First edition cover
|Series||The Grail Quest series|
|16 October 2000|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||384 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|ISBN||978-0-00-225965-1 (first edition, hardback)|
Harlequin (in US The Archer's Tale) is the first novel in The Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell. It begins a series of stories set in the middle of the fourteenth century, an age when the four horsemen of the apocalypse seem to have been released over Europe.
The narrative tells how Thomas of Hookton leaves his native Dorset to fight against the French in Brittany and, afterwards, at the battle of Crecy in Picardy. It is a tale of longbows and butchery, especially when England's archers swarm into the Norman city of Caen. And over it all, like a dream, hovers the Grail which is the epitome of chivalry and Christian decency, qualities which are in desperately short supply as the armies of France and England struggle at the beginning of what will be known as the Hundred Years War.
The narrative begins in the village of Hookton, where Thomas is growing up under his once mad father, who is also the village priest. Thomas has been training secretly with a bow, despite the fact that his father forbids it. On Easter Morning, 1343, a Norman party of raiders arrive under the command of Sir Guillaume d'Evecque, a French Knight whose crest is a blue field with three golden hawks on it. Also with Sir Guillaume is a warrior dressed all in black, known simply as the Harlequin, who has hired Sir Guillaume to carry out the raid to steal Hookton's treasure, the Lance of St. George. The Harlequin, who is Thomas's cousin kills Thomas' father, and the lance is stolen. Thomas manages to reach his bow and kill four of the raiders, but the Harlequin and Sir Guillaume both escape.
The book then moves forward by three years. Thomas has gone to France to serve in the English army and take vengeance on his father's killers. He is serving under a competent commander, Will Skeat, and the army is besieging the city of La Roche-Derrien. The army assaults the city and is beaten back with many losses. Among the city defenders is the Blackbird, a woman who fights with a crossbow. Her real name is Jeanette, and she is the countess of Armorica. She wounds an English knight, Sir Simon Jekyll, in the arm after the assault, and Jekyll vows revenge.
Skeat and Thomas later visit the army commander, the Duke of Normandy. Thomas has discovered a way to assault the city from the rear- a weak wooden palisade is all that prevents the army's entry, and they are weakly placed. The Earl gives Thomas permission to lead an assault, with Jekyll in nominal command (though everyone in the army hates him). Thomas and his men successfully penetrate the city, open the gates and the town is sacked. During the onslaught Jekyll encounters Jeanette and attempts to rape her, but is prevented by the Earl, who walks in on him with his pants down.
Jekyll is excommunicated for his actions, but the war calls the Earl away to another campaign. Skeat and his men, including Thomas, are left to garrison the captured city. Thomas and his men guard Jeanette from Sir Simon, but Jeanette will not let them in her house. As the days go by, Skeat and his men conduct a series of raids on French villages. A small French force from Lannion under the command of Sir Geoffrey de Pont Blanc attempts to destroy Skeat's army, but Skeat refuses to fight him. Jekyll, however, is eager for plunder, so he and his men battle Sir Geoffrey's force. Jekyll loses the battle despite putting up a powerful defense, and Geoffrey then attempts to charge Skeat's archers. His force is mowed down and destroyed by the English longbows, and Thomas captures him, but lets him go, to Jekyll's fury. Thomas' response is to tell Jekyll to "go and boil your arse".
Later that night, Thomas is ambushed by Jekyll's men and brutally beaten, but he is saved by Father Hobbe, a friend who constantly reminds him of his vow of revenge. Thomas then befriends Jeanette and the two make a plan to take revenge on Jekyll. Skeat and his men then move to attack Lannion, weakened by the loss of Geoffrey's force. During the attack Geoffrey is killed by Thomas. A French relief force attempts to destroy the English, but they are destroyed by Skeat's archers. That night, Thomas and Jeanette lure Jekyll out of the town. He attempts to rape Jeanette again, and Thomas tries to kill him, he shoots Jekyll's squire, and injures Jekyll but Jekyll escapes.
Thomas and Jeanette can no longer stay at La Roche-Derrien, as Jekyll will kill them both, so they decide to take refuge with the Duke of Brittany who Jeanette is related to through her husband. The Duke, however, is inhospitable; He rapes Jeanette and kidnaps her son, but Jeanette escapes with Thomas. She is traumatised by the event, but Thomas nurses her back to health. The two then rejoin the main English army under Edward III that has invaded the channel. Jeanette becomes attached to the Black Prince as a Lady of Honour. Thomas takes part in the assault on the French city of Caen. During the battle he recognises the coat of arms of Sir Guillaume d'Evecque, and shoots him in the thigh. He also rescues a young woman named Eleanor from being raped by an English man-at-arms. As he leaves the house, Jekyll sees him and knocks him unconscious, afterwards leaving him to hang.
Thomas is rescued by Eleanor, who is revealed to be Sir Guillaume's illegitimate child. Sir Guillaume appears to Thomas with a missing eye, along with the wound Thomas gave him. Sir Guillaume tells Thomas that it was the Harlequin who gave him the wound. Sir Guillaume, like Thomas, wants to kill the Harlequin, and the two become friends. Thomas is nursed back to health by a Jewish doctor named Mordecai. Meanwhile, Jeanette confronts Jekyll in front of the Prince, who has Jekyll banished from the army. Thomas learns a great deal about his family from Sir Guillaume and a churchman in Caen. His father was a member of the infamous Vexille family- the former counts of Astarac and descendants of the Cathar heretics. Thomas also learns that the Vexille family may be in possession of the Holy Grail, and the Harlequin had gone to Hookton to find it as well as the Lance of St. George. Despite this new information Thomas decides to return to the English army with Eleanor who becomes his lover and simply be an archer for the time being.
Meanwhile, Sir Simon Jekyll decides to join the French army for a chance to take revenge on both Jeanette and the Black Prince. He impresses several knights through his battle skills, and even manages to defeat a black knight- the Harlequin, who reveals himself to be Guy Vexille, the Count of Astarac, and Thomas' cousin.
Thomas manages to rejoin Will Skeat's band and helps the English defeat a French force guarding a river ford in the battle of Blanchetaque. The two armies then line up for battle at Crécy. Sir Guillaume, Sir Simon, and Guy Vexille are all on the French side. During the epic battle the French are massacred by the English arrows, but the fighting soon becomes hand to hand. Jekyll encounters Thomas on the battlefield and attempts to kill him, but Sir Guillaume stabs Jekyll in the side and kills him, as Jekyll is in Vexille livery. Sir Guillaume then encounters Vexille and tries to kill him, as do Thomas and Skeat. Vexille severely wounds Skeat in the head, and Sir Guillaume is nearly killed by the English, though Thomas rescues him. Guy manages to escape, though not before he recognises Thomas.
Skeat is sent to Mordecai to recover and Sir Guillaume is set free to help him.
Characters in Harlequin
- Thomas of Hookton - protagonist, illegitimate son of a priest, archer in the English army
- Will Skeat - Thomas's friend and commander, a captain in the service of the Earl of Northampton
- William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton - English nobleman and military commander
- Guy Vexille, Comte d'Astarac - Thomas's cousin, his father's murderer and the antagonist, the Harlequin
- Sir Guillaume d'Evecque - French knight
- Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales - heir to the English throne
- King Edward III of England - King of England and father of Edward of Woodstock
- Sir Simon Jekyll - Thomas's sworn enemy, a poor English knight
- Jeanette - daughter of a rich Breton merchant, widow of the Count of Armorica
- Charles of Blois, Duke of Brittany - Kidnapper of Jeanette's son
- Eleanor - Sir Guillaume's illegitimate daughter
- King Philip VI of France - King of France
- Ralph Vexille - Thomas's father and Guy's uncle, the priest in Hookton and a former madman