Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however, could never quite understand why his detective stories excited such hoopla. While grateful for the pots of cash they brought in, he firmly believed that his name would live in literary history because of his two deeply researched historical novels, “The White Company” (1891) and “Sir Nigel” (1906). The first and more famous is available this month in an exemplary annotated edition by Doug Elliott and Roy Pilot, while the second is arguably an even better written, more thrilling swashbuckler.
Set in the 14th century during what we now call the Hundred Years’ War, both books celebrate the chivalric ideals of honor, courtesy, physical prowess and patriotism. Conan Doyle himself viewed these courtly and martial virtues as sacrosanct. Once, during a train trip, the world-famous author overheard one of his sons comment on the ugliness of a female passenger. Before the sentence was finished, the young man received a slap from his father who quietly said, “Just remember that no woman is ugly.” Though Conan Doyle lived by his pen, not by the sword, his gravestone bears a knightly inscription: “Steel true, blade straight.”
In “The White Company” the monastery-educated Alleyne Edricson is ordered to spend a year out in the roistering world before taking his religious vows. As the gentle, naive lad saunters along in the book’s picaresque opening chapters, he encounters ruffians, con artists, brigands, a damsel in distress and two men who soon become his close friends: the high-spirited, woman-crazy archer Samkin Aylward and a renegade novice from his own monastery, the herculean Hordle John.
Eventually, the three enlist in the White Company, a cadre of bowmen and men-at-arms now led by the gallant Sir Nigel Loring. No Prince Valiant in looks, the 46-year-old Loring is short, stooped, bald and half blind from an eye injury. He nonetheless resolutely seeks occasions of hand-to-hand combat to advance himself in honor and worthy renown. After becoming the great knight’s squire, Alleyne goes off to war to earn his master’s respect and the hand of his romantic, headstrong daughter, Maude. Obviously Alleyne will succeed at both, but which of the novel’s other characters will survive? There’s a lot of violent death in these pages, despite frequent slapstick humor.
“The White Company” is beautifully written but not in the crisp, modern style of the Holmes stories. Instead, Conan Doyle emphasizes leisurely word-painting and antiquated period diction. “Sooth,” for example, means “truth,” while “scath” refers to hurt or an injury. He also introduces characters from every class and trade, which allows him to depict the age’s pageantry, poverty and dire inequalities. In one horror-filled episode, starved peasants turn with murderous rage on their sleek, well-fed oppressors. Above all, Conan Doyle excels in the you-are-there verisimilitude of his battle scenes. When two pirate galleys attack the ship transporting Sir Nigel’s men and horses to war-torn France, Alleyne is taken by surprise:
“ ‘What was that?’ he asked, as a hissing, sharp drawn voice seemed to whisper in his ear. The steersman smiled, and pointed with his foot to where a short heavy cross-bow quarrel stuck quivering in the boards. At the same instant the man stumbled forward upon his knee, and lay lifeless upon the deck, a blood-stained feather jutting out from his back. As Alleyne stooped to raise him, the air seemed to be alive with the sharp zip-zip of the bolts and he could hear them pattering on the deck like apples at a tree-shaking.”
Because Conan Doyle immerses the reader directly into medieval life, “The White Company” benefits immensely from the new edition’s intelligent annotation (only available from the publisher, Wessex Press). Marginal notes define the many unfamiliar terms; numerous heraldic insignia are presented in color and explained, and the book’s real-life characters, such as Nigel’s mentor, Sir John Chandos, are allotted brief biographies. This oversize paperback even reprints N.C. Wyeth’s now-classic illustrations.
Fifteen years after he brought out “The White Company,” Conan Doyle decided to tell what we would now call Nigel Loring’s origin story. While adopting the knightly apprenticeship pattern of the earlier novel, “Sir Nigel” is faster paced, with fewer tableaux-like descriptions and a host of models for its young hero, including wise Chandos, the indomitable French champion Bertrand du Guesclin and the ultrarational commando Sir Robert Knolles.
The older Loring sometimes resembles the lovable but absurd Don Quixote, but his younger self would make a perfect action-movie hero. Proud but hotheaded, Nigel first defies the rapacious monks who threaten his impoverished grandmother’s property (anticlericalism runs throughout these books), then further shows his mettle by taming a reputably untamable horse, thus acquiring his fearsome battle steed Pommers. During the wars, Nigel vows to perform three acts of valor to prove himself worthy of the reserved young woman who will later become his formidable wife, Lady Mary. He eventually hunts down a spy known as the Red Ferret, daringly rescues 20 archers held captive by a brutal warlord and, not least, conquers an exceptional warrior at the battle of Poictiers.
Given such a paean to heroism, it does seem fitting that another warrior, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was reading “Sir Nigel” on his deathbed.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE ANNOTATED WHITE COMPANY
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Annotated by Doug Elliott and Roy Pilot
Wessex Press. 410 pp. $48.95
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Dover. 352 pp. Paperback, $12.95