The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The three novels that constitute Sword of Honour present a sweeping panorama of the effects of World War II upon English society, as seen through the consciousness of, and through events which impinge upon, Guy Crouch back. The first novel in the series, Men at Arms, begins by recounting how Guy has frittered away the eight years preceding 1939 in an attempt to forget his divorce from his ex-wife, Virginia Troy. Although he has been unable to overcome the bitterness and depression caused by her adulterous desertion the outbreak of the war fills him with fresh hope. The thirty-six-year-old Guy embarks upon a frantic quest for a regiment which will accept a man of his age and background, and, after many rejections, he is finally accepted for officer training in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers.

This ancient and honorable regiment offers Guy many of the satisfaction he has missed as a lonely, introverted bachelor. The shared privations and consequent camaraderie of military life make it easy for him to relate to his peers, who are drawn from a wide variety of lower-middle-class to upper middle-class backgrounds. Here, Guy first encounters many of the characters who will reappear throughout the trilogy: Trimmer, Frank de Souza, and Ben Ritchie-Hook are among those whose careers develop in intermittent counterpoint to that of Guy, although it is the inimitable Apthorpe who dominates the latter part of Men at Arms.

Apthorpe initially strikes Guy as a paragon of military and masculine virtue, but it soon transpires that Apthorpe’s confident exterior masks an ultimately fatal propensity for failure. The destruction of Apthorpe’s pretensions is treated in an essentially humorous manner, and the account of his struggle with Ritchie-Hook over the ownership of a portable latrine is one of the comic highpoints of the trilogy. Guy’s gradual realization of the truth about Apthorpe parallels his growing insight into the nature of soldiering, which he comes to see as a combination of laudable impulses and ridiculous rules. In the final pages of Men at Arms, Guy helps Ritchie-Hook stage a forbidden raid on enemy territory and becomes the inadvertent agent of Apthorpe’s death, occurrences which put a blot on his army record but which reinforce him in the conviction that he now understands the system well enough to know when personal considerations make it necessary to break with military discipline.

Officers and Gentlemen, the middle volume in the trilogy, offers a large-scale elaboration of the idea that war embodies strong elements of...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Sword of Honour Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sword of Honour is both a general title for Waugh’s World War II trilogy and the specific name of a streamlined, one-volume collection of the novels appearing toward the end of the author’s career. Waugh did some cutting here and there and eliminated a few minor characters, but none of the three novels are substantially altered in the Sword of Honour edition.

The trilogy may or may not be Waugh’s best work; certainly it is his most ambitious. His heavily plotted story charts the moral deterioration of the West and the spiritual growth of his hero, ironically concurrent developments. He deftly “modulates” (a favorite term among critics of the trilogy) the tones of irony, satire, farce, and tragedy against a naturalistic background. Furthermore, most of Sword of Honour was written during Waugh’s fifties when, according to his biographers, his health was failing and he was becoming progressively more disheartened, depressed, and lethargic. To him, Nazi Germany had been defeated at the cost of British honor; his country was rapidly becoming a thoroughly agnostic, materialistic, socialistic state; and, most horrifying of all, the Holy Mother Church that he had embraced in 1930 was, only twenty-five years later, admitting liberalizations (to Waugh, corruptions) and accommodating itself to the society that it ought to be resisting with all its might.

Men at Arms introduces the protagonist, Guy Crouchback, a familiar Waugh character type. Following his divorce, Guy has spent eight empty years at Castello Crouchback in Santa Dulcina, Italy. His wife, Virginia (like so many of her fictional predecessors), is a shallow, amoral woman who left her husband for another man. After the Russian-German alliance, Guy returns to England seeking a commission. In opposing the hateful combination of Nazism and Communism, he feels he is taking up arms against the Modern Age. Before leaving Italy, Guy visits the tomb of Sir Roger of Waybroke, an English knight who was shipwrecked near Santa Dulcina while on his way to the Second Crusade. Guy runs his finger along the sword atop the knight’s effigy and swears to take up Sir Roger’s unfulfilled quest. Sir Roger’s is the first “Sword of Honour.” Waugh will introduce, with bitter irony, a second sword in the final novel. Because of his age, thirty-six, Guy experiences difficulty in gaining his commission, but he finally finds a place with the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. Guy loves the army and this venerable unit. His first real shock is the discovery that the British military would welcome the breakup of the Russian-German alliance, thinking only of the diminished odds against them, not of Guy’s romantic crusade.

Guy soon meets the two major comic characters of the book. Apthorpe is a slightly absurd junior officer of Guy’s age. Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook is a war lover who has lost one eye and most of his right hand during a lifetime of “biffing” whatever enemies he could find. Men at Arms is the most comic of the three novels largely because of a protracted conflict over Apthorpe’s thunderbox, his personal chemical toilet, acquired during...

(The entire section is 1295 words.)