Set in the middle of the fourteenth century, Sir Nigel is a swashbuckling story of the eponymous hero as he seeks his fortune and the hand of his lady-love in England and France in the early part of the Hundred Years War. It is full of high romance and chivalry, battles and brutality, humour and sheer rumbustiousness as the impoverished Nigel Loring and his lascivious attendant Aylward seek their fortunes. Edward III, the Black Prince, Sir John Chandos - one of the original Knights of the Garter - all make their appearances in one of the favourite books from the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent so much of his time with Sherlock Holms he only wrote two books in this series (Sir Nigle & The White Company) This is a pity! This book takes you back to the Hundred Years War with characters and places which should add to your understanding of the period and your list of friends you have met in the pages of books. It is told with humor and scholarship and leave you wishing he had done many more.
You can't blame Nigel Loring for hating Waverly Abbey. Its smug and rapacious monks have snatched most of his ancestral land, leaving his grandmother and him with but a handful of acres and aging servitors and without enough money to equip the 22-year-old would-be knight with armor with which to adventure for fame and honor. But perhaps Nigel has gone too far when, in the first chapter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's episodic historical novel Sir Nigel (1905/06), he has put pike in the carp ponds of Abbot John, which "scathe" leads the fleshy and florid man of spiritual and temporal power to try to evict the Lorings once and for all from their manor house. Thus begins Nigel's knightly career, which stars in 1349 and occurs mostly in France during the 100 Years War.
The novel is full of details of mid-14th century life in England and Europe: falconry, venery, fletchery, armor, weapons, war, food, clothes, etc. Conan Doyle occasionally indulges in info-dumping as to things like the appearance of a typical manor, the dishes of a typical feast, or the superstitious and religious beliefs of the typical Christian, but he's a good enough writer and a big enough fan of the 14th century that such passages are usually interesting.
Conan Doyle writes exciting action, like this: "With his arms round the robber's burly body and his face buried in his bushy beard, Aylward gasped and strained and heaved. Back and forward in the dusty road the two men stamped and staggered, a grim wrestling-match, with life for the prize." And various violent scenes occur, like a fight between Nigel and a twisted nobleman, a sea battle between the English and the Spanish, a siege of a butcher baron's castle, and a famous historical battle (Poitiers) between an English army of 8,000 and a French army of 30,000.
Although Conan Doyle's heart is with the English, he does depict along with his knightly Norman and Saxon heroes some chivalrous French and dastardly British (usually ugly of face or deformed of body). However, although Conan Doyle pays lip service to the chaos and ravages that the 100 Years War inflicted upon France, pointing out that Brittany was "the saddest, blackest land," rife with atrocities and brigands, he does rather treat it as his hero Nigel sees it, as a delightful country in which to achieve honorable advancement through knightly adventure, or, as he tiresomely repeats, to "win worship worshipfully," without ever sympathizing with how hellish it must be for the locals to have so many armies pillaging and killing back and forth across their countryside. For such men as Nigel, a truce between England and France is the worst news--which they deal with by indulging in a brutal 30 on 30 "joust" (combat on foot).
Indeed, the Black Prince, one of the paragons of chivalry according to Conan Doyle, has been leading an army of 8,000 English burning villages and ravaging land through the south of France, and when finally brought to bay by a larger French army, he utilizes his common British bowman to devastate the chivalry of France. In the context of the 100 Years War, Conan Doyle's admiration of Nigel's chivalry finally doesn't ring true or meet, and though aware that he's depicting the waning years of chivalry, he likes knight errantry and England too much to recognize how much damage the former caused and how great a role the latter played in ending chivalry.
I do like that Conan Doyle has Nigel fail nearly as often as he succeeds in his adventures, revealing that during his hero's thirty-some years of warring and adventuring, he spent at least seven years recovering from injury and illness. And the novel is often quite funny, as when Nigel's side-kick Samkin Aylward (who also appears in The White Company) whispers numbers in his naive master's ear during some bargaining with a greedy goldsmith, or as when young Nigel bars passage across a bridge while wearing his father's too large coat of mail in a comical jury-rigged fashion.
I also like Conan Doyle's use of archaic English for dialogue, often so as to reveal character and historical details: "It is in my mind, John of Tuxford, that you have looked in the face more pots of mead than Frenchmen," said the old bowyer. "I am swinking from dawn to night, while you are guzzling in an alestake. How now, youngster? Overbowed? Put your bow in the tiller. It draws at sixty pounds--not a pennyweight too much for a man of your inches. Lay more body to it, lad, and it will come to you. If your bow be not stiff, how can you hope for a twenty-score flight. Feathers? Aye, plenty and of the best. Here, peacock at a groat each. Surely a dandy archer like you, Tom Beverley, with gold earrings in your ears, would have no feathering but peacocks?"
Conan Doyle writes modern English for his base narration, which includes many vivid and interesting scenes, like one where a man at arms is found dead in his armor "spread out in his shattered case like a crab beneath a stone," and like this one: "Besides all these a constant stream of strange vagabonds drifted along the road: minstrels who wandered from fair to fair, a foul and pestilent crew; jugglers and acrobats, quack doctors and tooth-drawers, students and beggars, free workmen in search of better wages, and escaped bondsmen who would welcome any wages at all. Such was the throng which set the old road smoking in a haze of white dust from Winchester to the narrow sea."
Stephen Thorn engagingly and professionally reads the audiobook.
Conan Doyle's earlier The White Company (1891) relates the maturing of Alleyne Edricson under the influence of the now middle-aged and still recklessly chivalrous Sir Nigel. Both well-written books have moments of humor and suspense and are full of interesting 100 Years War era details, but I would only recommend Sir Nigel to Conan Doyle completists or fans of medieval chivalry fiction--though it is interesting to spend time with a Conan Doyle hero so different from the cerebral and calculating Sherlock Holmes.