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Knights of the Black and White
Kelowna author Jack Whyte has spent the past three decades writing nine books of historical fiction (most recently 2004’s Clothar the Frank and 2005’s The Eagle) exploring Arthurian legend and myth in an attempt “to establish King Arthur securely in a realistic and feasible historical context.” Over those years, he developed a large and loyal following. Most of his fans are no doubt swooning over this week’s release of a brand new novel, especially since it is the first of a new trilogy that aims to shine light on one of the most mysterious and secretive aspects of medieval history: the Knights Templar.
Skeptical readers might think Whyte is just trying to profit from The Da Vinci Code juggernaut, since the Knights Templar figure prominently in Dan Brown’s pseudo-historical bestseller which has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide since its publication in 2003. It is difficult to fault an author for wanting to sell books, but just as with his Arthurian series, Whyte’s intent here is somewhat more altruistic: his goal is to convert reams of raw historical research on a little-known and mostly unexplained legend into an exciting and entertaining story.
The opening chapter of Knights of the Black and the White, set in 1088 A.D. in the Champagne region of France, introduces a young knight, Hugh de Payens, as he undergoes his “Raising,” a cryptic ritual of induction into a secretive brotherhood called the Order of the Rebirth in Sion. This hereditary society, which selects only one son (and not necessarily the eldest) from each generation of its “Friendly Families” to join its ranks, was founded in Jerusalem in the days of Jesus Christ himself.
The Raising ceremony, which involves the symbolic death and resurrection of the initiate, is only the beginning of a long series of discoveries for young Sir Hugh—revelations about the very foundations of Christianity that shake his world view significantly. Over the next several years Hugh studies the Order’s historical lore and talks to his elders. What he learns, in a nutshell, is that the Christian Church “is built upon a myth created by the man called Paul”—the Apostle Paul, that is, who, according to the Bible, was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and who went on to do more to spread the Christian faith than perhaps any of his contemporaries.
The other revelation that rocks Hugh is that Jesus was not the divine son of God. The resurrection of Christ, upon which the entire Christian Church is built, was made up by Paul based on the very same Raising ceremony practiced by Hugh and his fellow members of the Order of the Rebirth in Sion. Paul took this idea and systematically “stripped it of everything Jewish that might be offensive to the Romans, and he constructed his new religion with great skill, to appeal to Roman tastes, traditions and superstitions, incorporation most of the favourite myths of Rome, and of Greece, and of Egypt.”
Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler; all of this information is revealed in the first 75 pages. The real point of this book is not to reveal these heretical ideas, but rather to show how the Knights Templar came to be. As such, the real action of the story begins in 1095 when Pope Urban makes an impassioned speech asking the lords and knights of Europe to travel to Jerusalem, then under control of the Muslim Seljuk Turks, and “tear God’s land from those abominable people!”
Thousands of knights respond to the Pope’s plea, and thus the Crusades begin. Although Hugh and his brother knights are skeptical of the Church’s true intentions, their superiors in the Order of the Rebirth encourage them to join the army travelling to the Holy Land because it will serve their interests to have members placed in Jerusalem once again.
The rest of the book focuses on Hugh and his fellow knights’ activities in and around Jerusalem during the First Crusade and in the years following as a Christian Kingdom is founded in the Holy Land. Without spoiling too much, it is here where the origin of the Knights Templar is revealed.
Whyte’s main fault in his Arthurian books was a tendency to overwrite, a habit which seemed to be rooted in his desire to make sure all of his research made an appearance in the books. The same problem occurs in Knights of the Black and White. Too often, he inserts long, information-filled speeches into his characters’ mouths—pages and pages of rambling, one-sided conversations that are both unlikely and tiresome. It is a weak choice that makes his characters seem wooden and unrealistic.
Whyte also chooses to skip over action-filled sequences such as the siege and conquest of Jerusalem in favour of having his characters talk about them afterwards. It is a strange writing strategy, especially since Sir Hugh’s experiences in the conquest of Jerusalem—seeing many of his fellow knights acting savagely, killing defenseless children, raping women, looting and pillaging their Holy City—affect his actions and define his character for the rest of the book.
Unfortunately, much of the first 200 pages suffers from this problem. Once the Knights get settled in Jerusalem, the story really takes off because most of what happens from then on is active and interesting. Really, this book would have been much better served opening with the siege of Jerusalem. Flashbacks could have been used to outline the necessary background information, but 200 pages of what is essentially preamble could mostly be cut.
It might be a case of needing a stronger editor. Presumably, since Whyte’s publication schedule has him pumping out a book a year, his publishers are doing little more than taking his first draft and sending it to the printers. It’s too bad, really, because with the right editor and enough time to revise, Knights of the Black and White could have been much better than it is. When pared down, Whyte’s writing is taut and gripping, but too often here, it is bloated and bland.
Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed
his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.
Copyright © Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.