“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Sep

“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell (484p)

In the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series set during the Hundred Years War, Harlequin (The Archer’s Tale in the US), takes fictional archer Thomas of Hookton to France on a quest to defeat the French but also to one day find the Holy Grail. The first in a series of three, Harlequin is set on the backdrop of the Battle of Crécy.

At the start of the novel Thomas is a young man, mid-to-late teens, living in the fictional seaside English village of Hookton as the illegitimate son of a priest and his mistress. Thomas is learned; he can read and write and has studied the Bible, he can speak French and Latin. He seems destined for the church despite professing his love of archery, England’s national sport at the time (on Edward III’s orders). But all is not well in Hookton, and at Easter of 1342 raiders from Normandy led by Sir Guillaume d’Evecque and a mystery man named The Harlequin come and attack the village, killing Thomas’ father, and stealing a valuable family treasure – the lance of St. George. Thomas vows to get revenge on the attackers one day and recover the lance.

It is now 1346 and Thomas has joined up with a band of archers in the employ of the Earl of Northampton sieging La Roche-Derrien. We are introduced a typical Cornwell heroine in the form of Jeanette, Countess d’Armorica, beautiful yet dangerous as she tries and protects her city. Eventually the English find their way in and Jeanette runs afoul of the knight Sir Simon Jekyll when she rejects his overtures of sex. Thomas is called to defend Jeanette and when he learns of the attempted rape he plans revenge on Jekyll, but fails, and so he must leave La Roche-Derrien if he wants to escape with his life.

Thomas and Jeanette go on the run across Brittany and into Normandy, not helped when Jeanette’s pleas for help is turned down and then some by the Duke of Brittany. While they had been fugitives Edward III had led the main English army into Normandy and began laying siege to Caen. When Caen falls, Jeanette attaches herself to the Prince of Wales and leaves Thomas. Thomas has now spied the herald of Sir Guillaume and tries to kill him, but fails, and is then caught unawares by Sir Simon Jekyll and left to hang. Thomas is rescued by a girl named Eleanor, who is Sir Guillaume’s daughter, and she nurses the two of them back to health. They become friends and Sir Guillaume educates Thomas on his French ancestry – it seems that Thomas and the man called The Halequin have a lot more in common than he realised.

Harlequin moves into its conclusion after the siege of Caen with the English army successfully crossing the ford at Blanchetaque after a fierce fight, and then fighting the decisive battle at Crécy when the English longbow causes such devastation. As it descends into hand-to-hand fighting Thomas encounters Jekyll and The Harlequin on the battlefield and kills neither; Sir Guillaume tries to do the same and only manages to kill Jekyll, and The Harlequin escapes. Thomas manages to recover the Lance of St. George on the body strewn battlefield.

Harlequin, in many ways, is a typical Bernard Cornwell novel. Once you have read one you can pretty much predict how the rest will go. They are told at a quick-pace, full of action where the hero joins battle countless times, falls in and out of love, runs afoul of somebody important and then reconciles. Harlequin is no different in that respect either. Thomas, the protagonist, is a bit different from Cornwell’s other heroes. He is a more wholesome character, I think, than Sharpe. He can read and write and, curiously, has a fairly firm faith in the Christian God that most Cornwell characters reject. In that way it is a refreshing change. Thomas is also different because he lacks that cloak of invincibility that Sharpe has, he does not have the all-powerful warrior feel that Derfel or Uhtred have either. As a fighter, at least in Harlequin, Thomas is defenceless without his bow and lacks that unstoppable warrior feel that his other heroes have in spades.

That is probably why of all of Cornwell’s novels, the Grail Quest series is my least favourite. I still enjoyed it immensely. It is a pleasant and easy going read. Harlequin a top notch adventure story with twists and turns that keep the pages flowing, and the villains are as good as always with a wonderful heroin. The cameo of Edward III and the Prince of Wales was a good few passages, too. But it is Thomas himself that probably lets it down, as he just does not hold a candle to other Cornwell creations. But as far as fast-paced adventures stories in the Middle Ages go this is a great, entertaining read, and I recommend any fan of this sort of thing to read it.



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