The Archer’s Tale
Bernard Cornwell, author of the acclaimed The Warlord Chronicles and The Saxon Stories, is known to have a clear predilection for historical fiction, since virtually all of his work belongs to this genre. The Archer’s Tale, the first book in the trilogy called Grail Quest is no stranger to this trend and presents a plot that starts at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. However, more concerned in describing the great battles than in telling a proper story, Cornwell develops a plot so shallow and uninteresting that it gets ignored by its own characters.
At the beginning, Thomas is the son of a priest in the village of Hookton in England. Whilst his father makes plans for him to become a scholar, the boy just wants to train with his long bow and taste new and beautiful women: the moments when he feels truly fulfilled. Then, on a fateful day, Hookton is sacked by a band of French mercenaries, commanded by the mysterious and vile Harlequin, and the relic of his father’s church, the spear that St. George himself used to kill the dragon, is stolen. The archer vows vengeance before his father’s body and decides to enter the English army, glimpsing a chance to fight against the French and rediscover his tormentor.
However, in the first chapter of the book, both protagonist and author forget everything that happened in the prologue. Both are so fascinated by the Hundred Years’ War that there is barely enough room for the never-to-be-found Grail and Spear. Thomas finds himself faced with sieges and grand battles like the one that happens in Crecy, which lasts a good while, and is clearly so interested in surviving and gaining fame and glory for himself – which is easily perceived in his insistence on being the one who will chart the strategy to defeat the rival army – that he only remembers his promise when it is thrown directly at his face by the forced coincidences of the plot. Thus, passages like “Oh, there was that spear, yeah.” are alarmingly present. Even minor characters like Hobb and Guillaume have to basically make the protagonist remember the title of his series of novels.
But Thomas is an archer and only because of that a valuable member of the English army. The ability of the longbow to kill half a battalion before it could at least approach its enemy was one of the crucial factors in making England the most fearsome war force in Europe in the early fourteenth century. In this way, knowing how much he is worth to the army and feeling comfortable in fighting for it, Thomas cannot glimpse what he could gain by deserting in search of a spear that legends, in which he clearly does not believe, say to be sacred.
Nevertheless, the plot surrounding the Hundred Years’ War, which dominates the book, even though being shallow, is better than the search for the Grail, having even its own antagonist: the poor knight Sir Simon Jekyll, who, in search of fortune, ends up creating a personal quarrel with the archer. Simon’s character is much better built than that of Harlequin – whom Bernard Cornwell simply describes as someone who always keeps his cool and tone of voice – and throughout the book the reader may even come to sympathize a little with the knight, since he has his desires (riches and women) much more outlined and understandable than those of the main villain, who remains an empty mystery.
Most of the characters in The Archer’s Tale follow, however, the characterization of Harlequin and not of Sir Simon, being stereotypes and considerably tiresome. Thomas, for example, is tall, handsome and deadly. He likes women and blood, and his development ends there. He is certainly not a character consumed by the desire for revenge or has any interesting aspiration. For him, just joining the army, proving himself crucial to its success and having a woman are enough to be happy. In this way, and always reinforcing his extreme reluctance to pursue the Grail, it is difficult for any reader to sympathize with the protagonist.
Joanette’s character, in turn, in an odd attempt to be complex, is instead totally contradictory. At the beginning of the book, in the siege of the city of La Roche-Derrien, the character is presented as an enemy warrior famous for possessing excellent aim and a fierce personality, even being called Blackbird. However, after the city is besieged, she is portrayed as a fragile, whiny, silly and irritating woman, who does not even try to defend herself against injustice. The character at the beginning, Blackbird, is completely opposite to the woman who accompanies the protagonist for the rest of the novel, and she never again presents the rough and violent traces that were first seen, showing a great lack of care by Cornwell in building the protagonist’s romantic pair. Conflicting elements can often help build complex characters, but in Joannete’s case they are so absurd and disparate that they could never belong to the same one.
By making St. George’s spear have little usefullness even at the final battle, Cornwell shows that he prefers to write more about historical battles than to tell an intriguing story in which they take place. If the novel was called “The Hundred Years’ War Chronicles, Volume 1 – The Archer’s Tale,” and the annoying Grail story was completely dropped, it would certainly have been, at least, a much more honest book.
December 06, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on March 11, 2015.
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November 8th 2005 by Harper Perennial