“The abbey awed me; it was in itself the largest town I had seen, ringed by a thick wall broken by occasional narrow windows, with the houses of the village scattered around outside. By the wall loomed the skeleton of a building greater than I had dreamed possible, clad in wooden scaffolding. The ribbed bones of huge arches made me think of the great fish which had swallowed up holy Jonah. The entrance was guarded by a solid gatehouse. It squatted on the walls with menace. I realised that it hunched there as much to close the inhabitants in as to keep strangers out. Above the gates was carved the Clunaic coat of arms – two large keys crossed over a single heavenwards pointing sword. It pictured to me an uncompromising message: ‘here forever you will be locked away from your childhood knightly ambition.’
– Hugh de Verdon, The Waste Land
In The Waste Land by Simon Acland, the Master of a nearly bankrupt college needs to improve the institution’s finances. Enter a former student, now a Best-Selling Author and the Research Assistant with a timely solution: the novelization of an ancient manuscript. The turbulent life of Hugh de Verdon, a would-be knight errant unfolds on this timeworn parchment, which seems to predate the unfinished work of Chrétien de Troyes, on Perceval and the grail. Each of the college’s administrators has a keen interest in the manuscript, much to the Best-Selling Author’s dismay. When their concerns conflict, it soon becomes clear that one person among them is less keen on the adaptation of Hugh’s fascinating story, and perhaps is willing to kill his academic rivals to prevent its publication.
As Mr. Acland takes the reader from the contemporary world of the college to the high Middle Ages, likewise Hugh moves between the secular and spiritual spheres of the world, often questioning the ideals and realities of both arenas. Orphaned and disinherited in his childhood, he enters the Benedictine abbey at Cluny, seemingly consigned to a monkish life forever. Yet his natural curiosity soon takes him beyond the abbey walls, as Pope Urban II announces the holy Crusade to retake Jerusalem and the surrounding cities from the Muslims. Now in the service of Duke Godfrey de Bouillon, Hugh journeys on his own quest to become a knight, resolve the doubts surrounding his faith, and find the woman he loves. In a strange encounter with a mysterious Old Man of the Mountains, Hugh undergoes a life-altering change and learns some of the answers he is seeking lie in his past.
Whether in the depiction of Hugh’s loneliness at Cluny, or the gory battle scenes of the First Crusade, Mr. Acland excels at showing Hugh’s development. Each scene and location is remarkably detailed, and the historical figures are equally fascinating. In particular, I enjoyed the characterization on Hugh’s overlord Godfrey, as a lusty, battle-hardened leader; often shown in contrast to his conniving brother Baldwin de Boulogne, who usually serves to frustrate Godfrey’s plans. Hugh’s first-person narration ensures that the reader experiences the full range of the character’s emotions and thoughts, and a deeply personal view of his perspective on the Crusade. I won’t spoil the ending, but it entirely fits the theme of a grail romance. Hugh’s journey continues in the sequel, The Flowers of Evil, due in 2011.