The Archer’s Tale
London: Harper Collins, 2005
In this enjoyable romp through the Hundred Years’ War, we follow the adventures of the sponymous Thomas of Hookton, who travels through France with the English army aiming to make a fortune at the expense of the unfortunate local people. Thomas has the additional goal of seeking revenge against the unknown French raiders who destroyed his home village and, also, there are some unfinished issues relating to his heritage – his father was a priest of unknown provenance and, as readers, we expect there will be gradually revealed through the course of his novel and, since the front cover presents this as the first book of the Grail Quest series, over the course of other books as well (I am going to guess it will be three altogether).
Along the way, Thomas has various adventures and the strumpet fate pushes him down and pulls him back up again. Cornwell is a veteran of the historical genre and readers may be familiar with others of his works (e.g. the Sharpe series and The Last Kingdom) which have found their way into being adapted for the screen. The characters are vivid and deployed deftly so that the villains appear when needed and the heroes have to suffer enough for us to bond with them. The language and style do not really compromise with the needs for contemporary readers to be able to understand the text without thinking much about it and there is nothing to suggest the depth of consciousness that the medieval mind might enjoy and which has been portrayed so brilliantly by Dorothy Dunnett, among others. However, as the concluding historical note observes, nearly all of the principal incidents described did in fact happen in pretty much the way that was described. These were, indeed, grim events and although the nitty-gritty of the rape and pillage is kept off the page, it is certainly there in the background.
The main theme of the book is the role of the archer, specifically the English archer – there are some Welsh archers (Pat, for example) but they have the grace to wait in the background. It seems to have been true that archers were a particularly dangerous force on the battlefield but, assuming we are not guilty of exaggerating their importance, why did other countries not seek to replicate them? Cornwell himself has no answer other than that it must have been a very difficult skill to acquire and to require very time-consuming practice and people from other countries were not up for it. There have been archery specialists in Southern Britain since Neolithic times and perhaps the yew wood was particularly helpful. Other places specialised in other forms of warfare and there are various geographic, cultural and social issues that interact with each other to produce specific forms of military practice. For example, in this book we have the well-known Genoese crossbowmen, while the French are of course busy with the flower of their chivalry. Meanwhile, I remember going to school every day past St. Mary’s Butts in Reading, at which men came to practice archery under the orders of King Edmund IV (who is featured in this book, although for some reason his vital Reading links are overlooked). It is one of the few things for which Reading is known, together with Queen Victoria’s enmity, the statue of the lion which would fall over in real life and Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment (now that the biscuit factory has closed down).
As mentioned previously, this is an enjoyable romp through history – we end up at the Battle of Crecy (spoiler alert, we English won) and there is plenty more of the story to come. There is also the Holy Grail to be found and, one suspects, some heresy and persecution to come. Fun.