25 August, 2010

Afterglow and Nightfall, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1977. 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. Afterglow and Nightfall, 199 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

Afterglow and Nightfall is the final instalment in the Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, set in 1278–1283. It completes the story of Llewelyn ap Griffith and his brother David. Most of the main characters are historical figures, including Llewelyn and David, Llewelyn’s wife Eleanor de Montfort and King Edward I of England. The narrator Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and confidential clerk is fictional, as is his beloved Cristin and her husband Godred.

After his brother David’s third and worst betrayal, and the consequent disastrous defeat by Edward I, Llewelyn is left as prince of a much-reduced Gwynedd and forced to swear fealty to Edward as the price of peace (events told in The Hounds of Sunset.) The bitterness of Llewelyn’s defeat is at least partly compensated by the happiness of his marriage to the beautiful and heroic Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort. But no-one with Edward I for a neighbour, or David for a brother, can expect to live peacefully for long. Edward and his officials relentlessly undermine the terms of the peace with injustice after injustice. As Welsh grievances against Edward mount, David is goaded into action. His loyalty may prove more fatal to Llewelyn than his treachery, as he strikes the blow that unleashes Edward’s wrath against the princes of Gwynedd.

With a title like Afterglow and Nightfall, you can probably guess that the history on which the novel is based is not the sunniest of subject matter. If Hounds of Sunset was full of a sense of gathering clouds, in Afterglow and Nightfall the storm breaks with a vengeance. The novel is a beautifully written elegy on tragedy and loss. The lyrical prose that is one of the great beauties of this quartet of novels if, if anything, even more poetic in this final act. It has the rich detail and brilliant colour of a stained glass window.

Narrated throughout by Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and clerk, the story is told entirely from the Welsh viewpoint. Whether Llewelyn was in reality quite as heroic a figure as portrayed here is open to debate, but there is no doubt which side the reader is expected to be on (and will be on, unless you have a heart of stone). Nevertheless, the novel doesn’t slip into one-sided sentimentality. Llewelyn may be remarkably free of flaws, but he is clear-eyed about the limits to Welsh patriotism:

“What they want now is what they wanted then, to preserve their own small rights. […] These are still only a thousand little divided souls clinging desperately to their own privileges and their own lands, and seeing nothing beyond. As they turned from me to Edward, when he seemed best to offer them security, so now they will turn from Edward to me, now they are looking for another saviour. […] There is no salvation there.”

The political and legal machinations that led up to the war of 1282-1283 are clearly set out. For example the Arwystli lawsuit, which can seem an incomprehensible legal quagmire of the sort described by Dickens in Bleak House, emerges here in its full political significance. Its tortuous progress is used as an indicator of Llewelyn’s gradual (and, as presented in the novel, justified) loss of faith in Edward’s honesty. If you have ever been puzzled as to how the war and its disasters came about, this quartet (especially Books 3 and 4) is a good place to start. What is especially impressive is that the political and legal events – which might sound rather dry stuff, on the face of it – are key to the emotional drama. It is these events that force Llewelyn and David to their final agonising choice, and in this novel the reader understands how that was brought about.

Although Llewelyn is the peerless hero of the novel, as throughout the quartet, it is David who is the pivot of the story. Brilliant, ambitious, vibrant and dangerous as ever, it is David’s action that triggers the final act in the drama. His treachery in Hounds of Sunset set the destruction of Llewelyn’s work in train; now that he and Llewelyn are finally reconciled his loyalty proves no less perilous. David has grown in stature over the quartet and is at least as memorable a character as Llewelyn himself – possibly more so because of his contradictions and complexities.

Samson’s star-crossed love for the beautiful and noble Cristin, which has been a constant backdrop throughout the series, is finally resolved in Afterglow and Nightfall. Very cleverly, too, in circumstances that raise intriguing parallels with the greater storyline. ‘Brothers of Gwynedd’ can be taken in more than one way. It also allows the book to end on an uplifting note – a small light amidst the great shadow, as Samson says at the end.

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).

Hauntingly beautiful final instalment in the story of Llewelyn and David ap Griffith, the last princes of independent Wales.


Meghan said...

I'm going to have to look these books up on Amazon--they sound wonderful.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think I'd root for Llewelyn even in a book from Edward's POV. He was quite ruthless about extending his power to Wales and Scotland.

Marg said...

I still haven't read the third book yet! I had such good intentions but it hasn't happened.

Carla said...

Meghan - The new Sourcebooks edition has all four in one large volume. I like them very much.

Gabriele - Yes, it's hard not to sympathise with those on the receiving end of Edward I's ambitions. It's not so much the throwing his weight around - kings do that, it's almost part of the job description - as the double-dealing and dishonesty, at least in this portrayal.

Marg - Books 3 and 4 work well as a pair. I read them back to back and it's like one long book that happens to have a break in the middle. The portrayal of David is very hard to beat, I think.

Carla said...

I read all four on holiday years ago and this makes me want to read them again. Have you read her Heaven Tree trilogy? A slow build but very involving.
-Posted by Sarah Cuthbertson (re-posted by Carla because something went wrong with the comment moderation)

Carla said...

Sarah - Sorry about your comment! I thought I had approved it but it didn't post, so I must have done soemthing wrong. I copied the text and posted it manually.
Yes, I read the Heaven Tree trilogy a while ago and reviewed the first two here. Excellent books. There's something very deceptive about Edith Pargeter's writing style, it seems slow at first but it draws you in (this doesn't seem to happen so much when she's writing as Ellis Peters, I find).