The Lute PlayerBy: Norah Lofts
A Novel of Richard the Lionhearted
A Tree of Life Book
Addressed most particularly to those whose youthful hero worship was extended to Richard Plantagenet.
During the four years that it has taken me to gather the information and to write this book I have been asked many times that inevitable question, ‘What is your new book about?’ And when, replying with the inevitable reserve, caution and embarrassment, ‘Mainly about Richard I and the Third Crusade,’ I have been astounded by the warmth and enthusiasm with which people have responded, ‘Oh, Richard I! He was one of my heroes!’
Why do I feel that I owe them, and all those with similar feelings, an apology? Chiefly, I suppose, because I fear that anyone who comes to this book with the pleasurable expectation of renewing acquaintance with the hero of The Talisman is bound to suffer disappointment.
When I was at an impressionable age the cinema had not reached the Suffolk countryside and Robert Taylor, even if he were born then, probably had charm only for his mother; but we had our heroes nevertheless. The war, “the last war” or what I once heard a witty drunk call “the penultimate war,” was just beginning and all the girls in my class were in love with Lord Kitchener. Anybody now so young as to doubt that so austere and remote a figure could inspire adolescent passion should read the O. Henry story which tells of a girl who was saved from a fate worse than death by the mere contemplation of his photograph. It was like that. What his pictured features saved my contemporaries from I cannot say; I only know that they were everywhere, rubbed and wrinkled in school satchels, carefully pasted inside books; even, believe it or not, tucked into the taut, youth-bursting tops of gym tunics.
I was immune, salted against this Kitchener fever, for I had just read The Talisman and had no room in my heart—or my gym tunic—for the hero of Khartoum. Richard Plantagenet was my hero, though I took care not to reveal this eccentricity. And through the years that intervened, while heroes came and heroes went, I remained, in my fashion, faithful.
So, popular and profitable a pastime as debunking may be, I did not set out to denigrate Richard Plantagenet. One must write as one finds and there is ample evidence, not only in his behaviour to Berengaria but in the comments and homilies of his contemporaries, to show that in some respects he differed from ordinary men as much as, in other respects, he excelled them. I, for one, am not convinced that one flaw necessarily reduces the hero. His valour, his romantic singleness of purpose remain unquestioned; and that one remark to his traitor brother, ‘I forgive you, John, and I wish I could as easily forget your offence as you will my pardon,’ must establish forever both his magnanimity and his wit.
I am told that in this story two things sound very false; they are the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain and the account of Richard halting in the middle of a battle to eat food provided by the Saracens. Both are, oddly enough, as completely vouched for as any incident in the Third Crusade. It must have been a remark of that kind which made Henri Fabre say—with, we are told, a chuckle—
‘They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not be the truth.’
Some incidents, of course, are purely fictional and many of the people; Anna Apieta has no existence outside this book and there seems to be a gathering doubt about Blondel.
I offer it all, fact and fiction, surmise and story, with the hope that it will be read without too much disappointment and ‘without fatigue.’
Part One: God’s Pauper
This fragment of the lute player’s story is told by himself. He was called by his given name, Edward, and was a novice of the Abbey of Gorbalze in Burgundy. The incident of which he tells took place in the early spring of the year AD 1188.
‘Another pack of wolves,’ Brother Lawrence said as we rounded a curve in the track and sighted the little group of beggars. And I thought how much I would have preferred to meet actual four-legged wolves. One’s attitude toward a wolf pack is so simple; one hates, one fears; one attacks and scatters it or one flees in terror before it. No pity is involved. And I, for three days now, had been so wrenched by pity, so appalled by my own lack of power to help those I pitied, that now, seeing the beggars on the path, I thought that I could far more easily have stood still and let a wolf pack tear me to pieces than face a repetition of the scenes at Vibray and Amiche.