Don’t you just love it when things come together?
I go on holiday to the UK and pick up Hereward The End of Days. Amongst other places, we visit friends who live in Ely. On my birthday, the 7th of August, unfortunately a few days after we returned from the afore-mentioned trip, James Wilde is in Ely doing a signing of Hereward End of Days. On my return I finish Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest before starting End of Days.
It’s never easy (I guess) writing a book based on a factual figure. Mainly because of those pesky facts. You can say ‘this happened, then that happened, then this happened’, but someone will always pop up who ‘knows better’ and takes the author to task, because he or she has played fast and loose with the ‘facts’ – as they see them. Luckily with Hereward – and the whole period really – the ‘facts’ as we have them are more than a little fast and more often than not, extremely loose. So there’s actually plenty of scope for the imagination, even whilst remaining inside a framework of what we have been handed down as ‘fact’. Whilst I disagree with the person making the argument; look at the recent controversy regarding the new theory as to where the battle of Hastings took place. We knew it wasn’t Hastings. But now someone is suggesting it wasn’t at Battle either. If you were in the non-Battle battle camp, you could say we know there was a battle and who the two sides were, but that’s about it.
From my reading of Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest, it seems like the ‘histories’ of the period we have were either been written a long time after the event, or a long time after the event and to an agenda. Most often because someone paid someone else to write a history and the ‘history’ reflects that. You’re not going to pay for something you don’t like. Not now, not in the 11th Century. Even if they weren’t paid, writing a long time after the event and writing from the point of view of one side or the other from the conflict, is going to colour your 20/20 hindsight. The problem as I see it as well is, even if an un-biased, contemporary history suddenly popped up now, no one would believe it. Because it more than likely wouldn’t fit the ‘facts’ as we now believe them to be. As I said, the facts surrounding Hereward are more than a little vague. And while you may not like some of the ways James Wilde has Hereward interacting with other historical figures, unless you are going to come with incorrigible facts stating the opposite or different, you can’t – in my book – take James Wilde too much to task for what in his books, he has his Hereward say and do. And this is meant to be fiction, after all. I don’t remember James Wilde suggesting these books should be taught in school history lessons. Maybe I missed that. Again, from my reading of Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest (admittedly the only history of the period I have read (so far), but it would seem Mr Morris has written his after reading a whole lot more than me, so I’ll go with the theory of ‘why have a dog and bark yourself?’ on this one), James Wilde does at least – with Hereward End of Days – stay in line with the ‘facts’, such as we have them. Even to the seemingly unlikely meeting with William towards the end – oh, come on, it’s flagged all the way through and was written about by a Monk in the 12th Century, so it’s hardly a plot spoiler. As Marc Morris puts it;
“…the monk of Ely who wrote the Gesta Herewardi in the early twelfth century did so with the clear intention of defending the honour of a defeated people. Hereward is presented as not only heroic but also chivalrous, a worthy adversary for his Norman opponents. The underlying message of the Gesta is that the English and Normans could coexist on equal terms. Indeed, in this version of the story, Hereward and the Conqueror himself are eventually reconciled.”
Both the character of Hereward and the book are more restrained, more subdued than (in) its two predecessors. Hereward in End of Days is no longer the whirlwind of death and destruction we met in the first book. Well, he is, but he realises if left to career out of control, the death the whirlwind would inevitably lead to, would be his own. So Hereward has had to mature somewhat. He has to be older and wiser and he finds that with maturity comes change and responsibility. He has to realise it’s not just about him and his anger any more. Whilst earlier in the series he cared nothing for himself and his actions, now he is responsible for much more than just the lives and future of his close friends and companions – he’s also responsible for the hopes and indeed the hope for the future, of all the English. That is, what’s left of them after William has been travelling through his green and conquered land. The 11th Century prophets of doom might say the days that are ending are those of mankind itself, but in reality, while once Hereward – ‘the last Englishman’ – dreamt of leading a rebellion that would save the English from the Norman tyranny and conquest, he knows that in order to defend the honour of a soon to be defeated people it must instead be the end of his rebellion’s days.
End of Days, brings to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion the various strands begun in the previous two books. Hereward’s vicious, scheming adoptive brother and his seemingly implacable and sworn psychopathic enemy, the Viking ‘Redteeth’, get what’s coming to them, whilst the addition of the character of the Norman knight ‘Deda’ is an excellent way of further blurring the difference between Norman war machine and the old English ways. One that sets the scene for how England developed under Norman rule. But once again one of the strongest characters in ‘End of Days’ are The Fens themselves. The ancient, mysterious lands that give the rebels an almost impenetrable fortress in which to gather strength and from which to fight back, are a constant source of comfort, concealment and the fitting place to make a last stand.
We’re almost certain Hereward existed, but we ALL know he didn’t win. He didn’t free the English people and he didn’t send the Normans packing. He lost. And that has surely been James Wilde’s biggest challenge all the way through this series – to make a compulsive, compelling story from a set of circumstances we already know the basic facts of. A challenge he rises to admirably. I thought many a time while reading this, it was a similar situation to (for example) books like The Day of The Jackal. You know the ‘Jackal’ doesn’t succeed, but it’s still an incredibly thrilling, heart-pounding story all the same. As is Hereward’s. Half of me, while reading the book, still hoped Hereward would somehow succeed. Even though I know he didn’t. See? That’s good writing.
This conflict could never be a battle amongst equals and William as we know, thanks to much greater resources, comes out on top. The English and Normans might be able to coexist on something approaching equal terms, but Hereward and William cannot. Though I did feel that on some occasions, James Wilde was actually showing us that Hereward and William were essentially very similar. Both leaders equally beset by treachery and treason, betrayal and seemingly implacable enemies. Sometimes it feels like the only people Hereward can trust to be consistent in what they say, are his enemies. In contrast to William though, Hereward can at least trust them to try and kill him from the front, in daylight. Hereward in the end recognises that he and William can’t coexist on equal terms and so after their reconciliation, he has to go bravely into that good night of history and myth.
So, the End of Days would also seem to be the end of James Wilde’s Hereward books. That is of course presuming it is just a trilogy. Hereward has been fresh and riotously entertaining. An in-your-face, unforgettable meeting with one of English history’s original ‘forgotten’ heroes. James Wilde has succeeded in turning Hereward into a vital, living, breathing, death-dealing, honest, fallible, believable human being. A worthy adversary for William and the Normans. My attention and anticipation has been held fast all the way through, by glorious, addictive story-telling and good old-fashioned, can’t turn the pages fast enough, reading enjoyment of the finest kind. I do hope the good Mr Wilde can somehow find a way to keep Hereward going in some form or other. The character of the knight Deda would seem to offer some positive avenues, though would possibly take him into areas already occupied by James Aitcheson‘s ‘Tancred‘. The legend of Hereward has it that he either went into exile or carried on with his rebellious ways in the Fens or, a number of other possibilities. He didn’t die at the end of his struggles to rid England of the Normans and there is certain evidence for his exploits in hiding being the template for the later Robin Hood legend, so there might be scope for further novels.
But, maybe it is best to let Hereward end his days here and remember him the way he was.
The fact is, it’s sure not going to be easy not having another Hereward book to look forward to.