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.)