From a purely critical standpoint, Louis L’Amour’s The Walking Drum is a gruesome mess. It’s a historical novel that constantly hits the reader on the head with blocks of exposition. The hero, Kerbouchard, is not only a nigh-invulnerable fighter, he’s one of the finest scholars of the twelfth century. And Kerbouchard falls in love with so many women that he’s almost in Tek Jansen territory – hundreds of girlfriends indeed!
But The Walking Drum (1984) is a sentimental favourite of mine, and while the gruesome aspects are still there – clunky writing, unbelievable protagonist, etc – I owe it a great debt.
Books like The Walking Drum are what made my childhood. I still know a ton of facts that pop up in the oddest circumstances – I get weird stares during Trivial Pursuit or while watching Jeopardy. If someone wants to know where I encountered such a bizarre assortment of facts, my answer almost invariably is: Well, I read a lot of adventure novels when I was a kid. The Walking Drum is an especially strong example of this.
The story, briefly: Kerbouchard, just a kid, is searching for some treasure in the burnt out ruins of his family’s manor. His mother has been murdered and he only escaped with his life – his father is a famous corsair and is away at sea. The villains discover him just as he finds the gold. He escapes across the moors and makes his way to the coast. He offers gold to the crew of a small ship, but instead they beat him, steal his treasure, and chain him up as a slave to the oars. The crew, however, are rather hapless in their adventuring, so he manages to get himself out of chains and promoted to pilot when a storm strikes and no one else knows how to send the ship back towards land.
Sounds like a whack of spoilers, right? No, that’s only the first chapter! I’ve described the first 11 pages – and the whole bloody book is pitched at the same pace!
It’s the twelfth century, and Kerbouchard lives in a fascinating time. He makes his way to Cordoba, one of the greatest centres of knowledge in the Arab world (where he goes on his aforementioned tear as the finest scholar). Later, he joins a merchant caravan and travels all the way to Kiev and Istanbul – the caravan keeps its pace by way of a drum, hence the title. A final showdown happens at the lair of the assassins (see the full list of locales in the book). The book ends with Kerbouchard setting his sights on India and China (promised locales for two sequels that were never written).
Louis L’Amour is known mainly for his westerns, and if you look at his bibliography, you’ll see that he cranked them out by the bucketload. I admit I read quite a few of the westerns when I was a kid. He also wrote three non-westerns right near the end of his life, including The Walking Drum, and I remember them much more vividly than any of the other material. Last of the Breed is an adventure story about an American pilot trapped in Siberia who has to use his Native American heritage to escape from Soviet territory. The Haunted Mesa, L’Amour’s last book, was, rather improbably, science fiction of a not too bad sort.
If you want to know more about The Walking Drum, check out this great interview with L’Amour from 1984 – he was 76 at the time, though he doesn’t sound like it, and he died 4 years later. He talks about the sequels he has planned, and how he had been collecting research for the story for 35-40 years. Too bad that he never had a chance to follow up the obvious cliffhanger.
(Weirdly, the time period of The Walking Drum is almost precisely that of Assassin’s Creed, and when I started seeing the trailers for that game, I thought of L’Amour’s book immediately. The Walking Drum takes place mainly in 1179 and 1180, while Assassin’s Creed is set in 1191. Now we’ll just have to see if the two are comparable in any other way!)
I don’t read as many adventure novels as I used to; my variety of genres has shrunken considerably since the days when I read anything I could get my hands on as a kid. I occasionally get a hankering for some adventure and action, but I usually turn to fantasy novels for that fix nowadays, with the unfortunate side effect that I don’t encounter as many real life facts. It’s a trade-off that I might need to reconsider.
Anyone else out there remember reading John F. Hayes (Canadian history thinly disguised as fiction)? Jim Kjelgaard (wild animals make good protagonists)? Arthur Conan Doyle’s historical novels? What were your favourites? Please add your comments below!