THE GREATEST KNIGHT
In her author’s note at the end of the book Chadwick comments that the life of William Marshall was so full of incident that to recount it in full detail would require thousands of pages. She adds that it has been necessary, therefore, to sketch some of it fairly briefly. This, I think, encapsulates the main weakness of the novel. A great deal happens, but it was not until halfway through that I began to feel a real connection with the hero.
The early chapters describe William’s rise from the position of a penniless knight, dependant on the patronage of wealthy relatives, to that of tutor and later principal adviser to the son of Henry ll, heir to the throne and crowned in his father’s lifetime as Young King Henry. This is achieved largely through William’s success at the tourney, the dangerous jousting through which knights displayed their prowess with lance and sword. We see him develop from a lad known to his companions as ‘slugabed’ and ‘guzzleguts’ to a man respected for his martial skills and his unswerving loyalty to his lord. It is this loyalty and devotion to his conception of honour that chiefly characterise him, but apart from that I felt that the picture I was given lacked depth. He seems to have no close friends and his relationships with women are casual. Even when he takes a mistress she is marginal to his interest in fighting.
As the young King’s behaviour becomes more erratic and his enmity with his father more bitter, William’s character comes into greater focus. He is torn between his loyalty, indeed his love, for the young man and his horror at the depravity of his actions and I began to feel more involved with him. His devotion when Henry is dying and his grief at his death are genuinely moving.
It is when William decides to set out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem that the problem of fitting so much into one book becomes most acute. Chadwick points out that little is known about this chapter in his life and she therefore dismisses it in one chapter. Such an expedition would warrant a whole book in other hands and I felt slightly cheated by the lack of detail.
The turning point in the story for me came when William marries Isabelle de Clare. She is portrayed as a fully rounded and deeply sympathetic character and as William learns to love her and respect her judgement I found myself warming towards him. But there are still significant lacunae in the story. Frequently we are brought to a point where fates hang in the balance, only to find that in the next chapter the problem has been resolved ‘off-stage’ and the story moves on.
I think this is in part a problem for those writers who set out to fictionalise the lives of known historical personages. There are either too many facts, or too few; and the author has to choose between embroidering some and skating over others. In this case, I think Chadwick might have done better to begin her story later in William’s life, with flashbacks to earlier days, rather than taking us through a succession of tourneys, which have little to distinguish one from the other.
At the end of the book William is only halfway through his eventful life and, in spite of these criticisms, I shall look forward to reading the next episode.