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Still original and still good...
on 3 November 2013
This is "episode three" of Tancred's adventures, a half-Breton and half-Norman knight who has taken part in the invasion and conquest of England and, as this volume begins, is with the Norman army and King William besieging Ely and trying to root out Hereward the Wake and the last "insurgents" (as the Normans would have seen them, of course).
This in itself is rather original for the story (1066, Hereward the Wake and all that...) has generally been told "ad nauseam" from the "Anglo-Saxon" (or more accurately Anglo-Dane) side. I admit I was also initially a bit concerned after having read the synopsis and when ordering this book because, once again, we were going to be treated to the campaign and battles in the Fens, a topic that has already been flogged to death by a number of other authors. However, I need not have worried. Once again, James Aitcheson has managed to come up with a rather original and compelling story, even for this rather well-known episode. Once again also, he has made his characters come to life and "look and feel" real.
The campaign in the Fens and the assaults on Ely are rather well told, from the Norman perspective. William's initial assaults were indeed repulsed initially, and with great loss of life when they tried to storm the well-defended and near impregnable island surrounded by marshes and the sea. Their supplies were also been harassed, as shown at the beginning of the book. Their morale was low and King William was getting rather desperate as his frontal attacks failed one after another while supplies for his army were running out. The way the author choses to explain how victory was finally snatched from the jaws of defeat - through treason and defection of some of the defenders (I'll stop there to avoid spoilers) - is a plausible one. What happens to Hereward may, or may not be "the truth", we simply do not know for sure, given the legendary dimension that the character quickly achieved. What is true, however, was that he does not appear in the written sources again.
One of the most interesting features of the book is the conception that Tancred has of his role and obligations as a "sworn knight" and the ways he tries to make a name for himself. As Aitcheson shows very well, reputation was everything at the time for a professional warrior. This was already the case well before and it probably goes back to the Germanic warrior ethos, at least. It is very interesting and quite correct historically, to see that this mind set is largely shared by the Anglo-Danes, with both huscarls and Norman knights swearing an oath of service to their respective lords, what exactly this oath entailed, and how far this could lead them.
Another set of interesting features displayed by Tancred show him as somewhat arrogant, headstrong, argumentative and claiming achievements that make him sound as if he is boasting. Although these happen to be true, he either cannot prove them, cannot get them to be recognised, or just seems to get on quite a few peoples' nerves through his claims. His recklessness, however, stops short of stupidity as he refrains from arguing with King William.
The character of King "Guillaume", as he is called in the book, is also another interesting and original piece, for he had not made such a direct appearance in the two previous volumes. What is shown in the book is very much the historical picture as it has been reconstituted from the sources. The "Conqueror" was though, relentless, hard and clearly not anyone to "mess around with". He is shown here as having a very limited sense of humour (unless he is making the jokes, course) and being what we might call nowadays a tyrant and somebody ready to do whatever it took to achieve his objective, with little scruples. Clearly, someone everyone could only respect, and fear, but rather unsympathetic. Given the tough and ruthless bunch of "Norman" knights (the term covers here all the Breton, Flemish and other French knights who fought in England for him); this is very likely very close to the kind of man he had to be in order to impose his will on them.
Then there are a number of nice touches that also ring true in this novel taking place in late 1071. One is that Dublin was indeed a refuge (another was Flanders) for a lot of refugee Saxon Thanes and huscarls who exiled themselves and lost their lands in the years following 1066. Another was that Dublin and the Hebrides were populated by Scandinavians and a number of warlords/pirates and their "sea-wolves" had certainly set themselves up in various hill forts and promontories overlooking the sea. A third is to show glimpses of Tancred as a young teenager apprentice with Robert de Commines, his first (Flemish) lord, when he kills his first man under less than glorious circumstances. In fact in this whole book, the author endeavours to paint a more complex picture of his hero and his times - a hero that knows fear, makes mistakes and pays a rather heavy price for them in a world where every man had a master. Because he is far from perfect, he "looks and feel" very believable.
Five stars for a rather superb painting of the beginnings of so-called "feudal Anglo-Norman England" and the British Isles
PS: I forgot to mention the fights and battles, which are, of course, just as realistic and superb (as in the previous volumes). This is especially true for those opposing mounted knights to infantry with the author showing that the contests were not necessarily in favour of the mounted warriors who were far from invincible. I also did not mention the romance piece, which is also somewhat original and somewhat moving...