The Waste Land: An Entertainment

Written by Simon Acland

Set before and during the First Crusade, between 1096 and 1099, monk-turned-soldier Hugh de Verdon narrates the story of his life from his young childhood to becoming a finely honed fighting machine. Given over to the monks at Cluny by his widow-mother, Hugh never quite finds his niche, never feels the sense of peace and release that the life of a religious man might impart to him. Rather, he is always searching, hungry to become the hunter and warrior his father was, wanting to know more of the world than the cloister can ever offer him.

Finally, he is taken under the wing of a cousin, Godfrey, who retains him as his translator. Not satisfied to act only as Godfrey’s secretary, Hugh is trained to think and behave as a holy warrior, becoming an invaluable asset to Godfrey. En route to Jerusalem, Hugh lives through some horrific times in Constantinople and Antioch. Rather than cataloging events and people, Acland draws the battle scenes impressively and paints even the secondary characters with fine brushstrokes. Being inside Hugh’s head is the best part of the story.

What I don’t understand is the necessity for a parallel story attached to the Crusades plot. Maybe I just didn’t get it or it simply wasn’t necessary to make the book work. In that story, a group of Oxford professors who have uncovered Hugh’s autobiography rework it into what they hope will be a bestseller, hoping to salvage their university from financial ruin. However, the relationship between the professors deteriorates from mere backbiting to actual life and death struggles between them. Presumably, Acland was attempting to mirror 11th-century events. As far as I am concerned, it fell flat. I’ll stick with Hugh.