Shieldwall is a welcome surprise. It’s a serious – and successful – attempt at telling the hero tale of Godwin, father of Harold, last Anglo-Saxon king of England, in a style that’s consciously, but not crudely, an homage to the genre of Germanic heroic lay. It’s elegiac, lyrical, grand, high-minded; centrally concerned with honour and male friendship, fathers and sons, duty, war and death.
There’s a lot on the historic record about Godwin, mostly about his adult life. We know he was an Anglo-Saxon magnate of extraordinary wealth and power, right-hand man in England to King Knut the Great, the Danish King of Denmark, Norway and England. We know he was over-endowed with sons who proved troublesome even by C11th standards. We know he came from relatively humble beginnings, a thegn’s son, and was a pubescent hostage in the court of King Ethelred the Unrede, who exiled Godwin’s father.
History however is written by the winners, and three of Godwin’s sons, including King Harold, were killed at the Battle of Hastings when Duke William of Normandy won his cognomen William the Conqueror. Understandably, chroniclers in the Anglo-Norman period were not kind to Godwin, damning his and his dynasty’s ambition. About how Godwin rose to such heights in the first instance, gaining Knut’s trust, we know little, although we can surmise he was indeed ambitious. Given the violent and uncertain politics of the period, he was also almost certainly outstandingly able, intelligent, and brave. He very likely demonstrated qualities Anglo-Saxons admired and respected: a war-leader, a man of his word, loyal to his king, a just man (within the understandings of ‘justice’ of the time).
[When I say “we”, I am inviting you to agree with me, and I should admit now I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon England. I do have an academic background in Early Medieval Celtic Literature, and Brythonic Literature, and a reader’s appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon period.]
Justin Hill represents the youthful Godwin in precisely these positive terms. The historic Godwin was likely brutal, ruthless, and feared, not only by his enemies; we see less of this aspect in Hill’s young Godwin. Hill’s Godwin is purely hero.
Arguably, though, the true hero of Shieldwall is less Godwin than the king Hill assigns him as blood-brother and soul-mate, the Anglo-Saxon king who proceeded Knut: Edmund Ironside. The Godwin of Shieldwall may be the adornment, the setting, that better shows off the ‘jewel in the crown’, the young Edmund. Almost forgotten in the popular imagination, Edmund’s life is as courageous as Alfred the Great’s, and well deserves to be retold now.
Some novels within the contemporary genre of Viking and Anglo-Saxon stories are gratuitously and sadistically violent, and violently misogynist. Hill’s tale doesn’t shy away from strong violence, and the extended battle sequences are informed by forensic research on wound marks on skeletons of men killed in early medieval battles. But he doesn’t indulge in the almost pornographic dwelling on brutality that some authors do. (Of course, some authors might argue that the world of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was irredeemably violent and misogynist; I reply, an author chooses the world they write.) Although he depicts an earthy milieu, his nobles admire their noble wives, sometimes even love their sex slaves, and treat their dependents decently.
We know peasants – and slaves – suffered severely. Hill introduces characters intended to represent the experiences of the poor and powerless, and some of these characters die base deaths. But the nature of the heroic lay is that it memorializes a hero, high-born, and is aristocratic. Its focus is the lives, loyalties, betrayals and deaths of men who wield swords with precious hilts and who wear armbands gifted by their lord, who sing sad songs of the deaths of kings.
I loved Shieldwall. Can’t wait to read the next two novels in Justin Hill’s trilogy.