The Lute Player: A Novel of Richard the Lionhearted
by Norah Lofts
History has been truly kind to Richard the Lionheart. He’s remembered as the great medieval king of England, a man of honor and bravery who led a crusade to free the Holy Land from the Saracens. He’s a real hero revered for his justice and military skills…but when looking at his actual history one has to ask the question why? Yes, he was a great military leader. But this is a king who spent less than a year on the island he ruled, couldn’t speak the native tongue of his people, and nearly bankrupted his people to finance his war and, after his capture by a rival potentate, to pay off his ransom. So why is this king so beloved?
The Lute Player succeeds in bringing this contradictory king to life through the eyes of three main narrators: Anna of Apieta, the crippled half-sister of Richard’s wife; Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother; and Blondel, a court musician who begins his service with Anna but later accompanies Richard on his travels in the Holy Land. Each narrator brings his or her own biases to their vision of Richard. Anna meets Richard when he comes to joust at the court of her father, the King of Navarre, and her sister Berengaria falls madly in love with him. Although he is engaged to another woman, Richard eventually marries Berengaria. It soon becomes clear, however, that he did so only to get her dowry to finance the crusade to re-take Jerusalem, Richard’s true passion. When he leaves, Berengaria sends her musician Blondel with Richard to keep him safe and keep her apprised of his condition. Blondel, desperately in love with Berengaria, does as his mistress commands and chronicles their adventures in the Holy Land. Any romantic notions about the glory of the Crusades are removed by the accounts of disease and depravation that wear down the army far more effectively than the Saracens, but even in the midst of suffering Richard maintains a determination and bravery that makes him seem worthy of his legendary status…until the cruel way he ignores his wife and his people resurfaces again.
Ultimately Norah Lofts shows Richard for the flawed and egotistical man that he was, but she doesn’t vilify him. Her deep exploration into his character makes the novel seem quite modern, even though it was originally published in 1951. At one point she suggests that Richard’s coldness to Berengaria may have been because he was homosexual. For a good, proper Englishwoman writing in the 1940s, I honestly would not have expected that particular twist in the book. But from what little evidence we have from his life, it’s certainly a plausible explanation for some of his behavior.
Thoroughly engrossing, The Lute Player had me completely absorbed from the first few pages. There’s a focus on the Big Plot of the Crusade of Richard the Lionheart, and he’s still the star of the show. But it’s all the little day-to-day conversations and relationships between the ‘minor’ characters like Anna and Blondel and Berengaria - the ones actually telling the story – that really make this novel interesting and bring the world of Medieval Europe to life.