Jerusalem tend to speak for themselves. Would you say that I was judging an entirely different epoch by mine own moral standards if I said the nazi's were for the most part evil people?

So let's see, the crusaders:

Committed atrocities in Jerusalem

Perverted Christianity into an excuse for them to go and loot (I SINCERELY doubt the majority of them believed the nonsense they were touting)

Looted, pillaged, raped and according to accounts were responsible for the devestation of the region.

The militant orders were a bunch of greedy war-mongering money-launderers and let us not forget what the Teutonics did to the livonians.

I would say that counts as pretty being awful people.

As for 1453 the turks were pretty awful to. Or do you count, rape, looting and mass murder as judging another epoch by the morals of our time?
>Committed atrocities in Jerusalem
That's what happens when cities get captured, and always has until very very recently.

>Perverted Christianity into an excuse for them
>to go and loot (I SINCERELY doubt the majority
>of them believed the nonsense they were touting)
I think they did believe it, and rather liked the permission it gave them. They were somewhat literal, I think.

>Looted, pillaged, raped and according to
>accounts were responsible for the devestation of
>the region.
Standard for armies of the era.

>The militant orders were a bunch of greedy war-
>mongering money-launderers and let us not forget
>what the Teutonics did to the livonians.

They were also brave and acted with conviction. Read the first Siege of Rhodes, orthe Siege of Malta.

The Teutonics were guarding the eastern border of Christendom. The Lats etc so on were slave raiding warriors and pirates who gave as good as they got.

The times were rough and nasty, but the people themselves were still people, some of them brave and wise.

I suppose it's all to do with what you think of as incidental and what you think of as core. I'm reluctant to throw the bravery and heroism out with the bath water.

Approaching it from a fictional point of view, you can treat a lot of the bad stuff as part of the dangerous environment, without making the hero question it over much. You can also explore the contradictions between the different facets of the era.
I think saying 'they were just using religion as an excuse' is a very easy trap to fall into, a form of apologism if you will, and does tend to ignore the fact that as Martin said they were a very literal people who believed absolutely in a way we find very hard to understand and more over find highly uncomfortable. Hence the nonsense peddled to me at school that 'there had never been a religious war' (along with all the other nonsense they peddled).

I think the Nazis, furthermore, rather fit into our own epoch.

As with any group, there were good people, bad people and people who were just people who operated within the moral framework of their time. Even qualifying it as 'for the most part' is applying an unjust moral standard.

My real bugbear, I must confess, is when we are expected to chastise our own history with this form of cultural relativism while simultaneously being forbidden to criticise the histories of other cultures - which I see from your response is not something you ascribe to.
Kurtzhau loved it. We've been very careful to bring him up grounded in our own - what you might call - pragmatic liberal atheist culture, while at the same time accepting that it's not very worthwhile to apply all these values to other times. (For a long time, liberal qualms crippled my enjoyment of history.) So, for example, he knows that conquering people is generally bad, as is slaughtering and or enslaving a population, but he also knows that the Celts were no better in that regard than the Romans, but that the Romans brought civil order and civilisation. Plus they won because they were disciplined and organised.

I think it was Caxton in his introduction to Malory who said, learn from the good deeds, eschew the bad.

I disagree utterly that they were awful evil people, though the times themselves were pretty awful - making them a good setting for an adventure.

There seems to be a trick for handling morality in historicals. Go read one of the Scarrow books.

But apart from civil order and civilization, what did the Romans ever do for us?
Aqueducts?
Also, I'd say the Celts had civil order and civilisation, albeit less developed than the Romans (or indeed most Mediterranean cultures.) The Romans brought (imposed?) discipline and organisation, which as you point out are the values that kept them on top for a few hundred years.
See, I read the Celts as living in a theocracy dominated by crazy head hunting warriors and lunatic human sacrificing priests.
Sword of Zornhau

August 2014

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