01 August 2008

Knights' Ransom (S F Welty)

I think it was Betsy Bird who was blogging a while back about old children's books that really ought to be reprinted. Knights' Ransom, by S F Welty, is one that I think fits that category.

In 1396 the Kingdom of Hungary was threatened with attack by the Turkish sultan Bayezid I (also known in the west as Bajazet). An army, largely composed of French and Burgundian forces under the leadership of Count John of Nevers, travelled from Paris to the Hungarian capital of Buda, where it joined King Sigismond's army. Bajazet had not yet appeared, so eventually the decision was made to take the war to him. After attacking a few smaller Turkish towns, the Christian army arrived at Nicopolis (now Nikopol, Bulgaria) and lay siege to it.

Bajazet, who had been fed intel on Christian movements by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, took his time, waiting until his full army was gathered before moving on Nicopolis. His arrival took the Western army by surprise, and the resulting battle was a disastrous defeat for the French. Many were killed; most of the prisoners were executed by the Turks, with only a few kept to be ransomed. I haven't found a list of prisoners or a description of the ransom demanded, but it was obviously paid, for Count John succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy in 1404.

Knights' Ransom starts near Paris, on the day the French set out for Hungary. Young Vahl Thorfinnsson, a falconer in the service of Count John, is part of the crowd; his task will be to tend Count John's falcons during the journey - especially Crusader, the white Greenland falcon.*

Vahl is captured just before the battle of Nicopolis, whilst out exercising Crusader, and he and the bird are taken to Bajazet, who is also a devotee of the sport of kings.
Dusk began to fall, but the troops of prisoners brought into the camp grew larger and larger. The clash of arms diminished, though the screaming of wounded men grew shriller and harsher as the hours wore on. Vahl caught sight of several standards he knew, borne in triumph by Moslem horsemen. Flaunted in the Turkish camp, the pennons could only mean that their owners were dead or prisoners.

Vahl sat on the warm, dry ground and bowed his aching head in his arms, trying in vain to close his ears as well as his eyes to the evidences of defeat. But his curiosity was stronger than his fear. He wrenched his eyes open in time to see Count John of Nevers and five of his leading knights, in heavy chains like common criminals. They moved under guard, and their rich raiment was torn and soiled with dust and blood, but their heads were still high. They bore themselves, even in adversity, with pride and courage. Groaning, Vahl covered his face with his hands.

Vahl manages to escape, taking Crusader with him, and makes his way back to France. There he is accused of cowardice and imprisoned by Count John's father, Duke Philip II of Burgundy, who refuses even to listen to Vahl's story. Three days later, Vahl is joined in his cell by a friend, Sir Olivier of Artois, who escaped from the battle and was received in France with the same welcome Vahl received. On the day set for their execution, however, they are saved by the arrival of another knight, Sir James de Helly, who has been sent as an emissary from Bajazet.

The sultan is willing to return some two score prisoners in exchange for a ransom consisting of gold, scarlet cloth, tapestries, fine linen - and twelve Greenland falcons. Twelve? There are only three of these rare and valuable birds in all of France, owned by Count John, Duke Philip and the king himself, Charles VI. The king agrees to send these three on to Bajazet as a down payment, while Vahl and Sir Olivier travel to Greenland to obtain nine more.

Only ships from Bergen are permitted to trade with Greenland, so they must sail from Bruges to Bergen, and thence to Iceland, Greenland and even beyond, to the lands discovered four centuries earlier by Leif Eiriksson. They meet with various interruptions along the way, including pirates:
Vahl's place was at Sir Olivier's side, but he could not hold it. The agile knight was everywhere at once; he seemed to find the thickest of the fray by instinct, strike an enemy a disabling blow, and attack another. But Vahl found himself duelling with a short, barrel-chested fellow twice his age and sturdy as an oak. The man beat him back until he could retreat no further except over the deck rail into the sea. Into that icy deathtrap his enemy might have pushed him, had not the pirate suddenly slipped. He recovered too quickly for Vahl to strike him down, but not quick enough to prevent Vahl's safe retreat to the foot of the tiny castle in the stern of the ship. Against him there his assailant soon pressed fiercely. He backed Vahl against the cabin door in the wall and set to work with heavy blows to finish him. One of the pirate's comrades, having struck down an opponent, ran to his aid. Together they fell upon the squire.

The book is rich in historical detail, and includes a glossary, mainly of terms used in falconry, and a map of Vahl's travels. My only quibble was a description of a cottage with strings of peppers hanging from the rafters; peppers are American plants, unknown in Europe until a century after the setting of this book.

Knights' Ransom, by S F Welty, Follett Publishing Company, 1951. Long out of print, alas, but available from various on-line used-book dealers, and probably also through interlibrary loan (ILL).

* The gyrfalcon, Falco rusticolus.


Sherry said...

I'm interested in books with medieval settings right now because my homeschooled children are going to be studying the Middle Ages in school this year. So, I think I'll add this one to my ever-growing list and try to finagle a copy somehow.

reddog said...

Did you know falcon's are really just carnivorous parrots?

Polly want a finger?