THE BORN STORYTELLER has an ability to create a world of complete authenticity and pull us into it so that we come to know its smells, colors, textures and people with an immediacy that rivals our own existence. Pamela Kaufman is such a storyteller, and Shield of Three Lions, her first novel, is absolutely splendid, a complex and magically captivating work.
Set in the late 12th century during the time of the Third Crusade, when the British Empire stretched as far as the Holy Land, Shield of Three Lions is an unusual and compelling romance. It is basically a triangle involving Lady Alix of Wanthwaite, a pubescent girl who disguises herself as a boy; Enoch Angus Boggs, a fearsome Scots knight who becomes her protector for reasons more acquisitive than chivalrous; and the legendary King Richard the Lionhearted.
Lady Alix, who transforms herself into Alexander (complete with a penis made from willow reeds), finds herself appointed to serve as a page to the King during the Messina and Acre campaigns against Saladin. Her problems include trying to regain the family castle that has been stolen from her and that Enoch covets; trying to keep her gender a secret (no easy feat when you're travelling with an army that numbers close to 100,000); and attempting to deal with Richard's romantic but definitely homosexual advances, a problem compounded by the fact that Alix does not recognize the nature of the King's desires and is, in the first flush of adolescence, completely infatuated and increasingly receptive to his amorous advances (convinced that he realizes she is not actually a boy). In addition, her stormy relationship with Enoch arouses within her both passions and furies that she is unable to comprehend.
Shield of Three Lions is a romance, not only in its storyline, but in its modeling after much of Middle English literature, with tales of chivalry, knighthood and (un)holy wars. And with a bow to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Kaufman has loosely borrowed a device popular in medieval literature--that of the pilgrimage. For as Alix is making her own pilgrimage to seek an audience with the King to restore her lands, so Richard and his vast armies are making the holiest of pilgrimages to Jerusalem (no matter that there is all sorts of bloodshed and horrible warfare along the holy route).
The device gives Kaufman ample opportunity to have Alix cross paths with all manner of folk that inhabited both history and literature during that time--from the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Philip of France to Robin Hood and Maid Marion. It's a colorful and bustling world, filled with knights, rogues, prostitutes, jongleurs, jobelins (dissemblers who faint on cue, froth at the mouth, apply false tumors and beggar for profit) and experts in the medieval healing arts ("Do you know how you digest your food? The stomach is normally cold, but when we eat, the liver turns on like a flame and heats it from below, whereupon our food is cooked"). And setting her story against the panoramic backdrop of the Crusades also allows Kaufman to include a supporting cast of historical characters and provide vivid commentary on the royal intrigues and machinations, when marriages were political fodder and kings bartered their own family members for a bit more land or a promise of temporary peace.
But best of all, Kaufman has written a perceptive character study and given readers a wonderful heroine. As told by Alix, Shield of Three Lions is both hilarious and touching, an intimate and astutely rendered psychological portrait of adolesence with its mercurial moods, sense of isolation, changing desires and shifting perceptions of sex, love, honor and self. And Richard is revealed as equally fascinating, a monarch of many colors--lyrically poetic, vainglorious, courageous, romantic, guilt-ridden, vengeful and very human.
Shield of Three Lions spreads before readers a vivid tapestry of a time when knighthood was in full flower-- even though the knights (and days) smelled absolutely foul. Kaufman has captured all the pageantry, chivalry, and stench-filled realities of medieval life with a fineness of detail that bespeaks prodigious and painstaking research. Add to that her sensitivity, humor and highly creative writer's touch and you have a truly original and extraordinarily memorable story.