• Violence, full blast
    December 04,2013
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    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was much more satisfied with his historical novels than with his Sherlock Holmes stories. And it’s certain that a novel like “The White Company,” set during the Hundred Years War between England and France, became a very popular account. First published in 1891, it went through 50 editions in Conan Doyle’s own lifetime.

    Yet partly because he was writing in a hurry and partly because such stories appeared in installments in magazines, he sometimes seems to have forgotten certain details as the story progressed.

    In the opening chapter, for instance, the monks of Beaulieu Abbey (there was a real abbey by that name in southern Hampshire) are trooping in from work on the call of the abbot who commanded them. They are described as bearing the marks of the kind of work they were assigned on the farms and forests that supported the abbey. The story says:

    “Of all the throng there was scarce one who was not labor-stained and weary, for Abbot Berghersh was a hard man to himself and to others.”

    Yet a few pages later, when the abbot has condemned a renegade novice to be expelled from the premises, the story continues:

    “The sentence appeared a terrible one to the older monks, who had become so used to the safe and regular life of the abbey that they would have been as helpless as children in the outer world. From their pious oasis, they looked dreamily out on the desert of life. …”

    Now I suppose it is possible that workers who are “labor-stained and weary” could consider that condition be a “safe and regular life.” But it stretches the imagination to think that such people had time to “look dreamily” from their “pious oasis.”

    In his effort to set the stage for a young novice’s adventure in the outer world, Conan Doyle forgot how he had initially described monks as weary from the hard tasks that had been set them. One who toils in the garden or sheepfold does not have too much time to look “dreamily” out at the world.

    In a later chapter, a pirate captain has been captured by having his sword arm twisted until it broke, so his sword dropped to the deck. Later in the same chapter, he is tied up and told that he is to hang. Then:

    “He snapped the bonds which bound him, dashed one of the archers to the deck and, seizing the other round the waist, sprang with him into the sea.”

    Somehow it doesn’t seem likely that a person with a broken arm could accomplish anything as sudden and vigorous as that.

    The story includes some graphic accounts of violence that would likely cause protest and outrage if shown in a movie house or on television.

    Sir Nigel Loring, an English knight, has come with his squire to a French castle, seeking the White Company which has been marauding in the region. The castle is invaded by a horde of poor peasants who have been oppressed by the lord of the castle, an old French soldier now known as the seneschal. The description of what has happened:

    “Close to the open door of their chamber lay the seneschal and his wife; she with her head shorn from her shoulders, he thrust through with a sharpened stake, which still protruded from either side of his body. Three servants of the castle lay dead beside them, all torn and draggled … Three dead men lay huddled, while a fourth, with blood squirting from a severed vessel, lay back with updrawn knees, breathing in wheezy gasps.”

    Literacy was not as common in 1891 when Conan Doyle wrote this, but those who could read were given a full blast of violence.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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