The astonishing events of the First Crusade are the subject of P. C. Doherty’s newest novel The Templar, which is slightly misnamed since Hugh de Payens and Godefroi de St Omer are only minor characters. As befits a story about a great mass movement, even Hugh’s fictional sister Eleanor, the heroine, seems to take up only incidental space in Doherty’s narrative.
The main character of The Templar is the Crusade itself, gruesome and terrible, heroic and desperate, beginning on the hillside at Clermont and ending thousands of miles away at the massacre in Jerusalem. Eyewitness accounts abound of this extraordinary rampage for Christ, and Doherty has made intensive use of them. The result is a vivid and passionate account that makes much overcooked material seem raw and new. The faith and courage of the cross-bearers somehow exalts even their vicious violence; you get a glimpse, here, of how some Muslims must view jihad.
Doherty’s habit of breaking into long stretches of generalized description and bursts of passive voice – “Comets scored the sky. Summers burned white hot. Winter came in sheets of ice. Satan was seen everywhere” – actually sustains the feeling of an event out of control, which sweeps people along in its flood. After a while the hacking off of heads gets a little old. Nonetheless The Templar is an excellent example of reliving history; surely there is more to come, with perhaps more evidence of human agency in all this.