Sunday, April 1, 2012

Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch

Philip D'Aubigny is a son of two worlds, the product of a very unusual time in history, and the witness of the end of an era.

Philip is a young nobleman of Norman-English extraction, training for knighthood, the aide and apprentice of his father, an important noble. He is inured to wearing armour, an excellent swordsman, and knows something of the affairs of state. Like any other young squire, he lives in a castle where the retainers have known him and trained him since his childhood.

But Philip's home is unique. Instead of the green hills of Wales, his father's castle stands in a valley of Palestine. Philip's fair skin has been beaten to bronze by the harsh sun of that country, and he is accustomed to the strange luxuries of the East.

For nearly a hundred years, the Crusader kingdom of Outremer—carved from Muslim-held territory in 1099—has kept its tenuous grip on the Holy Land, ruled by kings from Jerusalem. But now as Philip D'Aubigny grows to manhood, mutters of war come from the east; the knights of Outremer dwindle away, and charismatic but incompetent King Guy of Lusignan appears ready to be swayed by any counsel. Then the great Saracen general Saladin attacks Outremer and besieges Tiberias, and the chivalry of Outremer muster to their final battle at Hattin.

This account of the Second and Third Crusades for young people is a well-written, exciting, and relatively even-handed account of the fall of Outremer in 1187. Welch clearly intends to present accurate history through the eyes of an original character, and he does so with great skill.

It is a little difficult to review this book, because I came to it with a lot of baggage. In the Middle East there are many who have not forgotten the name of Salah ad-Din. Nor have I forgotten the names of Charles Martel, Digenes Akrites, or Baldwin the Leper. What an endeavour was Outremer! What a mission: to liberate the Holy Land from the tyrants who had trampled it for nearly five hundred years, to plant a kingdom and a community there, and to cling there for generations. The fall of Outremer, like the fall of the Byzantine provinces to Abu-Bakr in the 600s, was the extinguishing of a lamp and a legend.

With this view, I thought that this book—though a serviceable and enjoyable adventure story—could have made more of the events. Like many current historians—though not as offensively as most—Welch depicts the Christians as relatively barbaric next to the Saracens. For example, at one point, an old crusader scoffs at the Saracen idea of cleaning wounds—his advice is to just wrap it up and let the blood and pus fight it out. As a matter of fact, the importance of cleaning and airing a serious wound was well known to medieval European physicians.

I got the feeling that Welch did not truly understand the grand significance of the history he described. There were also snippets of the history I wish he'd spent more time on. The story of Baldwin IV's victory at the battle of Montgisard, for example, is the most incredible story you'll ever hear about a mild-mannered sixteen-year-old leper king leading his knights into battle to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And the story of Balian of Ibelin's defence of Jerusalem after Hattin is another story worth hearing, only known to Western audiences these days through the false and twisted 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven
The stories of Outremer are the stories of one of the greatest adventures of Christendom, and should be familiar to all of us. Knight Crusader is a wonderful place to start learning some of these stories.

Ronald Welch went on to write a whole series of books set around Philip's descendants, the Carey family, who inherit their ancestor's skill with a sword, and who fight For the King in the English Civil War, act as a spy and Captain of Dragoons during Marlborough's campaigns, Escape from France during the Revolution, and even wind up as a Tank Commander during World War I. The series is great historical adventure but, sadly, out of print and as scarce as hen's teeth. The publisher has, I hear, absolutely refused either to republish the books or to sell the rights. Keep an eye out for these at second-hand booksales.


Lillyput90 said...

Have you ever read "The Brethren" by H Rider-Haggard, it is a pretty good adventure story set in the Crusader period also?

Suzannah said...

You bet I have, Lillyput--and loved it! I reviewed the Christian Liberty Press revised edition here.

I have been looking forward to reading the original version (warts and all...hope it doesn't ruin the book for me) but it's well-nigh impossible to find a copy. I shall probably have to go back to my old habits and read an ebook, though I don't much enjoy that.

Lady Bibliophile said...

My sister just read The Bretheren, (before me!) and enjoyed it very much. She loves to have me guess the ending, for when she reads it aloud to us all. :) We like the Christian Liberty Press editions too.


Lillyput90 said...

Knight Crusader is pretty hard to get a copy of too! The cheapest going rate is about $30-35 US on eBay....I think there should be petitions somewhere for getting out-of-print books re-printed in their original format, in affordable paperback editions.

Suzannah said...

Oh, it's a great book. Unfortunately when I reviewed it I didn't know it was edited, so a friend of mine went off and read the original and wasn't as keen as me...I am a little worried :S.

Suzannah said...

This is just hearsay, but the publishers have apparently been contacted by home educators wanting to buy the rights to reprint the Welch books, and flatly refused to entertain any offer. Nor are there plans to reprint them. This may not be just about the money.

Lady Bibliophile said...

I hear that CLP Christianized the books a little, which I don't mind, so that may be why she wasn't so keen. :) But I find the CLP editions to be quite nice.


Christina Baehr said...

Hm, did Welch have any heirs? When was he alive?

You really should make your first Emily Sarah Holt book "Lady Sybil's Choice" - it is all about the Lusignans and this same period, but from a more domestic perspective.

Suzannah said...

Oh boy, that ES Holt book sounds wonderful!

The Clunes Booktown is happening at the beginning of May and I'll be there with bells on. Maybe I'll find a Holt book there!

I think Welch died in the 70s or 80s; not certain about heirs.

Kim Marsh said...

I know you prefer fiction but if you are interested on the crusades you should read ( if you haven't already) Stephen Runnciman's History of the Crusades. Wonderfully well written and probably counting as " Vintage" by now. Regards Kim

M Harold Page said...

This one is actually being reprinted!

I read it to my son when he was six - a wonderful moving shared experience; history without spoilers.

I've also thrown money at tracking down the rest, of which Tank Commander is probably the most striking.

M Harold Page said...

Oh, here's the blog entry:

Suzannah said...

I loved your story of reading this book to your son. He'll never forget it :).


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