The books that I will present here are part of the “Crusades Trilogy” or the “Arn Trilogy” written by French-Swedish author and journalist Jan Guillou. Of course I did not read the Swedish version but rather the English translation (by Stephen T. Murray) although I found the English translation sometimes lacking and with some errors. But otherwise, this historical fiction novel was, even though long to read, very well written, imagined and of course historical. The first book is entitled “The Road to Jerusalem”, followed by the second “The Templar Knight” and finished with the third “Birth of the Kingdom”.
The hero of this phenomenal epic historical fiction trilogy is Arn Magnusson who was apparently born in 1150 to an aristocratic noble Swedish Folkung family in the western province of Gotäland (Gothia), in what is now Sweden. The first book starts the trilogy rather slowly because it explains the intrigues of the Swedish clans and lineages along with their complex political tangles, relationships and rivalries of 12th century Scandinavia. It also presents Arn’s upbringing (not as a Knight till the second book). The book really starts to become interesting when the young Arn falls off a parapet of his house, suffers a brain injury and his mother prays in church and promises to God that if her son is saved, he would be given to do God’s holy work. Well, what do you know, Arn recovers and at the age of 5 he is sent to the Cistercian Varnhem monastery to be brought up, taught in the holy texts and instructed by monks including Father Henry and brother Gilbert (an ex-Templar) who teaches Arn to become an expert swordsman and archer, and since Arn is ambidextrous, he thus becomes a formidable fighter. Being essentially raised in a monastery, young Arn is innocent and ignorant of the ways of the outside world. But as a teenager, he is sent out in the world and returns to his father’s estate. Because of his innocence and ignorance of the real outside world, young Arn is often ridiculed and even mocked by his own father and brother and the estate’s thralls (serfs) whom Arn insists should be treated more humanly. But Arn also introduces several improvements to the lives of of the estate’s dwellers such as simple latrines, smoked ham, new types of brickworks etc. Arn then at one point finally proves himself worthy because he stands for his father in a duel. But then Arn falls in love with Cecilia, whose sister he had previously slept with when he was inebriated. Finally, at the age of 17 and because of his incentious behavior, Arn is excommunicated and sent off to join the Knights Templars in Rome while Cecilia is sent to a convent where she gives birth to Arn’s son (in Gudhem) and suffers under a vengeful abbess. Arn readily accepts this judgement as he swears death to all Saracens.
Such is the jist of the following book “The Templar Knight”. The best sections of this second book are the depiction of the battles which are very realistic and described in vibrant details. Arn proves himself a grand Templar Knight because he is a brilliant tactician and leader. He seems to be able to anticipate the Saracens’ moves especially in one scene where he leads 400 Templar Knights against a 5,000 Saracen force and he manages to rout them all. He even becomes the commander of the important port at Gaza. “The Templar Knight” book also describes life in the Holy Land in general, religious sites in Jerusalem and the in-fighting amongst the Crusaders (between the Templar Knights themselves and with the Hospitaliers Knights). All these facts, along with the incompetencies of some leaders (Arn excluded of course), make the fall of Jerusalem inevitable. But in all of this Arn becomes, early in the book, the friend of the Crusader’s worst enemy whose name was Saladin. Through this friendship Arn learns Arabic, the Koran and the way of life of the Muslims. This last fact will constantly put Arn at odds with his fellow unruly Crusaders while being respected by the Saracens. Arn, after meeting with Saladin defeats him at the Battle of Montgisard but unfortunately Saladin will inflict a worse defeat on the crusaders and Templars alike at the battle of Hattin. With all of his accumulated knowledge, Arn becomes an advisor to Saladin when he was almost the sole survivor of the fall of Jerusalem.
Then comes in the third book “Birth of the Kingdom” where Arn returns home as Sir Arn of Gothia in 1192. He comes home laden with gifts of gold and accompanied by a mixed band of companions including Christians and Saracens alike because he strongly respects Christians and Muslims and all their beliefs. Amongst these Saracens were two Arab doctors who saved Arn’s father life. After his 20 years of service for fighting in the Crusades, Arn is relieved of his vows and obligations as a Knight even though he can still wear the white mantle with the red cross. Arn is reunited with Cecilia and meets his son for the first time. Then he prays to God and the Virgin Mary to ask them what he should do next. Lo and behold, the Virgin Mary tells him to build a church and to create peace by “building up a force that was so superior that war would be impossible.” With this vision, Arn sets out to build a cavalry force and changing the estate’s home into a fortress while all at the same time he fights battles with rival clans and several lords and numerous political machinations threathen to oust him. In the midst of all this Arn weds Cecilia and the author presents the maidens’ evening and the bachelors’ evening in vivid details. But Arn does not live forever and at the end he meets his maker but only after starting his own building of the kingdom of Sweden.
All in all, I would give this trilogy a 4 on 5 because first I found that since it was a translation it lacked the original words and all aound Swedish tone and also because (even though I translate in my spare time) I do not really like to read translated works myself. It is too bad I cannot read Swedish. But there is one fact that I cannot reconcile myself with: there is no evidence or any record of any Swedish Templars and also no records of any commanderies of Templars in Sweden. At least I have not been able to find any but I am limited in my research capabilities and capacities so I might be wrong. Nonetheless, this trilogy, although very long (all three books boast 300-400 pages each) is excellent and I think it is long because the author Jan Guillou wanted to impart all of his knowledge and research on and did not want to let anything go. He seems to be just as enthralled in the Templar Knights and Medieveal times as me and wanted to transmit all that he knew and researched about it.