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The Use of Language in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The White Company"
A Review and an Analysis
Looking to improve your writing? This is from a series of posts on rhythm in fiction. The first post is here.
Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but he had this to say about “The White Company”:
Of my novels, "The White Company" gave me most pleasure. I was young and full of the first joy of life and action, and I think I got some of it into my pages
The White Company is a book about a young man in the 1300s who is spending a year away from the Abbey that raised him. In that year, he will see the world and then decide for himself whether he wishes to return afterwards to his secluded life where he grew up.
The setting of the book is outrageously well researched, and the book is primarily an exploration of that setting. It is structured as a journey, and each chapter is there to showcase a single interesting aspect of the setting - whether that be a peasant being duped by a conman dressed as a monk, or the depiction of a knightly tournament.
That said, the most striking thing to me about this book… is the language. It is written in a very distinct, very deliberate style that I find endlessly fascinating.
The result is one of the most vivid depictions of medieval life I have ever come across. When reading this book, I felt like I was there. Why this was, I think, is due largely to the language used in the book.
This language is also necessary to create the romantic, poetic feeling of the world he wishes to portray.
Why do I think this language has such an impact on the story?
There is a theory that our internal representations of the world are made largely of language. If that is true (and it seems at least partially true), then in order to understand life at a certain time and place, you will have to understand the language used by the people of the time and place.
This book uses such language, and it makes the journey so immersive that it feels a little bit more like a memory than a book.
Let’s looks at a few ways he uses this language.
The poetic language makes the setting feel magical and romantic, without the need to add a single iota of magic to the world of the story.
Note the rhythmic, poetic language here - the book is made of this from start to finish.
But when it came to (…), away would go her thoughts to horse and hound, and a vacant eye and listless face would warn the teacher that he had lost his hold upon his scholar.
The tattoo of strong and soft beats strikes powerfully, but there isn’t a strict, fixed pattern to it. Simple choices like using ‘upon’ instead of ‘on’ contribute to this beat.
Then he had but to bring out the old romance book from the priory…
The repeated b and d and p sounds are punchy, even a bit tongue twisty by the end. Note the deliberate order of the words to achieve the rhythm - they do not need to be arranged thusly.
Here, a small note on the sounds of words:
…or were bandied about betwixt the marching archers…
He could easily use the contemporary ‘between’ instead, but he often chooses betwixt. It evokes the setting better, and the word ‘betwixt’ puts a harder sound at the end of the syllable which helps create a punchy rhythm in a sentence.
(also, there is the repeated ‘b’ and ‘rch’ sounds - did you notice that?)
Another example is in order. Here we have an arguably wordy description of an emotional argument, but the flow of the words is very pleasing and this scene would be worse if it were more concise:
In an instant the Lady Maude had turned upon her two blazing eyes and a face which was blanched with anger (…)
(…) so that it was no marvel that ere the speech was over the skirts of Agatha were whisking round the door and the click of her sobs to be heard dying swiftly away down the corridor
Finally, here we have a depiction of a squire who feels he must fight a duel of sorts,
“I came here at the back of my master,” he said, “and I looked on every man here as an Englishman and a friend. This gentleman hath shown me a rough welcome, and if I have answered him in the same spirit he has but himself to thank. I will pick the glove up; but, certes, I shall abide what I have done unless he first crave my pardon for what he hath said and done.”
Imagine the same statement in modern, simple, direct, and minimal English.
A bit of a heavyweight sample from the first page, feel free to skim it, although it does give a good sense of much of the writing:
A stranger who knew nothing either of the Abbey or of its immense resources might have gathered from the appearance of the brothers some conception of the varied duties which they were called upon to perform, and of the busy, wide-spread life which centred in the old monastery. As they swept gravely in by twos and by threes, with bended heads and muttering lips there were few who did not bear upon them some signs of their daily toil. Here were two with wrists and sleeves all spotted with the ruddy grape juice. There again was a bearded brother with a broad-headed axe and a bundle of faggots upon his shoulders, while beside him walked another with the shears under his arm and the white wool still clinging to his whiter gown. A long, straggling troop bore spades and mattocks while the two rearmost of all staggered along under a huge basket o' fresh-caught carp, for the morrow was Friday, and there were fifty platters to be filled and as many sturdy trenchermen behind them. Of all the throng there was scarce one who was not labor-stained and weary, for Abbot Berghersh was a hard man to himself and to others.
Note the slow pace: this is not a book to rush through. Those descriptions are the entire point of the book, and the story is there just to provide a structured way to present those descriptions.
He is very particular about how he words those descriptions. Observe,
…and over the right hip there jutted out the leathern quiver with it’s bristle of goose, pigeon, and peacock feathers.
They aren’t just feathers - he names the birds they come from. In this book, he never describes ‘a field,’ but rather a moor or a heath. Such a heath isn’t covered in flowers or bushes, it’s spanned by ‘heather’ (hence the name!). People don’t wear pants, they seem to mostly wear ‘hosen.’ The ‘gleemen’ never play instruments, they perform on ‘viols’ or ‘citterns.’ The decorative writing above the fireplace is ‘blazonry.’ They celebrate the Feast of St. Luke, not just some holiday.
It’s not just some bird; it’s a bittern.
The language is not always easy to follow,
The lusty knight, on the other hand, was clad in the very latest mode, with cote-hardier, doublet, pourpoint, court-pie, and paltock of olive green…
It is interesting to note here that this language was as unfamiliar and archaic to Doyle as it is to us today. He wrote only a hundred years ago after all. That means he was making a deliberate stylistic choice when he wrote sentences like that.
Note: much esteem to he or she whom can define for us below, in the comments, what a ‘court-pie’ is without resorting to looking it up. No cheating. On second thought, go ahead and cheat. Google and etymonline.com don’t seem to know what it is either…
The Importance of Language Within the Setting
Additionally, when it comes to language used in the world of the book, there is an implication that rank = strength = a monopoly on certain types of esteem and treatment.
If you criticize somebody and they stand up of themselves, as in the duel mentioned above, they are saying that they are as strong as you or stronger, or else, brave enough to die for the honour of it. If you stand up to a superior, it isn’t just a matter of you being helpless against their wrath - there is an implication of rebellion, of trying to supplant them in the act. Of you denying their right to mistreat you, and thus, their rank or station!
There is also a segment where a knight suggests that he is a prince’s better, and another knight remarks that such talk is treasonous. This is the same thing: saying it is true is almost the same thing as physically rebelling. Only the highest nobles have the right to claim that they belong there. The knight had to explain that they meant it only in a narrow sense that he was allowed to speak of, possibly literature or jousting.
Said another way, words have tremendous weight, not just in the art of the story, but in the world of the story.
Doyle, Commenting on his research
I wondered whether Arthur Conan Doyle ever described how he approached his research. He did, briefly. I’ll end with the quotes,
Even in a short [historical] story one should be accurate there. In the Brigadier Gerard stories, for example, even the uniforms are correct. Twenty books of Napoleonic soldier records are the foundation of those stories.
This accuracy applies far more to a long historical novel. It becomes a mere boy's book of adventure unless it is a correct picture of the age. My system before writing such a book as "Sir Nigel" or "The Refugees" was to read everything I could get about the age and to copy out into notebooks all that seemed distinctive. I would then cross-index this material by dividing it under the heads of the various types of character. Thus under Archer I would put all archery lore, and also what oaths an archer might use, where he might have been, what wars, etc., so as to make atmosphere in his talk. Under Monk I would have all about stained glass, illumination of missals, discipline, ritual, and so on. In this way if I had, for example, a conversation between a falconer and an armourer, I could make each draw similes from his own craft
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