23 June, 2010

The Dragon at Noonday, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1975. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. The Dragon at Noonday, 193 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

The Dragon at Noonday is the second in Edith Pargeter’s series of four novels telling the story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, the last Prince of independent Wales, and his mercurial brother David ap Griffith in thirteenth-century Wales. The Dragon at Noonday follows Llewellyn from his achievement of a (more or less) united Wales in 1258 to the Treaty of Montgomery in 1267 in which England formally recognised Llewellyn as Prince of Wales. It also follows the closely linked story of the civil war between King Henry and a reforming party among the English barons led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Many of the major characters are historical figures, notably Llewellyn and David, their mother Lady Senena, King Henry III of England and his son Edward (later to be Edward I) and Simon de Montfort and his family. The narrator Samson, clerk and secretary to Llewellyn, is fictional, as is his lover Cristin and her husband Godred.

Scarcely a month after most of the Welsh lords and chiefs swore homage to him, one of them breaks his oath and Llewellyn has to take military action to punish him. Together with his youngest brother David, currently proving an able and active ally, Llewellyn successfully maintains order within Wales and defeats any attempts at external aggression. But when their mother Lady Senena dies, her dying words inflame the rivalry between the brothers all over again. When the reform party in England led by Earl Simon de Montfort asks for Llewellyn’s tacit support, David repudiates his promise to Llewellyn and goes to England to fight alongside his childhood friend Edward, son of King Henry III. As the bitter civil war between the English monarchy and Earl Simon’s reformers builds to its tragic climax at the bloody battle of Evesham, once again David and Llewellyn find themselves on opposing sides, and the growing conflict between them threatens Llewellyn’s dream of a united and independent Wales.

The Dragon at Noonday takes up within days of where Sunrise in the West (reviewed earlier) left off. As with Sunrise in the West, the characters of Llewellyn and David dominate the narrative, though Earl Simon is also a powerful, if temporary, presence. The remarkable complexity of David’s character and his contradictory feelings for Llewellyn, which started to emerge in Sunrise in the West, come fully to the fore in The Dragon at Noonday. David is so skilfully portrayed that the reader can understand and sympathise with him without necessarily condoning his actions. Llewellyn remains the hero he appeared in Sunrise in the West, honourable, generous and large-minded, always putting his country’s interests before himself. Earl Simon is another heroic figure, though perhaps cast in a more inflexible mould, prepared to fight and die for a principle. Whether these two were quite as heroic in history as they appear in the novel is a moot point, but even if their motivations are idealised it doesn’t detract from the compelling story as Earl Simon’s tragedy plays out.

Among the other characters, Henry III is shown as a weak and rather spiteful man, distinctly not up to the job he was born into. His son Edward (later to be Edward I) is a more complex character. How anyone ever trusted Edward’s word for anything again after his double-dealing and oath-breaking to Earl Simon is beyond me, but although Edward’s cheating does him no credit he is not merely demonised as a tyrant and is capable of controlling his desire for vengeance when it makes good policy. Edward, David and Llewellyn are the chief actors in the remaining story of independent Wales, and in The Dragon at Noonday they all take their places on the stage.

As in Sunrise in the West, the use of Samson as a narrator allows complex political events in both England and Wales to be recounted with clarity. Samson stands slightly outside the conflicts, an observer rather than a driver of events, and as a fictional character he can be placed wherever the conflict – military or emotional – is sharpest. Thus he can witness Earl Simon’s campaign as well as the conflict between Llewellyn and David.

Samson’s own star-crossed love for the beautiful and noble-hearted Cristin, which was briefly introduced in Sunrise in the West, develops further in The Dragon at Noonday. In particular, Cristin’s husband Godred who in his brief appearance in Sunrise in the West seemed an inconsequential lightweight, emerges here as a snake, all malice and venom. With his characteristic charity Samson attempts to understand Godred and see his behaviour in a favourable light, but he has to look very hard to find anything resembling a redeeming feature.

The end of the novel is not really an end, more of a pause before the story moves on to its next phase, so any readers who aren’t reading an edition with all four books of the quartet in one volume would be well advised to have a copy of the next book, The Hounds of Sunset, to hand. A family tree at the beginning helps to keep the characters straight, though I found the text sufficiently clear that I never needed to refer to it, and a glossary of Welsh terms at the back may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. Readers who like to trace the campaigns and journeys on a map may like to have an atlas to hand, as there is no map in the book (at least, not in the advance reading copy; there may be one in the final edition).

Second in a thoughtful and evocative quartet of novels telling the powerful story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales, and Simon de Montfort’s attempt to establish political reform in England.


Marg said...

I am glad to see that someone else continued reading. My review of this section will be up tomorrow.

Carla said...

Marg - I'll look out for your review tomorrow. I'm continuing to Books Three and Four as well.

Marg said...

Yes, I am planning to continue with the schedule as it was.

Carla said...

So am I, though perhaps not with the exact dates to the day.