King Harold: Two Novels of the Norman Conquest

golden warriorSeldom do competing historical novels cover the same ground in completely different ways with results just as pleasing. I can think of only one example pair: The Golden Warrior (1948) by Hope Muntz, and Lord of Sunset (1998) by Parke Godwin. Written exactly 50 years apart, they tell of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold Godwinson, in the two decades leading up to the Battle of Hastings. I honestly can’t say which is better.

The Golden Warrior is written in the old saga style, depicting two men, King Harold and Duke William of Normandy, who could have been friends if not for their opposing ambitions. The opposition isn’t grounded in the gritty politics we’re used to seeing in modern novels. This is a tight Beowulf-like narrative where context is abstract, and people like Harold and William are literary ciphers who transcend their setting and sweep you up in their personas. It’s a style of writing difficult to tame, but Muntz succeeds for the most part.

She starts in the year 1053 and quickly covers events up to 1064 in the first third of the novel. Admittedly I wasn’t engaged by most of this, because it’s not fleshed out; it read like snippets out of ancient historical journals. But once Harold is shipwrecked in France, the narrative slows down with more focus, and I was hooked. That remaining two thirds covers the final years of 1064-1066 — the friendship between Harold and William, Harold’s return to England, the eventual war between them, Harold’s death, and England’s fall. Muntz neither demonizes nor glorifies the two men. Each is flawed and sympathetic; each emerges noble; each pushes his countrymen to a war that neither really wants but feels fated to prosecute; the tragedy approaches the level of Hector and Achilles.

This makes The Golden Warrior a refreshing read in today’s politically-loaded climate which tends to favor sides. Marc Morris’ recent book on the Norman Conquest is the best available, and he states wisely:

“There is still a widespread assumption with the Norman Conquest that the Normans are ‘them’ and the English are ‘us’. The Normans are the villains, responsible for introducing into England bad things like feudalism and the class system. The period before 1066 was imagined as a golden age, when women and men rubbed shoulders in rough and ready equality, only to be ended by the coming of the nasty Normans. The reality is that women were no worse off under the Normans than they had been under the Anglo-Saxons. Englishmen were sore about being conquered [like any invaded people] but the notion that the Conquest ushered in new and enduring forms of oppression for Englishmen is the work of writers and propagandists…

“I have no particular fondness for William and his followers. Like all conquerors, they come across as arrogant, warlike, and inordinately pleased with themselves, as well as holier than thou. But I don’t care much for the English either, as they were in the eleventh century, with their binge drinking, slavery, and political murders. Whoever these people were, they are not ‘us’. It is high time we stopped taking sides.” (The Norman Conquest, 2012, pp 7-8)

lord of sunsetLord of Sunset, on the other hand, does take sides. Godwin’s novel is a prequel to his Robin Hood epics (Sherwood, Robin and the King), which are set right after the Norman Conquest (1070s-80s) instead of the usual time period of the 1190s. On the one hand, this revisionism has many strengths. The traditional dating of Robin Hood has never been reliable, beginning only with Scott’s Ivanhoe (written in the 19th century) and continued via Hollywood and television; Godwin rightly objects to this romantic idea on grounds that Richard the Lionheart spent no more than four months of his ten-year reign in England and Prince John, in his absence, wasn’t bad enough to call forth such a rebel; it’s easier to imagine a figure like Robin Hood in the wake of William the Conqueror. But as a result, Lord of Sunset, as a prequel to Robin Hood, anticipates and paves the way for “angry rebellion against injustices”, in which the reader is predisposed to siding strongly with the English underdogs.

That being said, Parke Godwin is no propagandist. He doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying pre-Conquest England as anything like a golden age, with liberated women in a society we would identify as democratic. In the afterword to Sherwood he explains his cautious view of the historical setting, giving each side its due:

“The Normans conquered and imposed feudalism on a people much more socially complex than themselves. Among the Saxons a man’s place in society was measured for legal purposes by the money value of his holdings. The title of thane designated a man who owned at least five hides of land. A hide consisted of between 100 and 120 acres… To call such people democratic would be inaccurate, but they were what democracy evolved from, an instinctively legalistic, contentious, profit-minded folk who already had a massive body of written law and civil custom where their Norman conquerors had none… The Normans transformed England, probably for the better. They had an energetic genius for organization and efficiency, the English for law and political progress. William, probably illiterate himself ultimately left the Saxon legal machinery intact.” (pp 525-526)

Also, Godwin goes out of his way to make the Norman characters sympathetic in the Robin Hood novels. (Frankly, I liked the Sheriff of Nottingham more than Robin.) This is less true in Lord of Sunset, but only because most of the chapters are written from the viewpoint of English characters — William of Normandy gets less than a handful. So while Parke Godwin tells “us-vs-them” stories, we’re never entirely comfortable in our allegiance to the English. We warm to the Normans at unexpected moments.

But I adore Harold’s family in Lord of Sunset. For all the sibling rivalry and dysfunction (his bungling elder brother Swegn and malicious younger brother Tostig are handled brilliantly), there’s a collective passion binding them as they struggle under the ineffectual rule of King Edward. The narrative is dominated by the events of 1049-1052 — the frictions between Edward and the Godwins, the building animosity between the English and Normans, the exile of the entire Godwin family, and their rebellious return a year later which Edward is forced to accept because the English people love them. (Muntz whisks over this period in a prologue, and starts her narrative in 1053.) The Godwin exile is the best part of Lord of Sunset and shapes what is to come in 1066. It’s the first moment where the Norman presence feels so threatening, and William’s ingratiating visit to Edward doesn’t help matters.

What of the “historically silent” period of 1056-1062? During this time, both Harold and William grew in power, but details are sparse in the surviving accounts. The Golden Warrior fills in the gap (Lord of Sunset all but ignores it) with papal power politics. It works wonderfully for Muntz’s saga-approach, and I especially like how she handles the figure of Hildebrand. Harold goes on pilgrimage to the Vatican 1057 (we don’t know when or even if he really did go to Rome), where he buts heads with the future pope, who attempts to bribe him with papal support, which Harold spurns.

Most intriguing is that in The Golden Warrior the Norman Invasion emerges as a proto-crusade. Long before the First Crusade (1096-1099) or a Muslim excuse, Hildebrand’s reformist agenda had included papal military campaigns against Christians who thwarted him for any number of reasons — threatening church lands, opposing papal reform, or being even remotely allied with his secular arch-enemy Henry IV. Scholars have speculated that the papacy was sending William to defend the church in England from simoniacs like Bishop Stigand of Canterbury — the Godwins’ greatest ally. Stigand’s simony and Harold’s oath-breaking (two cardinal sins for the 11th-century papal reformers) may have been enough to warrant a power play of papal intervention. Muntz does not directly suggest this, but what she portrays is certainly compatible with it, and it’s plausible.

As I said at the start, I’m hard pressed to say which story is better. Once I was hooked by The Golden Warrior, I felt like I was reading classic literature; in Lord of Sunset I was gripped by political fever and social unrest. Both treatments of the Battle of Stamford Bridge were particularly impressive, even more than the final stand at Hastings. If not for Tostig’s treachery and the northern Viking assault, Harold would have faced the French in the south with a fresh army — the Norman Conquest might have failed. Muntz portrays Tostig as a worse tyrant than William; Godwin depicts him as unscrupulously deceitful. He was Harold’s true enemy, and the novels convey that in equally compelling ways.

The difference between the two representations of Harold is best seen at the end, right before Hastings. The Golden Warrior is pained to judge William even now, seeing in his foe too much of himself:

I could not tell which struck more deep, that I should lose mine honor, or that by him I lost it. I count him one of the greatest. Can I judge William? I followed the same road, the same spur drove me. He goes a bitter journey. (Muntz, p 355)

The Lord of Sunset is sure of himself, placing the welfare of the English (like Aelred, father of the future Robin Hood) before his sovereign rights:

This earth is theirs, William, not mine. Before you draw your last breath, pray you grasp that. I may not surrender anything to you. Men like Aelred won’t let me. They just won’t have it. (Godwin, p 465)

Read the novels, and judge for yourself.

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7 thoughts on “King Harold: Two Novels of the Norman Conquest

  1. Your strong feeling for Lord of Sunset has forced me to re-think reading it. Though I once started it, then laid it aside (and no longer know where the book ended up) perhaps, if I can find time, I shall have another look at it. After all, you’re so favorable toward it, I am prompted to think I might have missed something!

  2. Yes, it’s very good Stuart, even better than his Robin Hood books to which it serves as a prequel. Right now I’m reading Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa. Been meaning to get to this one for some time.

    • Taiko is very good but a little dry; more historical than the near picaresque adventures of Miayomoto Musashi in Musashi, which is also by Yoshikawa. (I think he also did The Heike Story, which I also liked quite a bit, but then I tend to favor material that evokes an earlier age’s literary sensibilities rather than more modern fare so you might not enjoy this last one as much as I did because it’s written in an archaic Japanese fashion.)

  3. So far I’m really liking Taiko for the dryness. I started it once before but couldn’t get into it, and part of the problem is that any novel about 16th-century Japan stands in the shadow of Shogun. I tried reading Taiko right after Clavell, and that’s an instant fail. We’ll see how it goes now.

    • Taiko is more realistic and true to Japanese culture though. It was written by a Japanese author who lived in the milieu and was raised in its history. Yoshikawa didn’t make any of the mistakes we get in Shogun though, of course, Shogun is a tour de force for all its mistakes!

      • You should read Learning From Shogun, edited by Henry Smith. It’s a collection of essays by specialists who address where Clavell got things right, wrong, and in-between. I can send you the pdf if you want.

      • Yes, that would be great. Currently in the middle of three philosophy books I’m reading to make sure I haven’t missed anything in mine plus a book about Andrew Jackson and the First Seminole War in preparation for my return to that other project so it may be a while before I get to it. But if the pdf is short, I can probably read it much sooner.

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