Thursday, September 30, 2010

Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades by GA Henty

Ah, Henty! Writer of many, many novels in which a young man of great fortitude and intelligence joins the army, meets famous historical characters, describes in educational detail many famous battles, and earns a happy ending and the love of a highborn lady. Formulaic though they may be, Henty's novels are always fascinating glimpses into history, usually with enough adventure to keep you reading. The books can be an acquired taste, and I wouldn't call them really high literature, but they're an excellent plain diet.

GA Henty's books are now mostly known only among homeschoolers and the homeschooled, and as such I made their acquaintance early and often. I've read perhaps fifteen of them—not a huge amount—and found them all educational and adventurous, but even then one stood out head and shoulders above the rest. It is Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades, and it is pure high-octane fun.

The story is set during the Third Crusade, the most famous one, King Richard the Lionheart's Crusade. It was during this Crusade that Robin Hood made his home in Nottingham Forest, that Prince John made a nuisance of himself, that the brethren Geoffrey and Wulf sought their cousin Rosamund, and that Wilfred of Ivanhoe won undying glory. And it is for this Crusade that a fearless teenager named Cuthbert leaves his home to follow his aged benefactor the Earl of Evesham to the Holy Land, whence the story follows him through many adventures back to his own home and the final battle he must fight on his own doorstep.

While the plot in many Henty novels can feel ponderous, the plot for Winning His Spurs moves at a snapping pace, almost like a serial for a magazine. I can't think of a single chapter in which something thrilling doesn't happen. Our hero rescues the Earl's daughter from dastardly kidnappers, fights a single combat in the lists of honour, rescues a Princess from dastardly kidnappers, storms Acre, gets captured by Saracens, nearly loses his head on three different occasions, becomes an outlaw, rescues the Earl's daughter from dastardly kidnappers, and then rescues a King from dastardly kidnappers just to round things off a bit.

I don't believe I realised till now how many kidnappings occur in this book. But as for narrow escapes! Whether it's that extremely close shave in Dresden, or that incredibly daring escape in full armour from Evesham castle, or many another thrilling moment—well, all one can do is gape in admiration and feel that even a character named Cuthbert might be worth reading about!

For all that, I think one of my favourite chapters must be “A Hermit's Tale,” an unrelated story full of drama and tragedy right in the middle of the book. There's something inexpressibly authentic-medieval about that melancholy tale; I've always wondered if Henty made it up, or borrowed it from an old ballad.

If you were to invest in this book—and it would make an excellent birthday or Christmas present for any boy or girl with a liking for high adventure--I highly recommend the gorgeous Preston/Speed edition, which comes in a pleasant green hardback complete with adorable illustrations.

But cheapskates and the deserving poor can always try the

Gutenberg etext

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