Knight Crusader (1954)

Knight Crusader was written by Ronald Welch in 1954. My edition was published in 1970. It is not illustrated by William Dobbs, which is a shame as apparently, his drawings are incredible. Knight Crusader is the first book in a series about the military exploits of the fictional Carey family published between 1954 and 1972. The Carey books retained their popularity and were reprinted by OUP and by Penguin throughout the 1970 and 1980s, while Knight Crusader was reprinted singly by OUP as late as 2013. The entire Carey Family cycle, including Knight Crusader, has also now been reissued by Slightly Foxed in a very delectable edition.

Set in 12th century Kingdom of Outremer (present-day Palestine) during the Third Crusade, the novel follows the exploits of Philip de Aubigny, a young squire in his father’s castle, Blanche Garde. We follow his elevation to knighthood and the shock of participating in the ruthless battle of Hattin, against the army of Saladin. When the Christians lose, Philip is taken as a slave and ends up as a trusted servant in the house of Emir Usamah Ibn-Menquidh. The second part of the book tells of his escape from Damascus and his allegiance to King Richard of England as he takes part in the victorious battle of Arsuf. In part three, he comes to Britain to claim his inheritance, the Welsh fief of Llanstephan, ousting the current occupant De Braose who will not give it up without a fight.
Ronald Welch (real name: Ronald Oliver Felton) was a history master (and later headmaster) who had hands-on military experience as a tank commander during World War II. His knowledge and experience, both as a history master and as a professional soldier, is evident in his books. He complied copious notebooks of information for each novel. Welch’s research and his melding of fact and fiction gave a depth and apparent authenticity to his tales – he understood that what makes a lost epoch stick in your mind is not the dates but the details. Apparently, such was Welch’s mastery of detail that his publisher, Oxford University Press, asked him to fact-check their other historical novels.

Welch’s books are hybrids of adventure stories and military history and present a narrative where the central character is repeatedly tested in some way before achieving martial success. These characteristics put them firmly in the same genre as C.S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Bernard Cornwell – books that live on my husband’s side of the bookshelves to this day. But while the adult genre continues to flourish, Welch’s work was the last of its kind in mainstream children’s publishing. From the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, war stories were an acceptable part of children’s, particularly boys’ lives, whether in books or, later, comics and films. Following World War I a glorified vision of war was no longer quite possible to maintain, individually or critically. Nowadays, books about warrior virtues are rare, and combat is seen as a tragedy and a waste (e.g. as portrayed in Private Peaceful (2003) or Across the Divide (2018) by Anne Booth ) rather than a source of heroism and pride. Thus from the 1950s onward, writers of books about warriors and combats tended to retreat to previous eras when the notion of war as heroic and chivalric might still apply. The novels of Rosemary Sutcliff for instance, are about earlier warrior societies like the Romans and the Vikings. The Crusades, 800 years ago, might just about qualify as so far removed that warrior virtues can be central to the narrative thrust. This may very well explain why Knight Crusader, out of the entire Carey family cycle was repeatedly reprinted, even after the others fell out of print.

However, it is this cultural baggage that accounts for my own feelings of guilt-tinged pleasure in reading what I generally felt was a rollicking good read. I don’t really know much about the crusades, other than the rather unnuanced view that they were bloody and unjustified when viewed through a contemporary lens. Fundamentally my view was not changed through reading Knight Crusader, but the setting felt realistic, and I do feel that my understanding of (and interest in) the period has increased.

So why was it a good read? Firstly, there’s the romantic hero, Philip D’Aubigny, who, like all the Careys who come after him, possess imposing physical features, exceptional sporting talents and remarkable abilities with their weapons as well as courage, poise, manners and an ability to mix with high and low alike. These are recognisably romantic elements with the attraction of wish-fulfilment for boy readers (or, indeed, for female readers!). Secondly, Welch is fantastic on historical details and melds the cultural features and differences seamlessly into the narrative, so that the reader is never drowned in excessive detail or bogged down in unfamiliar terminology.

Welch is quite measured too – the romantic hero is grounded in the details of the experience of the professional soldier. The horrors of war are described in a clear-sighted way, taking the view of the individual soldier and calls attention to the discomfort, unpredictability and terror of the experience. In Knight Crusader, Phillip sees his adored older cousin ‘hacked to pieces’ in a battle and is advised by his father that “You will get used to seeing your friends killed before you’re much older. I’ve become hardenend to it”. Written in the 1950s, there is almost inevitably the occasional imperial racist undertone. Still, overall Welch shows great respect for the Saracens, and the customs of the Middle East are portrayed as being far more advanced and civilised than those of medieval Europe. And Philip D’Aubigny challenges and defeats a Norman knight after he questions the friendship of Philip’s family with Muslims. Relationships between regular armies on the battlefield are governed by chivalry and notions of respect for the enemy and recognition of the opponent’s common humanity.

The flaws are more observable in the absence than the presence – because the novel is generally about combat, the impact on civilians plays no part. Similarly, women, ‘half the sky’, practically do not figure in the book. As a female reader, I can accept this absence because of the setting, and find that females, in general, can imagine themselves as the main character, without sharing their gender. I am, however, beyond irritated by the one Goodreads reader who commented, on the entire Carey cycle, that thankfully there were no women in it (!!). From the fact that Welch asked his daughter to read sections of the book as he wrote it to make sure he hit the right level of details for a children’s book, I surmise Welch himself did not intend this kind of silly gender-bias.

Structurally, the book is divided into three sections; the battle against Saladin, the escape from captivity and finally the events in Wales. The transitions between these three sections are abrupt and explained only in an extremely summary way. In particular, the events leading up to Philip D’Aubigny’s arrival in Britain which could easily fill several interesting chapters, are blithely skipped. It all feels like a bit of a comedown and seems only to provide a narrative device of anchoring the Carey family back in Britain, from whence they can serve in the major British battles of the historical future. The reader lands with a clunk, and the book really never recovers from this transitional flaw.

Keith Barker was clearly not a fan: “It carries with it all the trappings of the historical adventure yarn”. Possibly he felt that Knight Crusader was not the best choice for the winner that year. 1954 was the first year the Carnegie Medal panel published a list of special commendations. Amongst them were The Children of Green Knowe (which has had more critical success) and The Horse and His Boy and The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff) both of which have had more critical and commercial success. However, times and the fortunes of historical novels wax and wane and an article in The Telegraph (June 2020) calls the Carey cycle ‘Wolf Hall for kids’ with the subtitle “why Ronald Welch’s novels will help your children fall in love with history”. Based on Knight Crusader, and despite its flaws, I can’t help but agree. 8/10.

Have you read this book? How do you feel about it? I would love to hear your comments on it or my views of it!

For this blog post I’ve leaned on information in Keith Barker Outstanding Books for Children and Young People, Wolf Hall for Kids (article in The Telegraph, 28th June 2020), the article A View of War and Soldiering in the Carey Novels of Ronald Welch by Clive Barnes, published by Children’s Literature in Education (2016), and Chosen for Children by the Library Association which contains a short essay by Ronald Welch about the process of writing Knight Crusader.

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