The Reading Room

Crouchbackus Contritus: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy as a Chivalric Romance

Several far-better known and experienced reviewers than I have written on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy, noting the resemblance of its major romantic sub-plot to the prophet Hosea while at the same time generally consigning the majority of the military misadventures, the bulk of the story, to the waste bin as, at most, an amusing distraction from the Hosea plot and, at worst, a frustrating slog of boredom.
However, these reviewers are overlooking a key aspect of the novel, and an often overlooked yet once vital genre of the Western Literary tradition. They see the story in terms of “THE CATHOLIC NOVEL,” a sanctified version of the many early twentieth century works, such as The Sun also Rises or The Great Gatsby, revolving around bitterness and disaster in love. In this they are making the grave error of assuming this is just another Brideshead Revisited, but set more directly in the Second World War. In fact, the story is accomplishing something completely different. It is attempting to be not a novel but a Chivalric Romance.
Men at Arms, the first in the trilogy, makes this goal quite clear. Firstly, the names of the book’s parts are “Apthorpe Gloriosus,” “Apthorpe Furibundus,” and “Apthorpe Immolatus,” a clear word-play on Ludovico Ariosto’s once famous Orlando Furioso, a chivalric romance of immense size, some of whose many characters and events made their way into the works of both Shakespeare and Cervantes. Indeed, it is one of the principal romances which the mad Don refers to, likening friends and strangers alike to its characters. His own famous helmet, the brass basin of a barber, for instance, he believes to be the golden helmet of Mambrino, a character from Ariosto’s Orlando (first referenced in Don Quixote Book 2, Chapter 2).
Guy Crouchback, our protagonist, also begins his quest in the manner of a knight errant just about to set out, for “now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle” (Waugh, Men at Arms, 12). With his enemy clear before him, intending to join battle, Guy makes a short pilgrimage to the tomb of an English crusader knight with whom “all his life, but especially in recent years, Guy had felt an especial kinship” (ibid, 13), prays for the unofficial saint’s intercession, takes confession, then departs for war. In Guy’s own view, he has become a crusader, a hero of a chivalric romance, sallying forth at last to do battle with that great new enemy of mankind, Modernity. One can almost see him putting on Don Quixote’s helm while he’s at it.
The war narrative elements are thus the natural extension of Guy’s own intent. They are the means by which his adventures are brought to him, the exploits by which he is to gain his fame and renown, or in this case, his restored pride and self-worth. As with Don Quixote, there is much to be mocked and commented upon throughout the quest, particularly the pomp and bureaucratic inefficiency of the British army,. But such satire does not exclude sincerity of intent. Ridiculous at times though they be, Guy’s adventures, particularly his hopeless struggles against nihilism and communism in the later books, really do have a positive effect on him; when he reflects upon his actions throughout the trilogy and is accused of being “chivalrous” and “a knight errant” in an age when such things cannot exist, he responds “Knights errant used to go out looking for noble deeds. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life done a single, positively unselfish action…Here was something most unwelcome, put into my hands; something which I believe the Americans describe as ‘beyond the call of duty’” (Waugh, Unconditional Surrender, 151). The exterior noble deeds which Guy sought when he first signed on for the war have become internalized; he looks no longer for noble deeds as a knight errant, but has had such a deed thrust upon him, demanding more from him than any military act ever could. Yet it is through his military struggles, through his reflection upon their pointless material gains that he comes to realize “quantitative judgements don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of ‘loss of face’” (ibid, 152).
Though Guy had first set out to recover his pride, stolen when his wife made him a cuckold, those very adventures have taught him to let go of pride for the sake of saving another human soul. In so doing he achieves that very state of selfless sacrifice which the knights of all the chivalric romances ever sought with all their hearts.