The Walking Drum - An Adaptation
This twelfth century adventure story was a New York Times Hardcover Bestseller for over four months when first released. Edgy, picaresque and youthful, it has distinguished itself as a classic in the genre and, in almost thirty years, has never been out of print. Though Louis L’Amour’s fame is connected to a genre at the opposite end of the fictional spectrum, The Walking Drum remains the individual L’Amour title most continually referenced in fan mail and on discussion forums.
It is 1179 AD. A band of pirates raids a secluded compound on the Breton coast. The lady of the house, a mysterious beauty brought there by her husband from eastern lands, is raped and murdered and her servants and guards killed. Only her teen-age son survives, taken as a slave to man an oar on a corsair galley.
Mathurin Kerbouchard has no choice but to accept his fate. However, that does not mean he will do so willingly. The pirates are lead by Hugh de Tournemine, once a deputy to Mat’s father, Jean Kerbouchard, a legendary corsair. Tournemine has staged a mutiny, captured Jean’s ships and turned most of Jean’s loyal crew into slaves at the oars … Jean himself, however, has disappeared or suffered some unknown fate at the hands of Tornemine. Mat vows to the men around him, men who served with his father for many years, that he will both discover his father’s fate and have his vengeance.
It will be a long time coming. After several coastal raids and a storm, Mat’s ship is separated from the fleet. With a facility for navigation learned as a child Mat is able to turn the tables on his captors, staging a mutiny and freeing a lovely Moorish hostage, Aziza. Arriving in Cordoba he manages, with the help of the cunning beggar, Khatib, to sell both the cargo and the ship for a tidy profit … with it’s pirate crew in the place of one-time slaves. Some of the cargo is purchased by a Merchant Caravan which is being formed, the White Company of Traders, and Khatib goes with them as they set off across Europe.
Kerbouchard searches for information about his father and learns a bit here and there. Jean was liked and hated, a man with a reputation and a temper. The differing stories and clues to his whereabouts are a challenge for his son to piece together. In Cordoba, Mat finds himself both an income and an education working in the society of translators. Making the most of the opportunity he studies geography, alchemy, medicine and the marshal arts of sword and westling. Islam is a world spanning culture at this time in history, on the cutting edge of science and social organization and Kerbouchard has landed in its most progressive city.
Mathurin helps out and is aided in return by Safia, a beautiful woman in her late thirties who is mysteriously involved with the struggle for power in Moslem Spain. It is a struggle that Mat finds himself in the center of whether he likes it or not as Aziza reappears and a romance blooms between the two of them. Her impending betrothal makes her a pawn in Safia’s conflict and Kerbouchard finds that romantic jealousy and political intrigue can be a lethal combination. Mat is imprisoned and, effecting an ingenious escape, must flee with Safia as the plotters are rounded up and executed.
Safia is a Persian spy and the two of them, bound by platonic respect and ill fortune, take to the countryside where they eventually catch up with the White Company and join them on their route to Constantinople. She and Mat become merchants and the carnival-like caravan trades and battles it’s way east.
Eventually, Safia will take her leave to return to Persia but has used her clandestine connections to discover a rumor that Hugh de Tournemine continues to be active as a pirate and that Mat’s father may still be alive somewhere in the Holy Land. Khatib takes a job with the performers and acrobats and Mat puts his alchemical training to use as the physician to the caravan. They journey to Paris and on to Kiev. On route, Mat meets and romances Suzanne de Malcrais who is traveling to Lebanon to reclaim her dead husband’s estate, a powerful castle guarding the Northern border of the Christian held lands. To do so she will have to raise an army and depose her traitorous brother-in-law.
In Kiev the untrustworthy Prince Yuri seeks to impound the caravan’s goods and when he cannot, he makes a deal with the Mongol-like Petchenegs to destroy and plunder the White Company on its way to Constantinople. Though the caravan is easily the match for many local armies in Europe the Petchenegs are numerous and terrifying fighters. Hunted down and slaughtered on the shores of the Black Sea only a few of the White Company escape in boats or by hiding among the dead. Months later, Mathurin, a shadow of is former self, makes his way into Constantinople to regain his health and his mission.
Mat undertakes a duel of storytellers in the marketplace and thus secures a street corner from which he can earn himself a small bit of change. Safia’s connections lead him to discover that his father may be still alive, a slave in a mysterious fortress Masayf deep in the Syrian mountains. Kerbouchard struggles to learn more about the mystery that is his father and to prepare himself physically and financially for the struggle ahead. Reconnecting with Suzanne, the two aid one and other in preparing for their upcoming ordeals. Using the guise of ibn-Ibrahim, a traveling alchemist and scholar, Mat succeeds in securing an invitation from the master of Masyaf … leader of the secretive cult of The Assassins.
Even as he is preparing to leave, Mathurin meets a woman who makes him forget all those who came before: she is Sundari, a beautiful Rajput betrothed to a cousin of the Caliph. The connection between the two of them is something Mat has never experienced before … not simply attraction but love. So powerful and obvious is the attraction that her bodyguard, tasked with transporting her to Egypt and her future husband, tells Kerbouchard he must come after her … even if it means that he and Mathurin must cross swords!
But first there is his father to consider. Reunited with Khatib, Mat sets off into the cauldron of the Middle East, a place where Crusaders, Arabs, local Christians, Jews, Seljuk Turks, and the Ismalis all vie for territory and power. Once he arrives at the fortress, Mat must convince its master of his alchemist credentials, find his father and plot their escape. But there is another obstacle to be overcome, the Ismali lords have allied themselves with a force that gives them a way to terrorize the seas even as they strike fear into the lords of the lands … and that force is the remnants of Jean Kerbouchard’s pirate fleet now lead by Hugh de Tournemine, the man who murdered Mathurin’s mother.
The Walking Drum was designed to be followed by two sequels. A Woman Worth Having and May There Be a Road. These sequels were never written but there is fragmentary evidence of the story they were to contain. Unlike many stories in the ‘Historical Novel’ genre The Walking Drum has a sense of being youthful and raw, energetic and irreverent … and the possibilities to expand these qualities into a cinematic adaptation are endless.