Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Medieval Fiction: “The Archer’s Tale” by Bernard Cornwell

Every once in a while I’ll reread one of my favorite novels for inspiration, and this summer that read was The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell. It reminded me how much I loved his Grail Quest series, and how pieces of it helped inspire my first novel, Enoch’s Device.  I consider The Archer’s Tale to be a must read for fans of medieval fiction. Here’s my review.

Set in the mid-fourteenth century, The Archer’s Tale (titled Harlequin in the U.K.) tells the story of Thomas of Hookton, a bastard-born son of a village priest. Thomas’s father wanted his son to take the cloth, but all Thomas wanted to be was an archer, one of the deadly English longbowmen whose mighty weapon would help decide so many battles during the Hundred Year’s War. After a wonderful prologue, we learn that Thomas got his wish, serving as an archer in the army of the Earl of Northampton during the siege of a walled town in Brittany named La Roche-Derrien.

Thomas is one of my favorite of Cornwell’s protagonists. He’s Oxford educated, speaks three languages, and is happiest when serving as a bowman in the king’s army. But he also has a promise to keep: to reclaim Hookton’s holy treasure, the Lance of St. George, from the man who stole it and murdered Thomas’s father. Despite the urging of Thomas’s friend, Father Hobbe, to keep that promise, Thomas is preoccupied with his life as an archer, until fate brings him low and sets him on the path to fulfill his oath.

That path begins with Jeannette, a widowed French countess who will do anything to make sure her young son inherits his late father’s title. Jeanette is a brave, defiant, and flawed character who hates the English, but soon finds herself surrounded by enemies, both English and French. After the English sack her home in La Roche-Derrien, one of those enemies becomes Sir Simon Jekyll, an arrogant and lecherous young knight who is the novel’s chief antagonist. Her and Thomas’s mutual enmity toward Jekyll brings the two of them together, igniting the spark that propels the story forward.

The Battle of Crecy features prominently in the novel.
If the story were nothing more than a rollick through the early years of the Hundred Years War with Thomas and his band of archers, it would still be a wonderful tale. But Cornwell gives us more. In the prologue, it’s revealed that Thomas’s father is secretly noble, from a southern French family known as the Vexilles. Legend holds that the Vexilles brought back the Lance of St. George from the Crusades, but we later learn they also recovered something else: the most powerful relic in Christianity, the Holy Grail. Even more, the Vexilles are said to be servants of the devil who will use the Grail to bring down Christendom. This legend gives the Grail Quest series its name, for Thomas wonders if he must do what King Arthur’s knights failed to do: find the Grail. 

Like most of Cornwell’s novels, The Archer’s Tale is an adventure of sorts, taking Thomas from the small English village of Hookton, to war-torn Brittany, Normandy, and finally Crecy. It is also filled with brilliantly crafted battle scenes, including the famous Battle of Crecy in 1346 between Edward III of England and Philip VI of France. But it is Thomas and Jeanette, along with a perfect villain in Sir Simon, who make this book one of Cornwell’s best. This is the second time I’ve read the novel, and the re-read was even better than the first. For any fan of medieval fiction, I highly recommend it.

And, thanks to Amazon, you can read a preview of the novel here.


Bill said...

I also loved The Acher's Tale and the whole series. From reading Cornwell's Q & A page on his website, many readers have asked him to revisit that, but he has pretty much said he will not.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment. I gues 1356 was the last Thomas of Hookton novel. Oh well, it was a great ride! (Though wouldn't it be great if History channel or someone else picked it up for a series?)