I have to admit to being a little overbooked (no pun intended!) these past few weeks. I’ve missed reading for review as I’ve been focused on reading for editing–both my own and freelance assignments. So I’m back to digging in my shelves for old favorites that deserve yet another bit of publicity. For this installment, I offer Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman.
My mom gave me this book as a hard-cover first edition for my birthday back in 1983. It is looking a little dog-eared these days, but back then this was one of my first introductions to historical fiction–to say nothing of being an adult-sized hard-cover with its own dust jacket. (I had previously been all about the Scholastic paperbacks and whatever library books struck my fancy, so caring for a dust jacket that wasn’t either permanently attached to its book or otherwise wrapped for posterity was a new experience.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it (I had barely graduated from Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins at that point), but willingly dove in. And was transported. From the flyleaf:
Shield of Three Lions is breathtaking and exciting–a panoramic tapestry of a novel set in the Middle Ages that weaves the sights, the sounds, the smells and the pageantry of a magical age with the story of Alix, an extraordinary young heroine. Bawdy, earthy and full of fascinating detail, Shield of Three Lions heralds a new talent who has a spectacular ability to entertain readers royally.
Nubile Alix is as appealing a heroine as ever graced the pages of a novel. Resourceful, inventive and irrepressibly inquisitive, the violently orphaned Alix disguises herself as a boy to seek an audience with King Richard the Lionhearted so that she may regain her plundered estate.
I don’t know if it was because I was barely out of 6th grade and this was my first truly adult book (including a very adult scene at the end of it), or if it was because I was approximately the same age as the heroine who traipses from the edge of Scotland through France, Italy, and Jerusalem, but this book has always held a special spot in my heart. I feel like I learned as much about the Crusades from the vivid descriptions Kaufman offers as I did about women’s issues and war, rape, pillage, and plunder. There really wasn’t anything that was glossed over, including the dread arrival of Alix’s first menstrual cycle deep in enemy territory.
To get that far, though, the reader is first introduced to the strange Scot who agrees to stand in as Alix’s brother and make sure she, disguised as a he even before Enoch first meets her, and his even stranger rites and beliefs:
“From this day forward, Enoch Angus Boggs and me be blud brothers. And I recognize that brotherhood and loyalty to the clan be the most sacred tie in the whole wide world. By bogle and houlets sent by Nick, by gannets from witches in the west, by the soul in my body, by the ghosts of my parents, by the Holy God and His Son, I swear that Enoch be my brother and I’ll ne’er deceive him by word or by deed on pain of death. Amen.”
Still choking, I gasped out the words.
“Wait, there’s more. We shall e’er be together unto death and–list to this well–we shall ne’er hinder each other in love. But we will help each other advance, and in our case that means land. Sae let’s hear namore of yer land or my land: it’s our land. And let’s hear namore of the demon Scots since one drop of Scottish blood makes ye as Scottish as me. We be brothers in all things. Now let me tell ye exactly quhat my plan be, fer I’ve had the long day to work out details.”
He then proposed a most astonishing course. He would keep to his original plan of going to Paris to study law, only now I, too, would go to study with him, leaving my wolf with Jasper Peterfee. Together we would explore every legal means of recovering “our land” at the same time that we learned King Henry’s whereabouts and made arrangements to meet with him. Once the land was ours, by whichever means came first, we would hurry back to claim it, share and share alike. …
I thought of the terrible events of the day. The very worst was drinking Scottish blood, for while I knew the vow of brotherhood didn’t hold since I wasn’t a boy and could be no one’s brother, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t a Scot. A fate worse than death.
The range of details, large and small, that Kaufman wove into this book kept me enraptured as a 12-year-old and has enticed me to re-read the book every few years since then. I’ve since learned that there is a second and third installment to this story, and despite my normal inclination to read everything a well-loved author has produced, I have to admit some trepidation about how she could possibly have ever topped a story that includes everything from the Sack of Acre to references to Robin Hood and his band. The strange concept that Scots, another English-speaking group on the same island as the English would be so culturally different and Alix persist in supporting her early indoctrination against them until very nearly the end of the book, was actually one of my first literary introductions to the concepts of discrimination and prejudice. And the idea that an author could explore topics that could cause shouting matches among adults really fired me up.
So I’m happy to recommend this oldie but goodie one more time, publicly. For anyone who likes historical fiction placed firmly in the midst of historical fact, with a dash of romance and a whole lot of adventure… This one’s for you.