I have read a fair few books about the 1066 era now and I was beginning to think I’d maybe seen pretty much all there was to see in terms of how the story could be looked at. Stupid me. I was wrong. ‘1066 What Fates Impose’ has pretty much now set the Gold Standard for Norman Conquest fiction, just as Marc Morris’ ’The Norman Conquest’ has done for non-fiction of the period. In fact, I was drawn to compare the two a few times while underway, with ‘What Fates Impose’ coming out of it very well indeed. Both books have scope, sureness, readability and also a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek-ability (Face it, you got to enjoy a novel that can find place for lines (about Harald Hardrada) like “The old Viking warrior never felt comfortable in churches unless he was robbing them.”). It is also clear (to me) that G.K. has drawn many of the same conclusions as Marc Morris and also writes in a similar way that in its understatement, makes it easily understandable and accessible.
It’s hard not to take sides on the 1066 period – for an Englishman, anyway – and this book, while presenting scenarios for what happened, on both sides, doesn’t end up sitting on the fence either. Clearly its sympathies are with the English. William is a Bastard, literally and figuratively, Harold is a reasonably normal chap (in his youth, at least), thrust into history’s spotlight. He was tricked, the English were unlucky, William was ungracious while knowing he was riding his luck, he got what was coming in the end.
The book has a good, flowing style, full of understated period detail that doesn’t get all prissy, know-it-all, or ‘in your face’ and thereby obscuring the story. It is written in a calm, precise, knowledgable and authoritative way that gave me total confidence that, based on what evidence there is, it could well have happened like this, if the people behaved in this way, for these reasons. In fact, I could go as far as to say it did occur to me that it read as though you have happened upon a translation of a particularly well-kept diary from someone (somehow) close to all the action and all the participants. There were a couple of ‘bumps’ but they were very minor and absolutely nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment as a whole. I won’t pick them out as they may not be bumps for you.
The story proper starts in 1045, though there is an opening chapter that is well worth going back to, after you’ve finished. It works wonderfully well as both a scene-setter and a scene closer. Actually, is there any point in repeating the story? The bare bones you probably ‘know’ already. There are as many versions of what might have happened as there are people writing them. The story here is thusly; the relatively newly formed country of England is coming off the back of wins and defeat at the hands of Vikings and assorted other invaders, and hopefully coming into a period of calm and peace. What it actually gets is internal rivalries based on the pre-English country states – what are essentially birth-pangs and old rivalries that are hard to forget. What England really needs, is a strong king with a son ready to take over in the fullness of time. What it gets is a king they can support, but one that doesn’t, cannot, or at the very least is unable to, produce an heir who will be of age when he passes on. A vacuum of sorts is created almost by accident. There are various contenders and pretenders, with varying degrees of eligibility – depending on where you stand, of course. What is surprising to realise about this period – and I’m pretty sure it went on over here in Denmark at the time as well – is that the King was effectively elected. Of course, the son of the previous King stood the best chance, but in the case of no close heir, the vote went to the Witan, a pre-democratic periodic gathering of the good and the great. Those with the land and money and the armies to back it up, anyway. On the other side of the Channel, unable to understand how anyone but the King and his family could be King…is Duke William, head of a minor province, called Normandy. He’s not had it easy either, doubtful parentage, the constant threat of assassination while growing up and then having to hold on to power through sheer force of will. By being the biggest, baddest most ruthless of the whole pack. To say his claim to the throne of England, is doubtful, is actually to imbue it with more authority than it actually has. So, what then transpires, is the stuff of legend and has kept historians, writers and seamstresses in business pretty much ever since.
From there on – and based solely on the reading I have done – the book follows the events as they are known to us. And by ‘known’, I’d say it really should be read often as speculation, based on what is perhaps the least unlikely scenario. The ’true histories’ of the period are ’true’ to the facts as paid for by the person behind the writer of the history. It seems like a history was never written without an angle, an axe to grind, a point to make. ‘Facts’ were made to fit where they were wanted to be fitted. I get the idea that nowadays, we consider it a ‘fact’ if conclusions can be drawn from the repeated use of similar descriptions of events, that therefore they must have, most probably, happened – in some form of other. Or where archaeology, or probability based on archaeology, can maybe back them up. There you go. While ‘What Fates Impose’ is not meant to be an actual history of the period, I can imagine objections to it from any academics out there could perhaps hinge on the portrayal of how Harold came to pledge allegiance to William and thereby support William’s claim that Edward promised him the throne. You’re either going to like it or you’re not. But you cannot deny it works with the background of the characters and situations set up in the book. But I’ve no doubt that some – often self-proclaimed (I’ve come across them) – ‘experts’ will take exception and maybe overlook the book as a whole. They’d be doing themselves a great disfavour.
G.K., has created believable, realistic, human characters from some of history’s most iconic figures. It is good to have Godwin Sr., and Harold’s background filled out, for instance. Only ‘Shieldwall’ by Justin Hill (of the books I’ve read on 1066 so far) does something similar with the Godwin family. That Harold had plenty of children and two ‘wives’, for instance, was something I hadn’t realised. He’s drawn as a fairly normal young man, one we’d recognise and like, if we met him on the street today. For instance, he meets a pretty girl, falls in love, wants to spend the rest of his life with her. But because he becomes King, there are other demands, other priorities that cannot be avoided. Harold grows up and develops into a true king as the book progresses. From wild, though sensible and caring at heart, to be a proper statesman and envoy. HE has kingly qualities, that’s for sure. Oh, what we lost at Hastings…
William is very different. The way he portrayed in the book, reading between the lines, seems due to his trying to make amends, to compensate, for the feelings of inadequacy he must have felt because of the lowliness – and doubtful parentage – of his birth. He has something to prove and feels he can only do it by any means possible, fair or unfair, lawful or unlawful. He knows what he’s doing, can’t help himself and knows he’ll come to regret it.
Throughout the book, there builds a feeling of a far greater loss being imminent. Greater than ‘just’ the English warriors being beaten on that October day at Senlac Hill. Again, like Marc Morris does at the start of ’The Norman Conquest’, G.K., hits us with a couple of very telling facts. Here, they are about the situation before and after the invasion. In 1066, England had a population of about two million. One hundred years later, the population was halved. No famine, no plague. Just William and “Norman civilisation.” Many times during the reading of the book, I got the strong sense – intentional or unintentional – that he feels a way of life, a tradition, a history and a bright future, was about to be wiped out. Not just half the population, something more.
Events unfold, bridges are crossed and then burned behind them and an unstoppable historical ball is set rolling. There are times when it seems like the least worst option, for William at least, is to press on with the whole sorry mess. So we move inexorably towards 1066 and October 14th and the battle. Even though I’ve read many books now, which detail the weeks and days leading up to and including the battle, even though we wouldn’t be who we are today without having been the Normans first – I’ve never had a feeling of encroaching dread like I did while reading the final third of this book. I think it says so much about the quality of the preceding passages and the quality of the writing and presentation of those last few days and hours, that it’s like while I know what happened and it can’t (obviously) be any other way, I still hoped, I still thought ‘we’ and Harold might just do it. The victory was there. The victory was there for us to lose. And we did. Our luck just wasn’t in that day. It could have been so different. The tension, is stomach clenching. I’m reading the words and another part of my brain is shouting to the English characters “go on, GO ON!” I know it can’t be any other way, but still…might it? He dangles victory in front of Harold, it’s there for him to take, if only…And it’s gone. As it surely must have been. It really held me tight in its spell and have me hoping that this time Harold would win. That William would get the humiliation – and horrendously painful – death he’s got coming. Harold seems to have done everything right, except be finally lucky. I didn’t want to read on. I wanted to stop there and imagine what could have been…
‘What Fates Impose’ really is Historical Fiction par excellence. It’s going take a good book, a very good book indeed, to beat this re-telling of the 1066 story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I recommend it without hesitation.
*I should make it clear that I was contacted by G.K. Holloway, who had visited my blog and thought I might enjoy his book and would I like a copy in return for an honest review. The above is my honest opinion.