As a medieval historian and a big fan of historical fiction, family members from Sweden have been telling me for years to learn some Swedish so I can enjoy the fabulous bestselling Crusades Trilogy from Swedish author Jan Guillou. I still have yet to improve my language beyond basic Swedish, fortunately this isn’t a problem anymore. The first book in the trilogy, The Road to Jerusalem, which has done very well in Europe also, is now available in English to American readers.
The title may be somewhat of a misnomer, with an emphasis on “road to,” as the main characters never even make it near to the Holy Land. However as this is a trilogy, readers know they’ll get there eventually. In this first book, the year is 1150, and readers are introduced to Arn Magnusson, a boy of noble birth who is sent to a cloister where he learns the ways of the church, as well as some expert training in weaponry and horse riding from a master. Eventually leaving the cloister, Arn is reunited with his family who, expecting a humble monk, find a powerful but pious warrior. After committing and being charged with a grave sin, he is forced to become a member of the Knights Templar at the end of the book.
On the surface this seems a simple story, and readers may have a little trouble with the many Swedish names and words (a pronunciation guide would’ve been helpful; fortunately I at least know how to sound those foreign letters: å sounds like “awe,” ä with a soft “e” sound like “egg,” ö and ø [ø is the equivalent in the Norwegian and Danish alphabets] have an “er” sound), but Guillou does an incredible job of analyzing and revealing medieval twelfth-century life in Scandinavia. In the style of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, Guillou isn’t obvious and overbearing with the history, but reveals it through plot and story, allowing readers to make deductions for themselves. And for those who’ve seen the Swedish tre kronor or three crown flag and symbol prevalent throughout Sweden, will have their questions answered in The Road to Jerusalem.
Guillou probably could’ve combined the trilogy into once massive book à la Ken Follett, but instead you have a fun trilogy that begins with a strong foundation and background for those not too familiar with the period and area, continuing in the second book, The Templar Knight, due out May 2010.
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Originally written on June 30th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.