Books: Knights of the Black and White

In Brief:  Knights of the Black and White by Jack Whyte is the first in a trilogy dealing with the rise and fall of the Knights Templar.  It begins just before the First Crusade and moves forward to the Templars’ formation and early years.

Pros:  KoftBW is quality historical fiction with a strong spine of research, solid characterization, and a fascinating yet plausible central conspiracy.

Cons:  Some of the plotting and signposting is ponderous within this 750 page tome; could have done with some more action and mayhem, but when one of your central questions revolves around excavation, perhaps this is inevitable.

Review:  The Knights Templar – the mysterious fighting monks of Jerusalem and the Crusader States – have always been an intriguing historical topic.  Not just for yours truly, but for generations of Medieval scholars, armchair historians, and story-tellers in general.  The Templars sudden and meteoric rise to prominence, their legendary secrecy and effectiveness as a fighting force, and their spectacular demise have made them quite popular.  You can find the Templars everywhere from Ivanhoe to current popular authors like Dan Brown to the popular video game series, Assassin’s Creed.

As far as a Beemsville nexus:  I once wrote a scholarly paper about the Templar’s banking and financial system (it even appeared in the EIU graduate journal, Historia) and can also lay claim to a poorly-executed-but-cool-in-concept first act of a screenplay about them.  So yeah, when I saw this book on display at our local library, I had to give it a shot.

Jack Whyte, a seasoned author of historical fiction, is similarly a Templar geek.  He’s familiar with the literature – scholarly and popular – and so also aware of the pitfalls and traps of tackling a grand sprawling story about them.  The first hint as to where he’s heading with his premise can be found in the novel’s very first epigraph:  “It has served us well, this myth of Christ.” -Pope Benedict VI

And so we meet Sir Hugh De Payens, a stoic yet promising young knight in Southern France, who has been practicing for his initiation into a secretive group known as the Order.  His initiation into a secret society will be familiar to those who’ve studied or interacted with such, in this case setting up the Order as an ancient group linked to the Temple of Solomon and a strict Jewish tradition – the Essenes.  As Hugh learns more about the society, he’s exposed to additional teaching and lore, and eventually comes to question the tenets and structures of the Catholic Church.  

Meanwhile the new Pope, Urban II, has been elected with the mandate about doing something about ‘the problem of the knightly class’.  The men of the cloth see men of the sword as uncouth, barbaric, and beyond their control.  Urban’s solution, is of course, the sermon leading to the First Crusade and the drive into the Holy Land.  In France and Norman England, ‘the Friendly Families’ – a group of nobles with men involved in the Order muster for war, and Hugh and his young cousins are nominated to join the Crusade in an attempt to get to Jerusalem and gather information on that place their lore tells them contains their origins.

What follows is a sprawling and often brutal account of several key events in the First Crusade and the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Acre.  Hugh and his allies quickly become disillusioned the barbarity and selective piety of the effort, but the leaders of their Order instruct them to stay and somehow search for the Temple of Solomon.

With this objective in mind, and seeing the need to patrol the roads of Acre to protect pilgrims and travelers, Hugh conceives of the Order of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ aka the Templars, and manages to gain royal patronage and permission to make the royal stables, which happen to sit upon the Temple Mount (above the location of the Temple of Solomon).  Whyte is impressive with weaving the historical details into this story, without completely losing plausibility.  When dealing with the topic of the Templars, it would be easy to jump into hyperbole and magic, and while that might be fun, it’s not for this story.

Whyte’s original Templars are dedicated pious men who believe in their Order and its teaching.  Also imbued with these qualities: Stephen St. Clair – a young man from the north of England who assumes the p.o.v. role for the second half of the novel.  Through Stephen, the author explores some of the themes and difficulties of attracting and retaining young knights to the Order (the Templars assume the rule of St. Benedict to gain their charter, and are celibate and poor by their vows).  When Stephen attracts the attention of Princess Alice of Jersualem, some unlikely but entertaining palace intrigue unfolds.  This gives Whyte an arresting subplot, as well as the lens through which he can examine and explain some of the more intricate politics of the Crusader states.

And in the background – the central quest – the Order’s search for its roots and the secrets of the Temple of Solomon.  The book is probably too long, and some of the characters start go blur together or become distant and difficult to relate to, but this is one of the eternal difficulties of historical fiction.  How do you characterize men and women whose lives and beliefs were so different from our own without losing all sense of historical accuracy?  Many of Whyte’s descriptions and narrative tricks are very effective – you get a sense for the divisions between the major classes of Medieval Europe, you begin to understand the tyranny of the Church and the brutality of the nobility.  The details are present without becoming overwhelming.  Yet he has his work cut out for him, portraying Templars as mystics and warriors and scholars instead of zealots.  The central conspiracy and the wonder of the quest are delicious, however; certainly enough to bring me back for another book in the series.

Bottom Line:  While the book sprawls and stalls at various point, if you have an interest in the Knights Templar and the Crusades, you owe to yourself to check out KoftBW.

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One thought on “Books: Knights of the Black and White

  1. I did a lot of research on the Knights Templar when I was working on my next to last novel. Fascinating stuff, a lot of it rumor and innuendo, spread by their enemies and rivals after their big downfall. Did they really dig under the Temple of Solomon and discover some arcane texts that granted them earthly powers and enriched their coffers? I dunno but it sure was fun to read about it and explore the possibilities in my novel.

    Thanks for the post–Whyte, I think, is a serious author unlike many of the fantasy hacks that churn out fat tomes every other week and call that writing. My favorite historical writers are Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden and Michael Curtis Ford–if you haven’t already, check ’em out.

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