The Golden Era of the Longbow

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HarlequinBernard Cornwell will doubtless be best known amongst you for the best selling Sharpe series of novels – you know, the ones that Sean Bean starred in as a Napoleonic era soldier when they were adapted for TV a few years back. Following on from this great success, he has now turned his talents towards a trilogy of novels (The Grail Quest) set during the 14th century (the other two books being “Vagabond” and “Heretic”); this review is on the first of the series, “Harlequin”. You may find it surprising that I am reading these at all, given their reputation as being very much “bloke’s books”; Cornwell’s preference for writing about warfare while relishing every grisly detail of it does seem to appeal to an almost exclusively male readership, I must admit. My interest in these books, though, comes from the fact that their central character is an English longbow archer. So what? Well, having previously dabbled in archery myself, I do have something of an interest in the history of the bow, and as anyone with even a passing interest in Medieval arms will know, the 14th century is the golden era of the longbow. I did originally try out this book when it was first released in 2000, but gave up on it after the first couple of chapters as I just couldn’t get into the story at the time. I decided to give it another go after coming across Cornwell’s magnificent Warlord Chronicles – if he was this good a storyteller, I reasoned, then the Grail Quest had to be worth giving a proper go.

Our protagonist in this tale is Thomas of Hookton, an archetypal hero in every sense of the word. Not only brave, handsome, clever and tall, but also a talented and dedicated bowman who will stop at nothing in pursuit of his dream of becoming an archer in King Edward’s army. I suppose you could think of him as being a cross between Jonny Wilkinson and Robin Hood really, although if you have chanced upon any of Cornwell’s other novels you may have noticed a passing resemblance to his other leading men.

“Calling this series “The Grail Quest” is a little misleading, really, as the bulk of the story is taken up with Thomas’ exploits in battle.”

I found it very difficult not to see shades of Lord Derfel Cadarn (from the Warlord Chronicles) or Richard Sharpe in Thomas, which may make him seem a little flat and unoriginal as a character, especially as he seems to have few flaws that might round him out and make him seem a little more human. I did hesitate at comparing Thomas to these two other great characters, though, as he has neither the wit of Sharpe nor the rich and intriguing background of Derfel; he is a more of a watered down amalgam of the two. Indeed, credibility is stretched when we learn that our Thomas even speaks fluent Latin and French, the result of his being the bastard son of the local priest, despite the fact that most people in his position at that time would not have been recognised by their fathers, let alone educated by them to this standard. Thomas has been given these unlikely special skills as a plot device, however, as the reader soon learns.

Set in 1342, the story is concerned with the Hundred Years War (which neither lasted a hundred years nor was a single war, strangely enough) that was being fought between the English and French armies for control over considerable areas of France. Stuck in the small coastal village of Hookton in Dorset, Thomas dreams of using his talents to, well, kill Frenchmen. His father, on the other hand, wants Thomas to go to Oxford and study to become a priest – and he gets his way. As Thomas returns home from university for Easter though, he witnesses a devastating attack on Hookton by a French raiding party, who kill most of the villagers and steal a relic (the lance of St George) from the church. His father’s dying words imply that the man leading the raid is none other than Thomas’ cousin, the Harlequin, something of a shadowy villain who only wears black (you can almost hear the boos and hisses in the background). With nothing to stay in Hookton for, Thomas leaves to follow his dream of joining the army, although encumbered by a half-hearted vow to retrieve his father’s relic lance and return it to England. The story follows Thomas through both his personal quest and the war in France, culminating in the Battle of Crecy in 1345, and setting the book up very nicely indeed for part two of the story, “Vagabond”.

Historically speaking, it is hard to fault Cornwell’s work. The background to the era is thoroughly researched, and all of the events in the book – bar the initial raid on Hookton – are based on actual events. Battles are described as they were actually fought; real Medieval figures such as Edward Woodstock (later known as the Black Prince) are woven into the story to give it authenticity, and a careful attention to detail helps to bring the era to life without it feeling like you are sitting through a history lecture. A huge problem with historical novels can be that the reader is required to have a prior knowledge of the period to be able to understand the book (I have experienced this with Reay Tannahill for one), but I feel that with “Harlequin”, pretty much anyone could pick it up and understand the setting and the events it describes without too many problems. Cornwell is an expert on feeding you enough historical information for you to appreciate what is going on and give you an interest in the period, without the reader feeling swamped or intimidated by it. I for one also picked up some details that I was not aware of – such as archers not using finger guards back then as they do now. Considering they were shooting bows with a 90lb or so draw weight at that time, they must have had immensely tough fingers!

“Any fan of Cornwell will doubtless enjoy this book, as will those interested in medieval history or warfare generally.”

You may have noticed that by now I have made no mention of the Grail itself. Well, to be honest, the fabled chalice doesn’t get too much of a look in during “Harlequin”; it is only later in the trilogy that this thread gets taken up to any great extent, and even then it feels like something of sub-plot. Calling this series “The Grail Quest” is a little misleading, really, as the bulk of the story is taken up with Thomas’ exploits in battle. I couldn’t help but think that the Grail has been tacked onto this story as means of making the books that bit more marketable – calling it “The Hundred Years War Trilogy” would have been more honest, but somehow a lot less romantic to prospective readers. Still, this doesn’t stop the book being a rather good adventure story, with plenty of action to make up for the rather cardboard characterisation and unlikely plot devices. All of battles are described with great enthusiasm and knowledge, and both the technicalities of warfare, and the horrors and fears experienced by the soldiers, are conveyed with clarity. The plot, whilst seeming a little clunky in places, is on the whole above average, and towards the end I couldn’t put the book down at all.

But I suppose the big question is would I recommend “Harlequin”? Certainly; I think it was well worth my giving it another chance and I am enjoying the rest of the trilogy. Compared to Cornwell’s other works, it is well above the rather poor “Stonehenge” but far below his masterpiece Arthurian trilogy, “The Warlord Chronicles”. Any fan of Cornwell will doubtless enjoy this book, as will those interested in medieval history or warfare generally. I liked it. It is far from being a classic, but it is still very readable and provides easy escapism without too much effort on the part of the reader. And sometimes that is just what you want, isn’t it?

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell (2000) is published by Harper Collins and is available in both hardback (RRP £17.99) and paperback (RRP £6.99). 496pp.

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by Bernard Cornwell

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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