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“A Series of Tales” • 169 course, the notorious rake and poltroon chronicled by George MacDonald Fraser. Needless to say, these are just some of the tongue-in-cheek jokes and perhaps overly recondite allusions that make up “A Case for Langdale Pike.” “A Series of Tales” • Vincent Starrett once observed that Conan Doyle “wrote scores of novels and short stories as entertaining as any in the saga of Sherlock Holmes” and “it is well to have the fact restated at intervals for the benefit of the young.” Starrett then went on to point to the Professor Challenger adventures, the supernatural tales, and the Brigadier Gerard stories. These are obviously the principal works—of fiction, at least—to read after one has absorbed the irreplaceable canon itself . But what other Conan Doyle books deserve rediscovery? First of all, there are Conan Doyle’s historical romances, the novels he long thought his best: The White Company (1891) and its later prequel Sir Nigel (1906). I was never drawn to either as a boy, because knights somehow struck me as hokey. Too much clanking armor, perhaps. More 170 • recently, general opinion seems to dismiss the pair as “a snore,” largely because Conan Doyle overburdened them with his research. As Hugh Kingsmill long ago observed of The White Company , “None of the persons in the book can stir a step without bumping into material out of Conan Doyle’s notebooks.” As a result, the two linked novels—both revolve around Sir Nigel Loring— are generally regarded as little more than faded medieval tapestries, and just about as exciting. But I wonder if people have actually opened The White Company recently. In my view, it is far more than “a correct picture of the age”—as its author once called the novel—and far more entertaining than its sorry reputation would lead one to believe. Yes, the vocabulary and syntax can seem quaintly archaic at times, but Conan Doyle nonetheless injects a wonderful bounce and sweetness into the narrative . In these pages everything is springlike, full of the sap and exuberance of youth. It’s also quietly funny throughout. The plot is simple. Alleyne Edricsson has been brought up in the monastery of Beaulieu, but at the age of twenty is sent out into the world. His late father’s bequest insisted that he be given what we might call a “gap year” to see life before choos- “A Series of Tales” • 171 ing either a secular or religious vocation. Now, the realist novel has been defined—by Stendhal—as a mirror traveling down a roadway, and that virtually describes The White Company, especially its rumbustious initial chapters. As Alleyne trudges along toward the estate of his scoundrel brother, he encounters a Chaucerian parade of medieval folk—artists and acrobats and thieves and murderers and scholars and soldiers and peasants, and finally a damsel in distress. Eventually, Alleyne joins the esteemed and chivalric Sir Nigel Loring’s company of archers, sails to France, and there begins a series of dashing adventures. Throughout The White Company the reader repeatedly feels the influence of Conan Doyle’s beloved Macaulay and Scott behind the rhetorical sweep and cadence of even the simplest sentences: “From sea to sea there was stringing of bows in the cottage and clang of steel in the castle.” Since the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories is so adept at plain speaking, it’s good to be reminded that he also commanded the high style. Alleyne finds himself falling in love with the Lady Maude: “Stronger than reason, stronger than cloister teachings, stronger than all that might hold him back, was that old, old tyrant who will brook no rival in the kingdom of youth.” 172 • Sometimes, Conan Doyle allows himself an almost Rabelaisian verbal gusto: “I have seen Frenchmen fight both in open field, in the intaking and the defending of towns or castlewicks, in escalades, camisades, night forays, bushments, sallies, outfalls, and knightly spear-runnings.” At other times, he could be Tolstoy describing a young man’s confusion during his first experience of battle. When Sir Nigel’s ship goes into combat against two heavily armed pirate vessels, Alleyne is standing by its tiller: “What was that?” he asked, as a hissing, sharpdrawn voice seemed to whisper in his ear. The steersman smiled, and pointed with his foot to where a short heavy cross-bow quarrel stuck quivering in the boards. At the same instant the man stumbled forward upon his knees...


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