Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company”

Originally serialized in a magazine in the last decade of the 19th century, A. Conan Doyle’s The White Company is damned near perfection. Conan Doyle is known to most as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. That would be enough to cement any writer’s reputation as one of the greats. But Doyle wrote prolifically and in a wide variety of genres and styles, including (among others) the Professor Challenger science fiction stories, EA Poe-esque horror stories, and historical fiction. In fact, I’m given to understand that he believed his historical novels were his true legacy. While I hold Holmes in his due, high regard, I’m not going to argue with Mr. A. Conan Doyle. Judging from The White Company, he had good reason to take pride in the works.

Anyone who grew up with Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Howard Pyle will immediately connect with The White Company. It is a distillate of what we loved from Ivanhoe, The Black Arrow, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and all that ilk. But the book offers more than just an opportunity to wallow in a warm bath of nostalgia. There is a solid adventure tale here. The action is vivid, sometime related at a sort of remove, other times with a blunt force gusto that would have brought a grim smile to Robert E. Howard.

It doesn’t start with a bang. It opens at a rather leisurely pace. Roughly the first half is a sort of cultural travelogue of mid-fourteenth century England as conceived by Arthur Conan Doyle. While it is in many ways awash with the hearkening back to a perceived purer and simpler time that seemed to pervade much of the Victorian Industrial Age fiction, Conan Doyle did not succumb entirely to such a simplistic view. He also included numerous descriptions of the hardship and misery endured by the serfs, especially the French peasants — the Jacques Bonhommes — raided and terrorized by the English free companies and exploited and abused by the French lords. He even manages to squeeze in the economic transition occurring about this time caused by the Black Death, leading to improved standards of living for the peasantry, now able to demand higher wages due to the lessened supply of laborers.

If that sounds boring, I apologize. That’s my fault, not Conan Doyle’s. He introduces his characters, and in following them through the ensuing adventures he shows off the scenery, the typical classes and professions from begging friars, to flagellants, to students, to yeomen, to innkeepers, etc. You’ll be familiar with many of these from The Canterbury Tales. He shows us where they lived and how they dressed, employing a gifted eye for detail, but without the results reading as a series of dry lists or a historical slideshow.

The characters themselves are fun and well-drawn. The hero — Alleyne Edricson — is the expected youth, experiencing the expected trials and rites of passage; meeting a girl, learning to fight, becoming a squire, showing his courage, and facing adventures, travel, and battles. His companions are the gigantic, somewhat dim youth Hordle John and the experienced archer Samkin Aylward. Edricson becomes squire to the knight Sir Nigel Loring (played in my head by David Niven). Each of these men is a unique, fully realized archetype. Nigel Loring in particular, is memorable; which is good since he has his own novel, Sir Nigel, that I intend to read next.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading The White Company, I recommend you do so at your earliest opportunity. And I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity of suggesting you also read my Falchion’s Company series, available in print, digital, and audio. Hardly the same thing, of course, but they both contain the word “company” so I couldn’t possibly ignore such marketing felicity.

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