23 September, 2006

Warriors of the Dragon Gold, by Ray Bryant. Book review

First published 1987. Edition reviewed: Caxton, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-384-2.

The novel is set in England, with excursions to Normandy, Brittany and Denmark, and spans the period from 1013 to 1066, ending on the morning of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the characters are real historical figures, including Aethelraed Unread (Ethelred the ‘Unready’*), King Canute, Queen Emma, Sweyn Forkbeard, Earl Godwin of Wessex, Hardicanute, Harold Harefoot, Queen Edith (daughter of Godwin and wife of Edward the Confessor), Harold Godwinsson (later Harold II), Edward the Confessor and Aelfgifu daughter of Aethelraed Unraed. In the last two-thirds of the book there is also a major fictional character, Cedric Cedricsson or Cedric Shieldless, friend to Harold Godwinsson and leader of his bodyguard.

Warriors of the Dragon Gold is a novel on a vast canvas, no less than the political history of England over a fifty-year span, from the last days of Ethelred to the eve of the Norman Conquest. It begins with the invasion of England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, and ends with the twin invasions of England by Harald Hardrada of Norway and, days later, by William of Normandy. The novel explores the turbulent politics of this half-century of war, intrigue and murder, and the many threads that led up to William’s invasion. In his preface, the author states that he set out to explain a puzzling scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, where an unidentified lady Aelfgifu and ‘a certain priest’ appear once and are never mentioned again. The author identifies this lady as Aelfgifu ('Gifta'), daughter of Aethelred Unraed and half-sister of Edward the Confessor, and builds his tale on the premise that she holds the key to William’s conquest of England.

The vast scope of the novel and its enormous cast of characters makes for a rather sprawling narrative. The family trees provided at the beginning of the book are most helpful in keeping track of who is who. There is no one central character throughout the novel, and different people dominate as the narrative progresses. The first third of the story centres on Gifta (the back cover blurb implies that she is the central figure throughout, but this is misleading), and follows her flight into exile, the loss of her husband and most of her family, and the comfort she finds with a young priest. Then she disappears for well over 200 pages, and the story shifts to English court politics and centres on Canute, Earl Godwin, Earl Godwin’s son Harold and Harold’s friend Cedric. This makes for a complex and episodic structure. Readers who like a story structured as a three-act play centred on one key protagonist will probably find this novel hard going. On the other hand, it means there’s a range of characters for readers to identify with, which was just as well for me, because for some reason I didn’t warm to Gifta and was much more interested in Harold and Cedric.

The large cast means that only some of the characters are fully developed. Earl Godwin is a vital and powerful figure, dominating the middle third of the novel as he dominated the politics of the time. Harold Godwinsson is likeable and engaging. Cedric progresses from a shy teenager to hardened battle commander, and is the character who changes and develops most during the story. Similarly, some of the story threads disappear for long periods, or play only a small part in the overall narrative. Gifta’s espionage activities, which are supposed to be crucial to Harold’s defeat at Hastings, are never shown in the narrative. There is a mention that Godwin ‘had not handled the thread of Tostig’s life as carefully as he should’ - which is a great line - but the relationship between Tostig and his father and brothers is not explored in any detail. Yet Tostig’s decision to get Harald Hardrada to join him in invading England is surely one of the most far-reaching events in English history - if Harold Godwinsson had not had to fight both Hardrada and then William, at opposite ends of the country, within weeks of each other, the outcome at Hastings might have been very different. Overall, the book gave me the feeling of a trilogy or possibly even a series shoehorned into a single book by means of ruthless pruning.

There are some splendid set-piece scenes, such as Cedric’s duel with Olaf, the murder of Ethelred’s son Alfred, Harold Godwinsson’s successful invasion of Wales, and the poignant scene between the English warriors on the eve of Hastings. The cultural contrasts between Anglo-Danish society and Norman ways are well drawn, with a vivid description of a Norse earl’s hall and a Norse feast. Readers who like to play Hunt the Anachronism should be warned that there is a reference to Godwin’s tenants paying rent in pigs and potatoes, and the name Cedric is first recorded in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Since the name Cedd was certainly in use in the seventh century (Bede mentions an English priest of that name), it seems to me entirely possible that it might have been compounded with the common name element -ric to make Cedric and the compound happened not to be recorded, but it seems an odd choice of name for a major character.

A sprawling saga in a complex and fascinating period of history.

Has anyone else read it?

*The popular modern form of the nickname. Unraed means ‘Ill Counsel’ or ‘No Counsel’, a pun on Aethelraed which means ‘Noble Counsel’.

23 comments:

Alianore said...

I read it about 15 years ago - or rather, I read some of it. I seem to remember getting a bit lost in the narrative, putting it down, and never going back to it. Maybe I'll give it another go sometime.

Carla said...

I can sympathise with that - it does sprawl and it takes some concentration to keep track of everyone. I had a hard time with the first third or so, but I have a soft spot for Harold Godwinsson, so I kept going until he appeared. After that I suppose it got less confusing because I knew the broad outlines of Harold's story and knew who was who and what was going on. Also, as I said in the review, I didn't find the character of Gifta very engaging. Unfair, because the poor girl is exiled and in deep misery over the loss of her home and family, which is unlikely to show anyone at their best. But nevertheless she didn't make me want to spend 500 pages in her company. I hoped she might get more interesting in her role as a master spy and a kingmaker, but oddly the novel doesn't go into that at all, despite laying great emphasis on it in the foreword and epilogue. I almost wonder if the author couldn't think how to show it, so he went to Harold and Cedric and English politics instead. Which suited me fine.

Alianore said...

I should point out that I was only a teenager 15 years ago, with a much shorter attention span. ;) I think I'd get on a lot better with it now - I much prefer sprawling narratives and multi-cast novels these days. It's a period of history I'm not that knowledgeable about, so the novel could be a good way to learn more about it.

Carla said...

There's certainly a lot of history in the novel, and there aren't that many that cover the whole period from Cnut's invasion to William's. Edward the Confessor, Harold and the Conquest get reasonable coverage in fiction but Cnut and Godwin tend to get ignored, relatively speaking. Definitely worth giving it another go if you're interested in the astonishing complexity of the politics leading up to Hastings - I think we have a tendency to think of it as a straightforward English versus Normans conflict, and (as usual) it was a lot more complex than that at the time.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I have tried to read it twice and twice I have given up in boredom and irritation - although I can't give you specifics as it's a while since my last attempt. That having been said, I might not have been in the right mood and I didn't persevere. It remains on my TBR for perhaps returning to at some point, so thanks for the review.

Sarah said...

It's been 7-8 years since I read it, and I've mainly vague memories at this point. I did finish it but felt it didn't quite live up to its potential, mainly where Gifta was concerned, and her relationship with the priest didn't engage my emotions as I felt it should have. Interesting premise, though, as I'd known little about Gifta beforehand.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - if you've tried it twice and given up that probably means it's just not the book for you! Hopefully the review may give you some idea of whether you missed anything in the bit you didn't read.

Sarah - yes, Gifta's relationship with the priest didn't do much for me either. It must have been a strong relationship to last fifty years in adverse circumstances, as we are told it did, but that was never really shown - the fleeting glimpses of Gifta mostly seem to show her as resigned, as if she's making the best of a bad job. I'm afraid I hadn't heard of Gifta as such, although I'd had a vague idea that the Earl Uhtred family had married into the Wessex royal family. Not entirely sure that I buy the author's theory that she was the lady Aelfgifu in the tapestry, and I rather wish he had done more with the espionage/intrigue idea.

royalrichfamous said...

Are you a historical fiction writer? If so then maybe you could give me some advice - i love HF, and also love to write it. Since im asian i write asian historical fiction. I do it just as a hobby, but i'd love to make it as a professional HF writer.Do you think asian HF has a market as ive generally seen HF that is european based.

rgds

rrf.

Carla said...

Hello rrf, and thanks for dropping by. I write historical fiction but I don't get paid for it. Certainly some novels on Asian history sell, one recent example that I happen to know about is Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors, about the building of the Taj Mahal. I am sure there are many others, but I am by no means an expert. You may find the Historical Novel Society (HNS) helpful; anyone can join and their print magazine (available to members) reviews all published English-language historical fiction. The HNS discussion group is also a great place to discuss historical fiction of all kinds, and is available to non-members. You'll also find other sites on historical fiction in the links on my sidebar. I hope this is some help. If you want to ask more, do feel free to email me at the address in my blog profile. If I have one single piece of advice for any writer it's this: enjoy the writing for its own sake! Good luck!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla,
It took me 3 attempts to get into Dorothy Dunnett, so WOTDG has one more chance left yet!

Carla said...

Elizabeth - then go for it! It hasn't got the same romantic elements as Dorothy Dunnett, though.

royalrichfamous said...

Thanks carla! couldnt agree more with what you said about writing for its own sake!

Bernita said...

Sounds like an interesting, though frustrating read.
Was Tostig married to William of Normandy's sister in law Judith, or do I have that wrong?

Carla said...

Tostig was married to Judith of Flanders, daughter of Count Baldwin IV of Flanders, and Tostig was in exile at Baldwin's court after the Northumbrians threw him out and before he joined up with Harald Hardrada for the Stamford Bridge invasion. I'm not an expert on 11th-century genealogy, but as far as I know Tostig's Judith was William the Conqueror's aunt. Her mother, Baldwin IV's wife, was the sister of Duke Robert of Normandy who was the father of William the Conqueror. Judith was also the sister or half-sister (half-sister, I think) of Baldwin V of Flanders, whose daughter Matilda married William the Conqueror, so that would make Judith William's aunt by marriage as well as by blood.

If Baldwin V of Flanders also had a daughter called Judith, she would have been sister to Matilda of Flanders and therefore sister-in-law to William. I'm not aware of a Judith daughter of Baldwin V being recorded, but like I said, it's not my period. Elizabeth Chadwick would probably know if she happens to come by.

Toni Lea Andrews said...

I am so impressed with authors who tackle these kinds of books. I would be a)too lazy to do the research. I just wanna WRITE! And b)afraid of making a glaring historical error and getting bales of hate mail.

Gabriele C. said...

Sounds like an interesting book overall (and I did like King Hereafter) but that Gifta-part makes me a bit hesitant. I'm always more interested in the men to begin with, and if she's not as interesting as let's say, Eleanore of Aquitaine, I'm not sure her part won't be too long for my taste.

Carla said...

Toni - Hello, and thanks for dropping by. I share the fear of making a glaring historical error, though I'm more concerned for the characters in the book (who were real people, even if they did live X centuries ago). There's certainly a group of people who love to spot errors - in the UK they tend to be called 'train-spotters', not in the Irvine Welsh sense but after the letters the BBC used to get ticking them off for using the wrong sort of locomotive in a shot lasting 0.03 seconds in a costume drama. I think most historical novelists would say that the research is part of the fun, but there has to be a limit somewhere.... Do you enjoy reading this sort of novel, when the author has done all the hard work for you?

Gabriele - you could try a library, if you have an interest in the period, and see how much Gifta annoys you before you get to Earl Godwin and Harold. It sprawls more than King Hereafter, though. I'd say it's not unlike Nigel Tranter's novels, if that's any help - and it may be significant that the front cover blurb on the copy I read was from Nigel Tranter.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, the problem is that German libraries don't carry many English novels.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Aha Carla, lightbulb moment!
That's why I'm not keen on the book. I have never been able to get on with Tranter.His best works I have given up on, his worst I have wall banged. That explains a lot. Hmmm. Perhaps it is a case of two strikes and you're out this time around for the Bryant book.

Carla said...

Gabriele - sorry, I had an idea that the Gottingen university library had quite a lot of English-language fiction.

Elizabeth - it's always dangerous to say author X is like author Y! - because what I see in a novel may not be what someone else sees. Did you give up on it for the same reasons as you gave up on Tranter? If so, that suggests you're seeing the same as I did. It might make more sense to try something new - since there are more books published in a year than anyone could reasonably read in a lifetime there must be plenty to choose from!

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, yes they do, but not everything. I can't figure out by what categories they buy English historical fiction - fe. they have the complete work of Duggan but nothing by Shipway, they have Cornwell's Arthur and Saxon books (which I buy anyway) but no Sharpe.

Same with French and Swedish books. I got Les Rois Maudits in French but Dumas' Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, unabridged, is only avaliable in the French Seminar library where it takes a lot of smiles to coax the librarian out of it for taking home. I can get some Kerstin Ekman (women's fiction) in Swedish, but not the Wallander mysteries. *shrugs*

Thiago Roberto said...

Yes, I read it, and I'm likely to read it again - though it has nothing to do with the history of my country, Bryant does know how to tell a story!!!

Carla said...

Hi Thiago Roberto, and thanks for dropping by. A good story can be gripping regardless of where it's set, though I suppose it might be a bit easier to get into a story in a familiar setting. What's your country, and are there many novels dealing with its history?