The Greatest Knight


Elizabeth Chadwick




Date Reviewed:

June 22, 2007

wo stars maybe too harsh a rating for this book. After all, it kept me turning the pages evening after evening (and there are plenty of pages to turn - the hard cover edition I read weighs in at 545 pages!). My dissatisfaction with the book is that it turns out to be just a prologue to the second book. A lot of history / setup occurs in this book, but the protoganist doesn't actually perform any deeds that would define him as Great. In the afterword, Chadwick informs us that William Marshall (the character who is The Greatest Knight) became regent of England, and in that role, he saved England from bankruptcy and an invading army. Unfortunately, none of those events occur in this book.

Chadwick is reputed to be an excellent historical novelist - I had not read any of her books yet, so decided to I would give this one a try. At the time I picked up the Greatest Knight, I did not know it was part one of a two book story. I probably should have tried a self-contained-in-one-volume novel first, to see if I like Chadwick's writing. (The sequel is called The Scarlet Lion, not yet available in the United States.) This book is the story of William Marshall, a common knight who rises to become a trusted confidant of the Kings of England (this novel is set during the time of King Henry and King Richard and the villanous Prince John.)

Although there was a historical character named William Marshall, there must be nothing known of his younger days. I suspect that Chadwick made up all the details of his youth and as a young knight. I felt that the first half of this book was the better half, the story flow is better. In the second half of the novel, after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the story starts jumping between major events in Marshall's life. Indeed, the entire 3 year journey to Jerusalem and back is covered in just a chapter or two, while in the first half of the novel, Chadwick devotes lots of attention to a single tournament. (William Marshall must have been the Lancelot of his day, winning tournamets right from the start of his career.)

In the second half of the novel, pay attention to the dates in the chapter heading. A lot of time can pass in a blink. I thought this meant Chadwick was speeding up the pace to get to Marshall's death by the end of the book, but at the end of the book Marshall is very much alive. Indeed, the royal intrigue is just heating up. The novel just sort of ends, obviously there is a lot more of the tale to be told.

William Marshall is portrayed as a man with a 21st century personality - he is kind to women, polite and chivalrous to the peasants, attentive and patient with children, he is loyal and honest. Were 12th century men really so enlightened? Despite the length of the book, we don't see much of Marshall in bloody battle. Marshall has sworn loyalty to King Henry, who rebels against his father, who is also named King Henry - Chadwick resolves ambiguity by refering to the son as Young Henry. But we barely witness any of fighting. Chadwick doesn't do a very good job of showing us WHY Marshall was the Greatest Knight (maybe all his deeds come in the second book) - Marshall seems mostly passive. He has no ambitions for land or power, for adventure nor wealth nor women. Mostly he seems to be a loyal guy who aspires to nothing more than winning a tournament. It is late in the book before Marshall decides to marry an heiress, Isabelle, who is approximately 20 years younger than him. (Despite that fact that Isabelle's lands seem to be in Ireland, I don't recall reading any mention of Marshall visiting that island.)

I think the passive behavior of Marshall is my biggest reason for scoring this book so low. I expect a guy named the Greatest Knight to actually accomplish some things, but he really doesn't much in this book. (Marshall's biggest accomplishments are what he DOESN'T do - he doesn't engage in conspiracies nor plots against the king, he doesn't cheat on his wife, etc). Chadwick's writing is interesting enough, but I expected more action in a 550 page book.