Begun, abandoned and finally completed after almost a decade, the Sword of Honour trilogy is Evelyn Waugh’s largest and most ambitious work of literature, the fruit of his artistic maturity. Waugh’s typical themes of decadent modernity and religion are treated with renewed strength and with the insights of the consummate writer («the true genius of twentieth-century English literature» according to Borges).
The story, long, complex and with various twists, is largely inspired by Waugh’s own experiences during the Second World War, though it is also influenced by Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. There are also allusions to other great authors of British Catholicism such as R. H. Benson, G. K. Chesterton and Graham Greene.
The protagonist is 35-year-old Guy Crouchback, the last descendant of one of the oldest and most prestigious “papist” families in England, who even has an Elizabethan martyr among his ancestors. Over time, however, the Crouchbacks’ wealth has vanished and now Guy’s father, a widower, is living in a thermal station, surviving thanks to a small income derived from renting to nuns the family home in Broome (one of the many aristocratic houses that appear in Waugh’s novels, symbol of the decline of an era).
Guy, a dissatisfied man, lives in Italy in self-exile after his unsuccessful marriage to Virginia Troy who in the meantime has acquired other husbands and several lovers. The unexpected news that the Germans and the Soviets have invaded Poland, and that England is now officially part of the conflict, comes to shake him from apathy and to gain a new purpose in his life. Determined to serve his country, after a few letters and a fortuitous meeting, Guy manages to get himself enlisted as an officer in the prestigious military corps of the Halberdiers, to which he will remain faithful until the end of the war despite numerous misadventures.
Reading Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961) one gets the feeling that Guy is hopelessly excluded from the glory of the battlefield, forced behind a desk by constant setbacks or engaged in useless missions. However, it is not a great loss, because in modern war there is no honor and its outcome does not depend on heroism, but on fortuitous factors. Everything is full of cynicism and hypocrisy as the characters alongside Guy show well: bloodthirsty officers, foolish recruits, traitors and dirty opportunists.
Even the propaganda, aided by the press, does not have too many scruples against creating fake heroes to boost morale. For example, Trimmer, an incapable and lying soldier, after a farcical and useless military operation is proudly displayed as a new savior of the Empire.
Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote that when Waugh satirizes, «he leaves a strong mark»; nevertheless, we must not make the mistake of considering Sword of Honour a simple caricature of modernity. The lightness of Waugh is only apparent, and as Guy’s adventures progress through what was one of the most frightening and horrendous of wars, humor fades into pain and Christian piety emerges. In fact, after squalor and failures, the trilogy – from which a film with Daniel Craig was drawn in 2001 – closes in the name of hope, underlining the providential strength that is the hidden engine of history and that offers to everyone, even to the naive protagonist, an opportunity of redemption.