The Templar Knight by Jan Guillou (tr. Steven T. Murray)
Harper Collins: London, 2010; ISBN: 9780007285860; 480 pp.; Price: £7.99.
The Crusades: A Short History by Jonathan Riley-Smith
Athlone Press: London, 1987 (2001 ed.); ISBN 9780826459541; 336 pp.; Price: £18.99.
In many ways, then, The Templar Knight is underpinned by rigorous research, which is what one would expect from someone who previously earned his keep as an investigative journalist. Of course, like most works of fiction it is not necessarily the historical accuracy that keeps the reader hooked. Instead, it is Guillou’s ability to construct likeable, or not, characters, and their interlinked relationships with and to each other that fascinates. Often, the author says just enough to make the reader want to find out more and while reading this I continuously found myself looking up the various characters in academic books. Furthermore, the main character’s main attraction, to me anyway, rests not with being the best warrior, which the author portrays him as being, but rather in him never being quite clever or power-hungry enough to partake in the wildest political intrigues of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Though this is on the one hand annoying, it is also what makes this particular ‘hero’ human. He does not always do or say the right thing, but it is his integrity which makes Arn so appealing because he is that ideal to which everyone (or maybe just me!) aspires; that is, he has convictions which he obeys not just for reasons of personal gain or glory. Guillou shows this in many ways. For instance, when Arn has to fight three newly-arrived Franks to stop them crusading against an innocent Bedouin village, he only wins at great personal cost as one of the Franks thrusts his sword into Khamsiin – the Arabic horse Arn has ridden since a young boy (p. 280).
Representing character and emotion in this way is usually where academic historians fail their readers, primarily because the sources rarely tell us much about people’s motivations and emotions. This, and plentiful and lengthy footnotes and bibliographies full of titles in several modern and ancient languages, tend to make academic history books rather dry. The footnotes, perhaps rightly, are usually the first thing to go in history books aimed at a more general audience, as is the case with Riley-Smith’s The Crusades. This particular book is furthermore extremely informative while written in a simple prose free from academic jargon with any foreign words given a short explanation. As Guillou alternates his narrative by moving between Outremer and Sweden in each chapter, Riley-Smith, rather than giving just a chronological account of each crusade, has inserted chapters on related matters such as ‘The holy places and the Catholic patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch’ (chapter three) and ‘The Latin East’ (chapter eight). Each chapter is, moreover, divided into several sub-chapters so that the reader is never presented with several pages of factual text without any breaks. The bibliography is short but contains the most useful works and there is also a list of primary sources in translation. One particular highlight, I feel, is that The Crusades also has no fewer than nine maps, allowing the reader to follow the events closely. Here, Riley-Smith’s book has a distinct advantage over the novel because while the original Swedish version of The Templar Knight contains a map of the Holy Land detailing the most important forts, cities and battles, the English version has no map of the Kingdom of Jerusalem nor of Sweden in this period. This is particularly regrettable since parts of Guillou’s narrative are dependent on an understanding of the lie of the land.
The Crusades: A Short History is easy and good reading and provides not only an insight to the crusades as a movement but also an excellent format for writing history aimed at a more general audience. By contrast, The Templar Knight is a good story but it is not the best book in the trilogy. At times it is plodding, primarily because as a historian I found that the crusading events are just too well-known and thus the plot is predictable. This series has obviously been translated into English as ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ because the crusades mean sales. However, it is not really about the crusades but about the formation of the kingdom of Sweden. As a whole, the trilogy traces how the experiences of Arn and Cecilia enabled them to build up the social, military, commercial and legal framework within which their dynasty finally assumes power. Like so many historical novels, the books in the trilogy are not meant to conform exactly to current historical research or offer new interpretations, but to affirm popular beliefs about the creation of a nation, religious beliefs, and well-known individuals and events. The trilogy does exactly that. It follows the legendary Folkung (lit. ‘folk king’) dynasty and their loyal support for the Erik clan in their battle for the crown against the backward Sverker clan, who are supported by the ‘wicked’ and more advanced Danes. It reaffirms many commonly-held beliefs and plays on feelings of ‘Swedishness’ by presenting certain events, such as the famous battle of Gestilren, as a triumph of Sweden over Denmark. Hardly surprising then that the trilogy has sold over two-and-a-half million copies just in Sweden – a country with a population of around nine million – and that its popularity has resulted in a surge of public interest in the history of medieval Sweden and also in historical novels about Scandinavia as a whole.
Having said all this, the first and the third book in ‘The Crusades Trilogy’ are extremely readable and the first book, The Road to Jerusalem (Vägen till Jerusalem, 1998), detailing Arn’s coming of age at a monastery under the tutelage of a Cistercian and former knight, and the third, Birth of the Kingdom (Riket vid vägens slut, 2000), charting Arn’s return to Sweden and his efforts to build a lasting peace, have both received critical acclaim. Each book can be read as a standalone, but as a whole the trilogy is an epic tale of intrigue, faith, and struggle. But then, as a Swede, I would say that.