I read this book so you don’t have to.
Perhaps this review will make you want to read it.
Perhaps you shouldn’t.
The Walking Drum is the only medieval adventure written by Louis L’Amour, the mindbogglingly prolific author of a zillion Westerns. That alone makes it a retro must-read. A medieval romp by a horse-opera yarn-spinner who had also been a professional boxer and merchant seaman. How can we resist?
In actuality, the book is… odd. It fulfills expectations, both positive and negative, exceeds them, falls well short of them, and — ultimately — could have done with an edit before being released into the wild.
Reading it has made rethink my choice of reading matter (and also my strategy as a writer, but that’s for another article). Let me start from the beginning
The Walking Drum is set in the 12th century. The hero, Mathurin Kerbouchard, is the son of a minor Breton lord and corsair who is missing presumed dead or enslaved. When the local robber baron destroys his home and kills his mother, Mathurin makes for the sea, ends up enslaved, escapes, becomes a scholar, a warrior a…. and eventually catches up with his father who — naturally — has been enslaved by the Assassins. (You can read a full summary on the Wikipedia entry.) Somewhere in the middle, he becomes part of a heavily armed merchant caravan that trundles across Europe destroying anybody that gets in the way. The merchants march to the sound of the drum, hence the title.
I expected something energetic and pulpy, perhaps Robert E Howard with more bodice-ripping, and that’s what Louis L’Amour delivers: Mathurin rollicks from one escapade to another. He always seems to be navigating a secret passage, or a carving his way through a fight, or in disguise, or facing off against a high-ranking adversary. There’s plenty of implied… swiving as well.
The combat scenes are gritty and bloody, and actually take into account armour — his helm absorbs blows, he gets wounded through a gap in his mail — but the memoir-style first-person narrative robs the swordplay of its immediacy — there’s more telling than showing. The writing really heats up in the mass battle scenes. L’Amour has a knack of balancing situational awareness with tragedy as the secondary characters meet their fate. He also does really good confrontations — there’s an awesome scene where Mathurin rides into a nomad camp and challenges their aristocratic ally to a duel.
Unfortunately, this pulpiness means that the plot could be summarised as “Random Medieval Crap Happens”.
It really does feel random. If it were a more modern work, I’d suspect it of being a thinly disguised transcript from a roleplaying campaign. About half way through I started imagining it laid out like one of those old Traveller patrons books:
Roll D6 to see who you encounter: 1. High ranking lady in trouble; 2. New friend who will be charmed by your persona; 3. Somebody who wants to exploit you or use you in their plans (on a “6” this is a high ranking lady); 4. New Enemy; 5. Old friend; and 6. Old enemy.
At this point, I actually started reading on with renewed interest.
The Walking Drum is — mostly — well-researched and written by a veteran genre writer, so it really is like a compendium of Medieval adventure seeds for a world without magic or elves or global conspiracies. I suspect I may be revisiting it with my GM hat on, or even my writer one. (There’s something about the Middle Ages that makes my brain seize up. Perhaps you can know a setting too well?)
Alas, this randomness — charitably making it a “picaresque novel” — brings us to its literary failings.
First and foremost, it doesn’t have a structure. It really is “Random Medieval Crap Happens on the way to rescue Dad“. It’s best enjoyed as a series of linked short stories, but on their own, each sequence is too short and sketchy to be truly compelling. Harold Lamb is better. There are at least a dozen novels in there waiting to get out.
Second, Mathurin Kerbouchard is arguably a Mary Sue, and certainly what my son would call “OP’d“. Get this:
- He’s a trained druid (DRUID!?!!?). He can memorise entire books, learn languages at the drop of a hat…
- He’s so well read he can spot Hittite symbolism in a carpet, and perform alchemy on the hoof.
- Oh, and he’s also a supreme seducer, thief and warrior.
The end result is Lord Flashheart does Baron Von Münchhausen, but without the laughter track. If this were the transcript of a FATE campaign, then the author would have had to have rolled several characters into one.
Third, L’Amour intrudes his research… I mean really intrudes his research. Like you could make an Oglaf cartoon about it.
There are long passages about the history of this or that place, or the socio-economic changes happening around the hero. He has access to knowledge he shouldn’t have — e.g. Hittites — and knows things he couldn’t, and he keeps sharing them with us.
I certainly didn’t expect this level of research from a cowboy writer. He really does have a handle on the era, especially the intellectual culture and the differences between Christendom and the Islamic world. He has an exhilarating sense of the entire map, not just the tiny north-west corner with knights and castles in it. L’Amour obviously loves this setting. It’s as if he’s been itching to write this book his entire life, and now, near its end, is trying to do it all at one go. Unfortunately this heroic attempt appears to coincide with a phase in his career when he was uneditable. A few score red pen marks would have greatly enhanced this book.
There are also a few bloopers ranging from the niggling to the more significant. We can forgive him the anachronistic scimitars — at least he knows what a falchion is — but not so easily the wild anachronisms in available literature. And then there’s the druid business, which would be forgivable if he weren’t otherwise so busy flaunting his authenticity.
Most importantly, do we believe in the armed merchant caravan which provides both the title and the most memorable sequences? I don’t know.
The academic-but-highly-readable book Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe — which however focusses on the 13th-16th centuries — has local rulers providing escort in exchange for toll and kickbacks. True, medieval merchants could be an armed and bellicose lot, but I am doubtful anything looking like a small army would have travelled quite so far without being brought to a decisive battle. Was L’Amour filling the gaps or did he have a book I don’t?
I’m going to have to do some digging…
Louis L’Amour’s The Walking Drum is entertaining in small doses, but even then flawed by anything like remotely modern standards. There are obvious reasons for reading it — genre history, adventure seeds, or completism if you are a L’Amour fan — but plenty of reasons not to.
I read this over the Christmas break; Was battling through this rambling edifice really the best possible use of my precious reading time? True, it had some high points but — with the exception of a handful of well-recognised vintage greats such as Harold Lamb — modern writers generally do it better (link).
Modern writers could also do with our support.
Just for example, my friend Scott Oden apparently writes rip-roaring Historical Adventure. If I was in the mood for taking a risk, why wasn’t I reading him instead?
Why do I — we! — automatically look to battered paperbacks for a satisfying comfort read? What’s wrong with us? Or is there something wrong with modern genre fiction?
My belated New Year resolution is: No more old stuff unless somebody else can vouch for it.
As I said, I’ve read this book so you don’t have to. Now go buy something written by somebody who is alive right now.
(There are some writerly things to learn from this book as well — but that’s for next week.)
M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”) and has an academic background in Medieval History. For his take on plot and narrative, take a look at his Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic.