Monday, December 26, 2005

Revisiting “The walking drum”

Historical fiction has a unique place in the world of fiction. Here, authors wove a tale (most often of adventure) based in a time long before their own. They had to write a compelling story, yet in the backdrop of historical events that had to be accurate. Some authors were true masters of the form. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy was one of the finest authors of historical fiction to have come from India. In his novels he wove fascinating tales of adventure, action, drama and romance amidst wars between the Pallavas and the Chalukyas or the Cholas and the Pallavas, taking back readers to a time of conquest, and glorious architecture and culture. Sir Walter Scott did well, while Shakespeare himself wrote great historical drama, like Julius Caesar or Anthony and Cleopatra. But it’s a genre little associated with that grand master of the quick draw, cowboys and fistfights, Louis L’Amour. Yet L’Amour surprises readers with his simply outstanding swashbuckling adventure, "The walking drum".



  • This is a story of Mathurin Kerbochard, in early 12th century Europe. Those were interesting times in Europe, with the Moslem Moors ruling the Spain, Christianity on the rise across Europe, with pockets of paganism still alive. The pagan Kerbochard himself was a descendant of a line of Druids. He’s the son of a famous corsair, Kerbochard, and carries his family name proudly. The story starts of in his home, along the Armorican coast, where he hears stories of his father being captured (and perhaps dead) in the East, and his home is destroyed by the Baron Tourmaline, who long held a grudge against his father. And from this first chapter, we are lifted in to a world of non-stop action and fascination.

    He escapes, only to be enslaved by pirates. All he has with himself are his wits, and a keen desire for knowledge. We then follow him through his adventures (with many an encounter with mysterious and beautiful women), as he escapes, makes a fortune, and goes to Spain. Spain under the Al Mohads had lost a little bit of the glory of the earlier Ummayad Caliphate but was undoubtedly the center of learning, arts and science in medieval Europe. Here scholars (not only Islamic) gathered, in the magnificent city of Cordoba, and the libraries of Cordoba alone had more books than the rest of Europe together. Europe was still years from awakening to the renaissance, and learning was stilled viewed with suspicion. Cordoba had Islamic scholars, as well as Jews and Christians, and was wealthy beyond the imagination of much of the rest of Europe. Here Kerbochard embarks on a mission of learning, mastering Latin and Arabic, and even learning Persian and some Sanskrit, while mastering swordplay and horsemanship, and mastering navigation, some medicine, science, and alchemy. He plunges in to one adventure after another, encountering nobles, rouges, solders and of course, mesmerizing women, making valuble friends and dangerous enemies. He then is forced to leave Spain, as he hears of his father’s possible captivity in the East, and moves on to France, towards his own native Armorica, where he joins a band of merchants.

    L’amour describes the rise of the new power, the merchants, beautifully, as Kerbochard travels with the band, which traveled with merchandise, and hundreds of armed men, veritable private armies. He avenges his family’s destruction by destroying the Baron Tourmaline, as L’amour beautifully describes the rise of “nobility” and blue blood in Europe (with the difference between a knave warlord and a noble being just one generation). The merchant army walks east, under the beat of a drum (the walking drum) as they cross Europe, rescue a countess, and make their way to Kiev. From there, the army moves on to the Steppes, where they encounter the famed horsemen of the steppes, a prelude to what would soon sweep across the world under the hordes of Genghis and other Khans. Great battles follow, and Kerbochard loses his fortune and almost forfeits his life.

    His destination is now Constantinople, still under the Byzantine empire, and Christianity’s greatest city, clouded under the threat of the rising power of the mighty Arabs. He enters the city as a beggar, but a wise and learned one. He leaves, as a friend of the Emperor Manuel. For he has to go farther east, as he hears his father is still alive, but captured at the impregnable fortress of the Ismaili Alamut Hashashins. The Hashashins (who gave the world the word assassins) terrorized the Abbasid elite with politically motivated assassinations for strategic gain. Their fortress was impregnable, and here, drugged warriors were promised paradise upon fulfillment of their assassination duties. Kerbochard, in the guise of an Islamic scholar infiltrates the great fortress, and in a fitting climax rescues his father. L’amour was a master of close one-on-one action, which he experienced as a professional boxer, and perfected in numerous fisticuffs and gunfights in the Wild West. Sword duels and galloping horses flow naturally and rivet the reader here.

    There is a fascinating twist as well, at the end of the tale. L’amour wanted to write three historical novels with the hero Kerbochard. The first would take mesmerized readers to Europe and the middle east, through the Walking drum, but the next two were more ambitious, as Kerbochard would head to the land of Hind (yes) and mysterious Cathay.

    It’s a pity that L’amour died a couple of years after writing this (perhaps his finest) book, and could not write these sequels.

    Oh well.

    “Yol Bolsun”. May there be a road always.

    15 comments:

    Sowmya said...

    http://www.powells.com/ -- A friend told me that this store in Portland, Oregon has the most extensive collection of westerns, some of them very cheap. It is a western fan's dream come true. Have a look see!

    Sunil said...

    thanks Sowmya. I'm a regular visitor to Powells when ever i visit Portland. It's the largest used bookstore in the entire united states (it's massive), and i've a couple of dozen books from there.....all different kinds.

    For western's you needn't go too far. Any used bookstore will have at leat 50 of them, most of which sell for a dollar or less :-)

    anthony said...

    Ah.. Dear friend, another wild west fan.. I am a collector of louis l'amour novels.... in fact i only mentioned that the only books i read in the past 2 weeks are two louis l'amours here ;-), I am such a fan and he never fails to amaze me.. and the raw manhood of those days..

    Sowmya said...

    ooops i forgot you live in WA. :-)

    Sunil said...

    Anthony...yes, i enjoy Westerns, but this was by no means a western. That's a point i wanted to make....L'amour went here where he'd never gone before.

    And don't get too taken in by the stories in westerns....they're just stories :-))

    Sowmya..yes indeed.

    anthony said...

    Oh yes, I know.. I read the post.. but got acrried away by the westerns.. and of course I know they were fiction.. the last one i read called californios..and it had spirits and ghosts and about the old People and a parallel world.. but man he does weave a tale..

    I come from a place where manhood is regarded sacred and men to men fistfights are common even today. the old west fiction are the only thing that even compares to little of my childhood lol...thats why the admiration maybe...Life has become too civilised today eh!!

    And was it ken Folet who wrote Pillars of the earth.. it was another fine historical fiction

    Anonymous said...

    This was one of my favorite books ever. I wonder if he had notes for the next books I read it before I knew he hadn't written the other two books when i finished it i went to the used book store looking for them.

    only the owl knows my name said...

    I'm not one to cut anyone else down without reason, but whoever wrote this particular evaluation of one of the greatest novels of our time really needs to read the book carefully and check spelling of major characters. Otherwise, it is a very well put together summary of the events.

    Anonymous said...

    The Walking Drum is one of my favorite books. So when a class project required me to find a thought-proviking quotation, I immediately though of something in the book. L'Amour has Kerbouchard reflect on the character and accomplishments of one of the female characters. (I think the character in question is Safia, but I am not at all sure of it.) In his reflection he mentally remarks something to the effect that most women who try to be just like men usually end up as less than men and less than women. I need the exact quote for the project. I've looked through my copy of the novel, but I have been unable to locate the quotation. Unfortunately, I do not have time to reread the whole book before the project is due. Would you happen to know the quote I am thinking of, or know where I can find it in the book? If any of you can help me out without too much trouble, I'd appreciate it.
    Thanks!

    Anonymous said...

    Walking Drum is my all-time favorite book. I had the book when i was fifteen and fifteen years later, it still amazes me how i love the book. i seldom meet people here in my place, who has heard of the book so i search the net and true enough i have seen some who like me was hoping for the sequel. well, we can't have it all. let's just toast to the victory of this book, for capturing our hearts and imagination. for allowing us to experience adventures at the quiet hours of afternoons and midnights we read this novel again and again.

    Anonymous said...

    Does anyone know if someone else wrote a sequel to the walking drum, like his wife,kids or brother.

    Anonymous said...

    A true gentleman is at a disadvantage in dealing with women. Women are realist, and their tactics are realistic, so no man should be a gentleman where women are concerned unless the women are very, very young. Women admire gentlemen, and sleep with cads.
    - Louis L'Amour (The Walking Drum)

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    Anonymous said...

    What page is this quote on?

    A true gentleman is at a disadvantage in dealing with women. Women are realist, and their tactics are realistic, so no man should be a gentleman where women are concerned unless the women are very, very young. Women admire gentlemen, and sleep with cads.
    - Louis L'Amour (The Walking Drum)