If winning glory and honour in combat is an ideal that many young lads foster, becoming a knight and overcoming all evil-doers in the process must once have been the ultimate dream! At 16, Cuthbert, the young hero of this adventure, pulls it off.
With the tearful and reluctant blessing of his widowed mum, Cuthbert succumbs to the same lure of performing great feats that tempts many young men to enter upon quests of endurance and strength. As a page accompanying his earl, he travels with his king to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade in 1190. On the way, he shows that he has -in spades! – all the hallmarks of medieval chivalry: refined courtesy to women; strength against superior opponents on the jousting field; daring to out-smart treacherous rogues from without; cunning to foil cloak-and-dagger intrigues from within; heroism in deadly skirmishes with Saracens, and a strong and enduring loyalty to his king. And so, after rescuing maidens in England and crusading almost to the gates of Jerusalem, Cuthbert is knighted by one of the most dashing figures in medieval history, Richard the Lionheart.
But, little by little, the reader learns that while human honour, courage and military skill are all worthy virtues that support the knights’ code of chivalry, they should never be sought as absolutes. In King Richard, a man of extraordinary physical and human talent, we witness the sad results of the intemperate use of power. Like so many ‘great’ men, past and present, either because of an inadequate education, an overindulgence in the good life, or unchecked pride, we see that even though he was virtually untouchable on the combat field, he was unable to gain sufficient self-mastery off it to rule wisely either in war or in peace; and that the resultant excesses of his arrogance had unfortunate consequences for friend and foe alike.
“Had he been a lesser man,’’ laments one of his dutiful lieutenants, “we might have conquered Jerusalem.”
Cuthbert’s forgiving heart and generous spirit easily overlook his king’s flaws, and these make his extraordinary feats even more attractive.
David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.