Cuthbert, a young boy, aspiring knight, and prodigal page, begins his journey to win his spurs during the crusades and on the way grows to be a man and ultimately saves his country. Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades, first published in 1882 and written by G. A. Henty, is a historical adventure novel set during the Third Crusade. It follows the travels of Cuthbert, from his home in the great forests near Evesham, England, to the Holy City of Jerusalem, and back again. Along the way he has many fantastical adventures, such as rescuing damsels in distress, meeting Robin Hood, fighting pirates, communing with a Dead Sea hermit, scaling the Alps fraught with avalanches and savage wolves, and becoming enslaved in Jerusalem, to name a few.
The story is written in third person, so we go through the story with no internal access to Cuthbert’s thoughts. We know that he is brave, kind, and patriotic, but also brilliant, strategic, and, at fifteen years old, can beat basically anyone in one-on-one combat. This is a lot to say of a character, and in short he is a boy prodigy. The majority of the other characters are also similarly glorified, even Saladin and other disfavored historical figures, with the exception of various rivals of Cuthbert’s. This transcendence and lack of much character development causes the reader to be disconnected from the characters; Historical events, not an individual’s growth, are the focus of the book.
The plot, so dependent on historical events and details, is crippled by these superficial, lionized characters. Cuthbert’s adventures, while not unbelievable by themselves, are cheapened by his extreme ‘luck’ and his ability to easily get out of the situation with no harm. Often, he was able to run away from his captors while they stand there stupefied, or sneak away while they sleep. This ridiculous escapade is similar to the Adventures of Tintin by Herge or the Swiss Family Robinson, leaving the reader exasperated with the repeatedly unbelievable turn of events(or in this case Cuthbert’s impeccable “sagacity”) that gets the him out whatever hopeless scrape he is in.
But all that is lacking in the character department is made up for in the setting and the description thereof. For, historical detail and accuracy are something that the G. A. Henty is acclaimed for. His battle and military descriptions are interesting and understandable compared to the confusing jargon of other books, and his story is packed with accounts of medieval town culture and knight chivalry. You are immersed in the history of the Crusades, and every political and cultural anxiety are demonstrated in the plot, which is probably why Cuthbert’s exploits are so fantastical- Would a typical crusader experience all of these mishaps, and at the same time receive no more than a few cuts and a banged head or two? Probably not. But along the way the author shows us much more of the landscape and turmoil of the time than if he had followed the path of a typical crusader, which is the author’s goal.
Overall the book was very good, an unpretentious adventure story aimed at young to teenage boys. The clear descriptions of medieval warfare and medieval life were robust, and so was the protagonist’s strong sense of piety, chivalry and bravery. A message of justice was very faintly present but not very noticeable. Winning His Spurs: A Tale of the Crusades was just that; A typical adventure story that was written for the sake of the adventure, not the story. In the end it was a good book, but it was lacking in some areas that prevented it from being a great one.