Elly McDonald

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Conquest Trilogy: Shieldwall (2011) by Justin Hill

shieldwall-justin-hillShieldwall 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.


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Conquest Trilogy: Viking Fire (2016) by Justin Hill

viking-fire-justin-hill-elly-mcdonald-writer

Harald Hardrada’s true-life story is epic. Parts of it are recorded in a range of historical sources, including Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Hardrada (“Hard Ruler”), and all of it is extraordinary, larger than life, as was the man, famously described as “taller than most men” and therefore requiring a larger burial plot.

It’s an epic that cries out to be told and re-told.

Viking Fire tells Harald Sigurdsson’s story for contemporary readers. It’s the second novel in Justin Hill’s Conquest Trilogy, which began with Shieldwall (also excellent).

I first met Harald Hardrada through another historical fiction trilogy, about a different – and fictional – Viking named Harald Sigurdson (sic): Henry Treece’s Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklagard, Viking Sunset. Reading Treece’s Viking Trilogy as a child in the 60s led me to Treece’s fictions Last of the Vikings and Swords from the North, both about Hardrada.

More recently I’ve re-traced Viking voyages from the frozen north through Rus through Pecheneg lands to Byzantium with Robert Low’s Orm and his men, in the Oathsworn series, starting with The Whale Road. Orm’s journey is a descent into darkness: savage, nihilistic.

Justin Hill charts similar geographical territory in his life of Harald Sigurdsson, King of Norway – Harald Hardrada, Last of the Vikings – but Hill’s novel has a different project. Framed as if recounted by a Saxon archbishop, as told to him by Harald, it’s ambitious and literary and seeks to situate Harald historically as a ruler with wide experience of the known world’s great powers, a Christian king who recognizes the need for the peoples of the North to transition from raiding and subsistence agrarian communities to trading-based economies with centralized institutions and a literate administrative class.

Hill suggests that had Harald (rather than William) succeeded in conquering England in 1066, England might have remained part of a Scandinavian sphere post-Knut, with its Saxon and Dane traditions respected and evolving to meet the needs of a new epoch. Instead, the Normans led by William defeated Harold Godwinsson at Hastings, the Harrowing devastated English lands, Saxon elites were destroyed or absorbed through marriages, Norman institutions were imposed, and Anglo-Norman England became a domain of mainland western Europe, its history for the next 500 years (or more) inextricably and bloodily entwined with that of the French kingdoms.

Ealdred the Archbishop writes: “For a king more famous for his prowess as a warrior, I expected a bluff and ill-educated man, but I was surprised. He talked expansively of his life, and he was not the brute that we had feared. He was learned, and wise, and had not wasted his time among the Greeks.”

Indeedy. As ‘Araltes’ the Varanger (a bodyguard to Emperor Michael IV), Harald played a key role in the bloody politics of C11th Byzantium, travelled in the Emperor’s service to Jerusalem, and fought in Sicily and the Italian peninsula. He amassed a fortune, enabling him to return in style to Norway, which he’d left as a 15 year old fugitive from the Battle of Stiklestad, where his half-brother King Olaf (St Olav) was killed.

It’s an astonishing life narrative that seems to argue that which doesn’t kill makes stronger. Or that fortune favours the bold. Or simply that being smart and strong and brave and lucky is a winning combination.

Justin Hill tells Harald’s tale superbly. His writing here is confident and entirely effective.

I particularly like that Hill allows his women characters dignity. There are serving women, nursemaids, empresses, queens, sex partners, wives and mothers – but he’s made the effort to acknowledge each, to create characters, and not to exploit them pornographically. Yes, women in this period were often sexually exploited, sexually abused; but women also had respected roles, sometimes important roles, and as individuals were loved and admired, as sex partners, wives, mothers, daughters and sisters have been often, throughout the ages. Reading other Viking novels we might sometimes forget this.

Read Viking Fire. Read Shieldwall. Read the third novel in the trilogy, when it comes out.

On a personal note, as I write this, and as I read this novel, I am nursing my father in his last days. Justin Hill’s novel plucked me out of my small world, and took me somewhere else. Thank you for that.