Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott


When people ask me where they should start reading Scott, I often try to steer them in the direction of Quentin Durward. It's a perfect introduction to his body of work: it's got the callow young Scottish hero; the lady of high estate; the machinations of kings and princes; the wars and dangers. And as always with Scott, extremely fine characterisation.
Quentin Durward is the story of a pawn. We meet our young hero travelling through France in the hope of cadging a job at the French Court through his uncle, who is part of the guard. Before two chapters are up, he's met a handful of mysterious strangers—notably a wily old merchant who commands unusual respect wherever he goes, and a mysterious lady known only as “Jacqueline”. It isn't long until Quentin discovers that, all unwittingly, he has fallen into exalted company. His courage, resource, and usefulness are gauged to a nicety—and then moved into play. It is not the purpose of his puppeteer that he should live beyond said usefulness, nor that he should seek to carve his own way to wealth, love, and fame. Quentin Durward, who may be hot-headed but has a certain native wit of his own, has other ideas.
The story is set during the conflict in France and Flanders between King Louis XI of France and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. In those days, in the mid-1400s, the Dukes of Burgundy had become all but independent of the Kings of France, and France was effectively two nations, with the Duke holding the upper hand. Louis XI does not relish this state of affairs, but his plot to regain Flanders by inciting an uprising in the city of Liege, led by the notorious bandit noble William de la Marck, 'the Boar of the Ardennes', backfires when the brutal murder of the Prince-Bishop of Liege coincides with a visit by Louis to Burgundy.
It is to Liege on the eve of revolt that Quentin Durward is commanded to escort a runaway countess. But why? And who will extricate the King of France from Charles the Bold's clutches? Read on to find out...
If you've already read this book, there's one character you'll be remembering, and that's Louis XI, one of Scott's most unforgettable characterisations. This King of France may be descended from a proud line of warrior-kings going all the way back to Charles the Great and Charles Hammer-of-Islam, but he has the soul of a moneylender. He is, in that dear old Cockney idiom, as crooked as a dog's hind leg. Scott draws an unforgettable portrait of a man wealthy but miserly, far too crafty for his own good, haunted by superstitious fear, and altogether hilarious to read about.
If it's plot you're looking for, Quentin Durward has it in spades: Palace intrigue, young love, danger in the feasting-hall of the Boar of Ardennes, hair's-breadth escapes, battles, and a happy ending. There's rarely a dull moment and (unusually in Scott's works) the plot gets going from the first couple of chapters.
All this and some unforgettable history, too. What are you waiting for?

Gutenberg etext

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