Destination: Europe and the Holy Land
Book: The Lute Player: A Novel of Richard the Lionhearted by Norah Lofts. (Original 1951, Reprint 2009)
Norah Lofts said that when she told people the subject of her new book,[amazon_link id="B003JTHUU2" target="_blank" ] The Lute Player[/amazon_link], they responded, “Oh, Richard I. He was one of my heroes!”
By contrast, the newly released reprint that I read, a book club edition, in its questions for discussion asks, “What knowledge, if any, did you have of King Richard prior to reading The Lute Player?” I imagine that in America at least, people’s knowledge would be very fuzzy. Few would know Richard I or Richard the Lionhearted and fewer still could distinguish between 1st, 2nd and 3rd Crusades. (Let alone select Richard I as “one of my heroes.”)
To the author’s credit, one need not be a history whiz to understand the book. She tells a very human story, focused on four main characters. The beautiful Berengaria loves Richard, the handsome young King; her half-sister, the mal-formed but intelligent and witty Apieta, loves the lute player, Blondel. Blondel pines for Berengaria. And whom does Richard love? You will have to read the book.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, narrates one section of the book, but nearly fades from sight after that. I found myself wanting to follow her story, which I knew from the movie Lion in Winter. (I will forever picture Eleanor as Katherine Hepburn.)
I did think it was deceptive marketing to subtitle the book A novel of Richard the Lionhearted. Of the four main characters, his role is the smallest–but he is the fulcrum that holds them together. Although mentioned earlier, he does not set foot on the stage until page 148, in the 2nd section–the one narrated by his mother. She might be speaking for the reader when she says “I hungered for the sight of Richard.”
The story of the Third Crusade starts a hundred pages later–in the section narrated by the lute player. In the foreword Lofts tells us that although the other characters are real people, Apieta is entirely imagined, and Blondel was perhaps not a real person.
So does The Lute Player belong in the Traveler’s Library? If you have the patience to read a slow-paced plot because you like well-formed characters and lively dialogue, yes. If you are curious about the history of England in the 1100′s, and any historian would tell you that the facts are scanty, an imaginative retelling based on good research is as true as a history book. If current events suggest that you might profit from learning about the Crusades, which lie at the root or at least illuminate some of the current Arab-Euro-American strife, yes, read the Lute Player.
But whether you want the romantic or the slightly more factual accounts–think a moment about his travels–from Normandy through Italy and Sicily to Cyprus to Turkey to the Holy Lands and back through Austria (well you can skip the being imprisoned part) and then to Normandy again. You might want to hop over to England, but he was rarely there. His Lion-Heart is in the cathedral at Rouen. You can visit the ruins of the Kuenringer castle in Durenstein where he was imprisoned in Austria.
Okay, fess up, how much do YOU know about King Richard I?