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Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (85)
There are a lot of dates that every well educated person knows and, at some point, we actually learned what happened and why they were important: 1492--Columbus sailed the ocean blue; 1620--Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock; 1776--Declaration of Independence; 1929-Great Crash. There are also plenty of historic events that you think you know something about, but what you know is totally wrong (see my essay on David vs. Goliath). But then there are those dates and names and phrases that you pick up as you go along without ever even having a mild clue what they mean or exactly what they reference. Here's one: 1066. Yeah, I know. You recognize the year. You may even remember that it was the year of the Norman Invasion. If you got that far, you might remember that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and took over Britain. But I was a History major and I sure as heck couldn't tell you any of the details. Actually, I couldn't even remember who his opponent was and I sure couldn't remember why he had a claim to the throne.
So I was enormously intrigued when, several years ago now, I saw a reference to The Golden Warrior by Hope Muntz as, "the greatest historical novel ever written". As is the way with such things. I promptly saw two or three other mentions of this book which I had previously never heard of before. I looked it up on Amazon and couldn't find it. I even tried Amazon UK, but no luck. Then one day at a local booksale, I found a copy. It still has most of the dust jacket intact and the cover blurbs are by the great British historian G.M. Trevelyan and the novelist Vita Sackville-West. I don't know if Muntz knew him personally, I actually haven't been able to find any information about her, but her dedication is to Winston Churchill. All the bells and whistles are here; it seems like it must have been a significant book when it was published. I have no idea why it is out of print. (The link above will take you to a book dealer website where you can find copies ranging in price from a few dollars to $15 or $20.) Now, after reading it, I am even more mystified.
First of all, the true historical material that Muntz had to work with is really interesting. As the story opens, King Edward the Confessor sits upon the throne of England. William the Bastard, of Normandy, has just helped him drive off Godwin and his sons. Godwin, a descendant of King Canute, is one of the most powerful noblemen in the land. His daughter Edith is Edward's Queen. Eventually, Godwin and his sons return and though Godwin dies, his son Harold appears likely to become king, as Edith has chosen to lead a cloistered life rather than produce an heir. Meanwhile, William lusts for the throne himself and rests his claim to it on a promise that Edward made years earlier. So it is Harold's great misfortune when he is shipwrecked on the coast of France and William secures possession of him. The two get along famously, but William will not release Harold until he promises to support William's claim to the throne upon Edward's death. Harold swears this oath and leaves his own brother as hostage. This infuriates his other brothers, upon his return to England, and is one of the precipitating factors in his eventual falling out with his hot headed brother Tosti.
When Edward dies (January 5, 1066), Harold, who is the most popular man in the kingdom, renounces his oath as having been secured under duress and he takes the throne. The Pope rules in William's favor and the Normans mount an invasion with Rome's blessing. Tosti, with the help of the Norwegian King Harald Sigurdson, attacks from the north and takes York. But Harold defeats them at the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th. He then has to wheel south, with a badly damaged army, and march to meet William. On October 14, 1066, William deafeats him in the Battle of Hastings and becomes King of England.
The author does this story proud. She wields a light hand in judging the motives and actions of the characters. Both Harold and William come across as great men. If we root for Harold, it is because he seems the better person and true patriot, even while he shares William's tremendous ambition. Muntz tells the story in episodes. Each chapter is headed Of... (Of Harold and Tosti, Of the Fight at Stamford Bridge, etc.), which, combined with judicious use of archaic language, conveys the feeling that one is reading one of the ancient sagas. She manages to retain the sense that this is fundamentally a tale that is close to a thousand years old, yet keep the telling modern enough to appeal to the contemporary reader.
This is a really fine novel (though probably not the best historical novel ever written) and will amply reward the effort necessary to seek it out.
-The Golden Warrior: King Harold and the Normans (fan site devoted to the book)
-The Battle of Hastings 1066
-The Battle of Hastings: 1066 and much more--A very brief Synopsis
-The Battle of Hastings (Camelot International)
-ESSAY: Happy Anniversary (R.W. Southern, NY Review of Books)
The History of the Norman Conquest of England by E.A. Freeman
Feudal England by J.H. Round and with Foreword by Sir Frank Stenton
The Bayeux Tapestry: A comprehensive Survey by Sir Frank Stenton and and others
William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England by D.C. Douglas
William I and the Norman Conquest, by F. Barlow
The Military Organization of Norman England by C. Warren Hollister
The Norman Conquest by D.J.A. Matthew
The Conquest of England by Eric Linklater
The Making of the King 1066 by Alan Lloyd
Battle 1066 by C.N. Barclay
-REVIEW: of William the Conqueror by David C. Douglas (Steven Runciman, NY Review of Books)
-The Early History of Europe in Fictional Renderings