World-building with History - Knight’s Ransom by Jeff Wheeler

Hello all, has been a hot minute since I posted a fiction review, so I wanted to post something a little different today.


Recently I completed reading the book Knight’s Ransom by Jeff Wheeler. This was the first in his series “The First Argentines” that apparently tells about characters from several hundred years before the events of his one of his other major works, the Kingfountain series. Normally, I would write a review. Instead I want to a deep dive into this book’s world-building, as it has some very strong historical influences. As a result, this is going to go into pretty major spoilers for the book and potentially future books if you are not already familiar with the historical events I am going to touch on here.



The Origins of the Story

Reading the summary of Knight’s Ransom, I already had suspicions that I already knew the plot of this series. Upon completion of the first chapter or two, I was almost positive and a quick check on the internet confirmed it for sure. But how did I know the plot of this story? Is it just predictable? Is it Cliché?




Actually, I would say no. Rather I knew this story because this series, at least so far, seems to be a love letter to one of the most famous knights in English history, William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke. Our titular Sir Ransom Barton, actually named Marshal Barton at the beginning of the book, is this world’s version of the “best knight that ever lived.” A bit on the nose there, Jeff…


Now what I would like to discuss here is how some of the world, events, and characters of the Knight’s Ransom line up with their real life counterparts. So far, events have not been lining up 100% with tweaks to condense the timeline and the elimination of some extra people that are not critical to the story. However it is still pretty close.



Who Was William Marshal? Why Do We Remember Him?

Well, for one thing, he was know for his fighting prowess. Early on, he became famous for his chivalrous behavior and great achievements on the tournament circuits of the Continent. He became critical to the history of England as a knight and then later a leading noble in the court of 5 different kings of England.


I first learned about William Marshal thanks to the Medieval historian Frances Gies who features William as a character in her book The Knight in History. This is because a near-contemporary biography written about him, L’Histoire de Guillaume Maréchal, illustrates much of the manners, customs, and values of 12th century knightly classes. My mother is also obsessed with Eleanor of Aquitaine and the play “Lion in Winter.” This play/movie, which takes place shortly after the end of Henry The Young King’s rebellion & his death, dramatizes the strained relationships in the English royal family between Henry II, Eleanor, and their surviving children. As a result, I have learned a lot about the Angevins and 12th century Western Europe.



Parallel Timelines

A close examination of Ransom shows that he is a close parallel to William Marshal at least so far. Ransom demonstrates a personality that pretty closely matches the romanticized depiction of William from his biography ad all of the major events of his life line up as well.

For example, William was:

  • Threatened with execution by hanging as a hostage during a civil war (The Anarchy) but the King (Stephen of England) couldn’t go through with it.

  • Trained in knighthood by his mother’s cousin where he earned several enemies and gained a reputation for fighting well, but failing to take enemy knights ransom.

  • Joined the household of an earl, but was wounded and captured in an ambush while guarding the Queen (Eleanore of Aquitaine) from an attack by a local knight (future king of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan).

  • Asked by the King (Henry II) to enter the service of the Young King (Henry the Young King)

  • Loyal to the Young King during a revolt against the King

  • Became a regular tournament champion while traveling with the the Young King abroad

  • Accused of having affair with The Young King’s wife (Margaret of France), he left the Young King’s service just before the later declared war on his father again.

  • Returned to the Young King’s service, but the Young King soon died soon after due to disease.

  • Allowed by the King to go on crusade to the Holy Land.


And that is where the events of Knight’s Ransom leave off. As you can see, almost every major plot point is mirrored here except for Ransom potentially being Fountain-blessed and the presence of the mysterious lady poisoner.


The timeline of these events has also been condensed somewhat. In real life, William Marshal was around 36 when Henry the Young King died in 1183, but Ransom seems to be younger. The character of Clare de Murrow is also significantly different from her real parallel, Isabel de Clare. She would have absent from much of the book’s events, being only a child at the end of the book. Isabel was only 17 when she and William Marshal married in 1189, so I am actually grateful that Jeff did make this change to make Isabel and William closer in age and made their relationship more about mutual respect and attraction rather than a power deal & a reward for William’s long service.



Mirroring Character and Place

However, the closeness of the setting goes even far beyond just Ransom/William and their life events. Every major member of the royal families of England and France have parallels in The First Argentines series. The only missing family members are several daughters of Louis and Henry. Way to go there, Jeff, by the way. Also, Eleanor’s first marriage to King Louis VII is changed to a potential pre-marital affair between Lewis and Eleanor that resulted in only one daughter instead of two.


Even the map felt familiar, if partly flipped on its side. Many place names were changed, but they were changed with real-life alternatives as opposed to making up new creative ones. France became Occitania with its capital of Pree. Eleanor’s Aquitane became the Duchy of Vexin, the name of a real-life county in Normandy. King Devon’s Duchy of Westmarch is even called La Marche by King Lewis, the name of a real French county. Geoff’s Duchy of Brythonica is the Kingsfountan parallel to Geoffrey’s Duchy of Brittany. It is even on a triangle-shaped peninsula on the map, everyone! I could keep going on, but I will stop for our collective sanity. Instead, you can see the chart below for more




So What is the Takeway?

Why am I even going on about this? Wouldn’t this make the world more realistic? This type of shortcut storytelling that in many ways papers over the historical events rather than truly adapting them can still be interesting and engaging for many readers. The twists and turns of events and webs of relationships are realistic precisely because they are true to historical reality.


However, I personally found it infuriating because this book followed the historical inspiration so closely. Since I knew so much about the characters and what was going to happen already, it was just simply not that enjoyable to read. A majority of the twists and turns others might enjoy, I knew about pages ahead of time. The only things that kept me going was seeing how close Jeff Wheeler was going to follow real events, what was going to happen to Clare de Murrow since her timeline has shifted so much, and who mysterious cloaked lady was once she was finally introduced into the story. I did not even found the Fountain-touched stuff very interesting until the very end because it just seemed to be taking away some of what made William Marshal just an interesting human being in the first place.


In short, what I am trying to say here is that authors and world-builders need to be careful when adapting historical events. While you will undoubtedly find people, places, and events that are interesting for your readers, giving the real people and events a fresh coat of paint and calling it a story is not a good way to go about it. If these were events from a non-European culture, I would be likely be calling this misappropriation as opposed to an extremely close adaptation. In any case, everyone please be inspired by history, but don’t copy the homework.

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