Nora Lofts paints for us a very vivid picture of the Middle Ages with her historical novel “The Lute Player”. On reading certain passages, I was reminded of the movie “A Knight’s Tale” since Lofts succeeds in imbuing her book with the freshness and modernity that director Brian Helgeland was trying for in that movie by inserting modern music. It is not difficult for a modern reader to feel that they are looking at a contemporary world rather than one so often discarded as ancient.
The story is told in five parts: 1. “God’s Pauper” told from the view point of the lute player of the title, 2. “Berengaria’s Fool” told from the viewpoint of the fictional Anna, Duchess of Apieta, 3. “Love’s Pilgrim” narrated by King Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, 4. “Richard’s Troubadour” narrated by the lute player again, and 5. “Anna’s House of Stone” which is again from the view point of Anna, the Duchess.
These five parts come together to tell us the story of Richard the Lion Heart, the woman who loved him despite all, a faithful but doomed lute player, and the Third Crusade. I cannot judge the historical accuracy of the book, though Lofts herself noted that the most fantastically sounding passages are, in fact, vouched for. She also informs the reader that the disabled but tenacious Anna Apieta is a fictional character and that, although very present in Crusade legends, the lute player himself is shrouded in some scholarly doubt.
As a story it is very livable, very relatable. It is built around the idea that “you come in the end to the place where your heart is; that is, if you set your heart in an attainable place”. It is full of characters, including Richard Plantagenet, who set their hearts in unattainable places and clearly spells out the consequences. But one character at least- dear, clever Anna- gets her heart’s desire by patient waiting, fulfilling of duty, and persistence.
The failed Third Crusade, with its improved battle weapons, et al., is depicted quite realistically as a lute player would have seen it: horrifying, glorious, dirty, frightening, shocking, and exhausting. The most vivid descriptions center on the smothering blankets of dirt, the oppressive, punishing heat, the sickness and immorality which inevitably accompanied the army. Rather than dwelling on the battles themselves, though they are treated, Lofts shows us how betrayal among the “Christian” allies were ultimately to blame for the failure of the Third Crusade and how a woman was at the root of all of it, though unintentionally on her part. That woman was Berengaria, Princess of Navarre and later wife of Richard Plantagenet, Queen of England.
Above all, this a character study and its principle objects are Richard I, Berengaria, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anna Apieta, and the lute player. Lofts fleshes them out fully into completely believable human beings riddled with faults and their glories sung. Which, of course, is exactly what three out of the five indisputably were. She begs no sympathies where the reader does not choose to lay them. She tells us that Richard I is a hero of hers and yet she gives the reader such a well-rounded depiction of this legend (even referencing the Robin Hood myths) that the reader is invited to hate him if he/she would rather. That is the charm of this book; that is why you’ll turn every page.