by Mercedes Rochelle
2014, Top Hat Books, trade paperback
Let’s welcome Mercedes Rochelle with her second novel Godwine Kingmaker: Part 1 of the Last Great Saxon Earls. In her first novel, Heir to a Prophecy, Rochelle combined historical adventure with a touch of the supernatural and strong literary roots found inShakespeare’s Macbeth. In this second work she returns to old-fashioned historical adventure in the tradition of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. At the same time, she manages to incorporate the overwhelming tide of history not as just as setting but as the story itself.
The story will have special resonance to those familiar with the number 1066. Godwine, the hero of Rochelle’s novel, is the father of Harold Godwinson, who in 1066 A,D.was barely defeated by William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, depending on which side of history you are on) at the Battle of Hastings in England. The Anglo-Saxon loss to the Normans changed the course of history for both England and the world.
The way most of us understand history is that certain larger-than-life men (and the occasional woman) lead armies to victory (or defeat) in a bewildering jumbo of names, dates, and places. If we learn anything at all about these players in history it is often an abbreviated summary, or maybe a resume. The truth, of course, is that their lives were lived much like any of us: A combination of natural talents and skills, a few lucky breaks, relationships good and bad, and making the right moves at the right times in history.
Men such as Godwine.
The story begins when Godwine – an Anglo-Saxon, not much a more than a child, a peasant and herdsman – finds a foreign warrior, a Dane, likely an enemy, wandering lost in the native Anglo-Saxon territory. While Godwine has talent and skills, it is his personality that causes more powerful men such as this stranger to befriend and mentor him. Unlike the history texts, in which it seems greatness is pre-ordained, Godwine’s journey is anything but certain. He struggles with growing political and military responsibilities, marriage problems, and family issues. The story ends with Godwine as head of one of the most powerful families in England.
Couldn’t all this just as easily be found in a biography? Or a comprehensive history of the period? Perhaps, but the information can be scattered across many sources and, let’s be honest, there is that pesky thing about too many names, dates, and place names and the danger of covering the events of years in a few paragraphs.
Certainly fiction might tell the stories, but often at the cost of true historical events and how they develop as a whole. A danger of fiction is dwelling upon the personal at risk of losing sight of the larger flow of history.
Rochelle does a nice job trying to incorporate both perspectives in her narrative.
She does battles and hand-to hand fighting. She describes strategies and tactics. She shows the tricky politics behind the historical events, which from Godwine’s perspective can seem capricious and ill-advised.
Rochelle also remembers that the larger-than life figures we read about in history were, regardless of their feats or failures, flesh-and-blood human beings with the same doubts, confusions, internal conflicts and feelings as the rest of us. Rochelle incorporates such universal realities into the story of unfolding history.
One of the best examples might be the relationship between Godwine and his wife, Gytha. It started out rocky, with a bad result, though an apparently happy and successful marriage followed, resulting in a family and a father’s pride in his sons. One of the more insightful scenes is when Godwine, feeling uncertain and depressed about prospects, thinks about his family, especially his son, Harold:
[Harold’s[ voice held the firm timbre of command. Godwine knew it; he had often used the same tone himself. He looked long at Harold, feeling his son’s strength – and his own frailty. There was no denying it: Godwine felt old and worn, and he needed Harold to lean on. Yet it was a good feeling to lean on a son.
If there is a fault with this work, it might be that the reader is left wanting more: more thoughts about the nature of power, details about the politics of the time, explorations about marriage and family dynamics of this historical period, and insights into the very real human emotions of those to whom the events are not history but their lives.
On the other hand, it might not be fair to complain because Rochelle has apparently made great effort to uncover every possible nugget of knowledge from the time and presented it as accurately as possible; took minimum liberties when information was sparse; presented the characters as humanly as possible; and provided some nice insights.
This is definitely a book worth reading.