The year is 1191. A daring counterattack against the Saracens’ last-ditch effort to relieve the besieged city of Acre has not only saved the Third Crusade from a fatal defeat; it has also brought the leader of that counterattack, English Templar Michael Fitz Alan, to the attention of King Richard the Lionheart. In the days that follow, the king charges Fitz Alan with a life-or-death mission – to recover the long-lost Holy Lance, a religious relic widely believed to be responsible for the near-miraculous success of the First Crusade. The ensuing quest leads Fitz Alan and a hand-picked band of Templars on a journey deep into enemy territory, where they battle Saracens, Assassins, hostile Christians and even a traitor within their own ranks as they seek to return the Holy Lance to Christian hands and thereby ensure the liberation of Jerusalem and the success of the crusade.
The Ideal of the “New Knight”: A Synthesis of Brutal Warrior and Pious Monk
One of the questions I am asked most often as a writer of historical fiction is “what was the inspiration for this novel?” My answer is that, essentially, it was born out of nothing more ambitious than a desire to tell the truth about what Saint Bernard of Clairvaux called the “New Knighthood”, the Knights Templar. In the popular culture, of course, there are three basic narratives about the Templars: they are either odious religious fanatics; cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly real motives; or mystical (and often heretical) keepers of some terrible secret. Turns out, though, that not only are these ultimately silly narratives (although they can be grist for some great entertainment), but they are actually far less interesting that the reality of Templar life. Think about it for a moment. On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers. On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity. How was that possible? How did they reconcile these two personas? And how did they do so in a way that made them the most effective military force in the Latin East? Answering these questions – that is, trying to make sense of the actual reality of Templar life – was what really what inspired me to write the novel.
In order to tell this story, I invented the character of Templar Michael Fitz Alan. Fitz Alan has been groomed from birth to be a warrior and leader of warriors; he has great skill-at-arms and is an extraordinarily proficient killer; he is courageous, resourceful and tough. When pushed, he is capable of extraordinary savagery and ruthlessness. He lives to fight and is constitutionally incapable of turning his back on the warrior life. Fitz Alan is also, however, wracked by a profound sense of sinfulness. Caught up in the intense lay piety of his era, he increasingly sees the warrior life he has been leading as morally corrupt, spiritually empty and sure to earn him eternal damnation. Seeking to reconcile these two deeply contradictory elements of his personality, he considers “taking the cross” (i.e. going on crusade), but ultimately joins the order of the knights Templar instead. His reasoning is that as a Templar he will be able to continue fighting, but will do so for both a higher purpose and his own personal salvation.
Initially, while still in England, Fitz Alan focuses on the spiritual disciplines, learning the new life of the Christian monk. After leaving England, however, the realities of war progressively transform him into a perfect synthesis of the warrior and monk: a brutal and capable fighter motivated by a proper inward disposition, faithfully fighting on behalf of what he considers to be the only truly just cause in this life (defending Christ and His Church). In other words, he is transformed from a brutal secular knight, into a quintessential exemplar of St. Bernard's “new knighthood” – a perfect knight and perfect monk, fighting a “double combat of flesh and spirit”. He believes his redemption in both this life and the next depends on both killing the enemies of the Church and living an ascetic and pious religious life that sustains his proper spiritual disposition (humility before God and obedience to His Church).
Fundamentally, then, Fitz Alan is an archetypal warrior hero: courageous, clever, resourceful, idealistic, tough and, of course, a peerless fighter. In this respect, he is similar to those great warrior heroes of both classical mythology and contemporary historical fiction – heroes like C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe and Thomas of Hookton, Si Turney’s Marcus Falerius Fronto, and Simon Scarrow’s Cato and Macro. But – and this is where his DNA differs from those great characters – he’s also very much inspired by Bernard of Clairveaux’s ideal of the “new knight”. Whereas most heroes in military historical fiction are either irreligious or adherents to some form of pre-Christian religion, the Fitz Alan character was fundamentally inspired by my desire to figure out what made Saint Bernard’s so-called knights of Christ really “tick”. In a sense, then, what I have done with Fitz Alan is to take Saint Bernard’s highly stylized vision of what a Christian a holy warrior should look like and bring that vision to life by exploring the interior life – the motivations, struggles and inner conflicts – of those who belonged to a military religious order like the Templars.
None of this is to imply that Fitz Alan’s a saint – like all great military adventure heroes, he most assuredly isn’t. It is, however, to place him in his proper historical context. Fitz Alan isn’t simply a twenty-first century (presumably secular-humanist hero) parachuted into a story set in the twelfth century. Rather, he’s my very best educated guess about what a twelfth century Templar knight would actually look like. As such, like almost all people in medieval Christendom, Fitz Alan understands the world in terms of Christian religious categories and concepts. For the people of Medieval Latin Christendom, these beliefs were neither a symptom of mental illness nor a cynical ideological smokescreen concealing their true motives (power, wealth, glory, pleasure, what have you). Instead, rather like the laws of physics are for us, Christian religious categories and concepts provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which medieval people made sense of – and thus acted in – the world around them. As I see it, not taking the medieval religious worldview seriously would simply be to get Fitz Alan – and his world -- entirely wrong.
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About the Author
Andrew Latham was born in England, raised in Canada and currently lives in the United States. He graduated from York University in Toronto with a BA (Honours) in Political Science and later earned an MA from Queen’s University in Kingston and a PhD from his alma mater, York. Since 1997 Andrew has been a member of the Political Science Department at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he where he lives with his wife Wendy, daughter Bernadette and son Michael. Andrew regularly teaches courses in Medieval Political Thought, International Security and Regional Conflict. His most recent publications include a non-fiction book entitled Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades. Find out more at Andrew's website www.aalatham.com and follow him on Twitter @aalatham.