As someone much cleverer (Winston Churchill?) than me once said.
Except for the aftermath of the 1066 invasion and conquering of Olde England, by the Normans. All the stories about that disaster I can remember reading, are by the losers; the English.
Well, we’ve got the Bayeux Tapestry, of course, but that stayed in Normandy and is a little biased, I think most people would admit.
There is ‘The Doomsday Book‘, but that is more a stock-taking and history has to be prised from it and implied and it doesn’t read like a novel.
In later years, long removed from 1066, we generally hear from the poor, down-trodden ‘Saxons’ in their constant struggle against the dastardly Normans, personified in the tales of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
That I know of, anyway.
This is an unusual book then, in that it is written from the point of view of one of the conquering Normans, only a couple of years after the ‘Battle of Hastings‘. Britain isn’t completely conquered, the English people are still rebellious and the Normans see them as still rebelling against their new masters. In the pre-internet and national newspaper days, that’s probably because not all Englishmen have heard that they in fact have new masters yet.
The story concerns a reasonably middle-ranking Norman Knight, who fought at Hastings (must point out here that the battle actually took place at what is now a town called Battle and the invading fleet probably landed near what is now Hastings). He has journeyed to the north of England, to the furthest reaches of the Normans’ power, just two years after 1066. He loses his original Lord to the rebellious English and is sworn to another, embarking then on a mysterious mission, which on the surface seems easy enough – to protect a Churchman while he delivers a message for his nobleman, in the south of England – but develops and becomes more and more dangerous and, to him, develops treasonous over- and undertones, the longer the journey goes on.
This is where the book is, to me, an oddity. I am English and so used to reading about the Normans as the enemy. The English are the noble freedom fighters, battling to rid our green and pleasant land from the vicious enslavers. However, this book, by dint of being written from the Normans’ point of view, turns all that on its head. And creates some very odd moments during its reading. To the book’s hero, our Knight called Tancred, the Normans are of course, the rightful masters. Their King – William – the rightful King Harald Godwinsson is a traitor and usurper, who went back on a sworn promise to support William’s claim to the throne. The English are the terrorists, intent on causing trouble and treachery at every turn and with every sly glance. Whether I had to hold myself back from hoping the Norman Knight would succeed in his mission, or win his battles against seemingly insurmountable odds, or come through in tense, sticky situations…I wouldn’t like to admit. It’s certainly an odd feeling to wonder if you should cheer for the Normans or hope the English suceed in their rebellious ways. Of course, it’s not as easy as always seeing French-speaking, arrogant Normans against heroic, (Old) English-speaking natives. It’s never completely black and white, right against wrong, conquerors against conquerees (?). All of which tends to keep you on your toes, keeps you thinking and keeps you involved in the tale.
Sworn Sword is a thoroughly enjoyable, fast moving, constantly surprising, satisfying, hard to put down, blood-soaked rampage through a post-Viking England. The old ways are about to be ridden rough-shod over, by the new, unfeeling, sophisticated and, for goodness’ sake, French-speaking invaders (themselves, old Viking stock, of course). For his first novel (as I understand it) James Aitcheson writes with great verve, passion and a sure style that puts him immediately in the same shield-wall as Bernard Cornwell, Robert Low, Giles Kristian and very few others. He Tweets me that there is a sequel out later in the year and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into that and having my English emotions twisted again very much indeed.
You really can’t say fairer than that.