Despite the fact that Mr. L’Amour is famous for his novels of the American West, this book, The Walking Drum, is not about the West at all. It’s set in 12th century Europe and the Middle East and concerns a young man named Kerbouchard, the son of a druidic Celtic woman and a pirate father. As the novel begins, Kerbouchard’s father has been captured and sold into slavery and his mother has been murdered before his eyes by a neighboring enemy. Kerbouchard sets out to find and free his father and to avenge his mother’s death, but before long, he is himself taken captive by a band of corsairs.
I said this novel wasn’t a western, but Kerbouchard is a twelfth century cowboy adventurer by another name. His philosophy of life is summed up in these words: ” . . a strong man need wish for no more than this: a sword in the hand, a strong horse between his knees, and a woman he loves at the battle’s end.” Kerbouchard travels from Moorish Spain to Paris to Kiev to Constantinople, usually on the run from various enemies he has made in the course of his travels. He finds and leaves a girl in every port —or city. His quest is to find his father, but he takes a rather roundabout way to get there. The plot of the novel is made up of battles, daring rescues, escapes from prison, strangely chaste love scenes, and more battles. Kerbouchard is a self-proclaimed pagan, but when in Spain he takes on the outward practices of the Muslims and in Paris he taunts the Christians with their superstitious ways. The author clearly preferred medieval Islamic culture to medieval Christian culture, and he tells us again and again how refined and educated and tolerant were the Muslims of Spain and the Middle East and how superstitious and backward and intolerant the Christians of Frankish lands were. Perhaps so, although I doubt the contrast was quite so great as this book makes out.
Mr. L’Amour’s novel is full of historical references and details, and for anyone interested in twelfth century European life, it would be a wonderful beginning to a study of that century. (L’Amour in the Author’s Note at the end of the book: “One of the best means of introduction to any history is the historical novel.”) For instance, here’s a description of the course of study in the Paris universities of the time:
Hungry for learning, young men came to Paris to learn, many of them walking for days to reach the city. Only a few had sufficient money to maintain themselves. Books were scarce, paper expensive, teachers diverse in attitude. After three years a student might be received bachelier-des-arts, but two years more were required to get his master’s degree or license. To become a doctor of medicine required eight years of study, and to earn a degree of doctor theology the student had to present and defend four theses. The last of these was a challenge only the exceptional dared attempt, for the candidate was examined from six in the morning until six at night, nor was he allowed to leave his place to eat, drink, or for any other purpose. Twenty examiners, relieving each other every half hour, did their best to find flaws in the preparation of the student.
Ah! students today are such wimps; a two hour test is considered cruel and unusual punishment. And we romanticize classical education if we believe it only consisted of the delightful study of Latin and rhetoric in an open-air classroom. All educational systems and methods have their advantages and their difficulties.
L’Amour obviously planned to write a sequel to The Walking Drum; he says as much in the Author Notes. However, according to his official website, he never got around to writing the two other books in his planned trilogy about Kerbouchard and his adventures. Kerbouchard, who thinks of himself as a student and a philosopher, is not really a deep thinker (see philosophy of life above), but he’s an interesting character. It might have been fun to see what difficulties L’Amour could have dropped him into and retrieved him from in the sequels. As it is, you’ll have to make do with volume one of the life and adventures of Kerbouchard, student, merchant, pirate, soldier, and rescuer of fair maidens.
Two more nuggets from L’Amour/Kerbouchard:
“Reading without thinking is as nothing, for a book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think.”
“There is no miraculous change that takes place in a boy that makes him a man. He becomes a man by being a man, acting like a man.”
Yes and amen.