Today I am pleased to share with you my reviews and thoughts on two works of historical fiction by GK Holloway which open up for us the years leading to the Norman Conquest of England, and the aftermath. They are ‘1066: What Fates Impose‘ and ‘In the Shadows of Castles.’
Historical fiction gives us a wonderful opportunity to ‘live vicariously’: to imagine how it may have been for the people living through, suffering from, fighting against, or driving those historical events.
Officially received history can often be limited and sparse. As we know, history is written by the victors: it has also been written mostly by those of high status, who are male; and I have been driven again and again to the conclusion that two major players were written out of history. These two major players are 1) women and 2) the ordinary people.
Many of us who are interested in history must long to know what the ordinary people thought and felt. But it is lost: unrecorded, it appears in no archives, and sometimes we can only rely on the findings of archaeology or objects in museums to give us some hints.
Historical fiction therefore, plays a vital role, when created with scrupulous research, emotional intelligence and high integrity. Through this, we can engage imaginatively with ‘history.’ Real people made decisions, based on their feelings and psychological and emotional states, their personal pressures and lusts and desires, their flawed relationships: for good and for bad, they made their choices, and enormous consequences followed which we have all had to live with.
GK Holloway has carried out an admirable task: he has tried to unravel the story of what led up to William of Normandy sailing to England, invading, and beating the English king in battle; and what followed for the people of England in the years after he built his first castle and had himself crowned on Christmas Day. Here are my two reviews:
1066: What Fates Impose by GK Holloway
Because 1066 and surrounding events are the stuff of our primary school history, we tend to view them from a safe and detached distance. But read this book and you will feel close up to those dramatic and fateful events. My opinion of the novel improved as I read it. Although the opening scene was stunning – showing us William the Conqueror on his deathbed – I then found the first half fairly slow-going with all the details of Earl Godwin and his sons and a fickle and rather weak Edward the Confessor dishing out earldoms, and a mix of rebellious sons, betrayal, poisonous royal advisers and ruthless conniving archbishops. However, the book gained in power and intensity as it moved on towards the events of 1066. In particular, the battle description at the end is brilliant, with several flashes of rich detail, engaging all the senses, together with poignant and moving touches that made me feel I was there at the thick of the battle of Hastings.
The skill of the narrative is such that I couldn’t help seeing the changing fate of the combatants as a metaphor for our own lives. After much detailed description of carnage, brutality and sadistic violence, the end of the book came unexpectedly with a poetic beauty that I found truly moving.
I was so immersed in the events that I even found myself thinking ‘I hope Harold wins’ even though I then thought ‘Of course he won’t. William wins’. And there is one character whose sadistic murder of a mother and child whilst pillaging along the southeast coast of England is so scrupulously examined, I thought ‘I hope he gets his come-uppance’. But he doesn’t. Instead, he wins glory, royal gratitude, a large parcel of land in Devonshire and a wife and two sons. So much for the way of the wicked perishing.
A fantastic evocation of a period of history that can seem very dry in our early school lives. We are so used to viewing the injustice, social inequality, corruption and favouritism of history from a safe distance it becomes merely amusing. But this book engages us emotionally in these events, bringing us up very close, giving us a new sense of perspective, causing us to reflect on the workings of fate in our own lives.
In the Shadows of Castles by GK Holloway
I found this a worthy sequel to ‘What Fates Impose’: a vivid and fast-moving account of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the early rebellions against William mounted by the English. We are mostly in the viewpoints of the two rebels Bondi and Whitgar, and two strong-minded sisters Morwenna and Elfwyn, daughters of another high-ranking rebel leader. For added interest, a love story runs alongside these events; for Bondi and Whitgar are the lovers of the two women, and I felt the account of their relationships worked very well.
The author does a good job of alternating viewpoints, panning out to narrate the events with a broad brush, and then zooming back in again to the intimate personal experience of the individuals whose lives are most profoundly affected by these dramatic and tragic events. Overall, I have a strong sense of people passionately trying to influence their fate and radically change the outcome, unconscious of the fact that ultimately, they will not succeed. The tyrant they seek to overthrow will in fact triumph and win his secure, central place in English history. What’s more, many of us will love the castles which arose from those he first put in place. However, I seek solace from the thought that he could never have guessed the use we would put them to over a thousand years later. I don’t think he would have planned the adventure playground aspect of the battlements, the tea rooms and the ‘little shop at the end’.
This story succeeds in opening our eyes to how the ordinary people may have felt, and all the hopes, dreams, and longings they would have poured into their struggle to return William to the status of a mere footnote in history. It is thought now William succeeded because he was a brilliant military strategist. It’s a shame Harold didn’t share those skills because he might have stopped in London after coming back from Stamford Bridge and would have stood a much greater chance of beating William and his forces from there, instead of marching off to Hastings and disaster. That possibility has just had to take its place among the ‘what ifs’ of English history.
Because history is written by the victors, reading fiction like this is an excellent way for us to enter the mindset of those who struggled for another reality. They, too, have their vital place in that reality, whether or not we are aware of it. Their strivings, and their hopes and dreams, were not in vain; this somehow seems to be the message of those who write really good historical fiction. I found myself caught up in the efforts of Bondi and Whitgar; if historical fiction is to do its job, we must have characters we can gun for, all the way through the story, hoping against hope they will win through to success, fulfillment and happiness, even if those characters are invented. I consider this author has given us an excellent chance to engage with an imaginative presentation of what it must have been like, as an English person dealing with the reality of Norman invasion.
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