By the time I was in high school, I had learned that 1066 was the year of the Norman Conquest of England by William of Normandy (aka “the Bastard,” aka “the Conqueror”). I don’t know whether kids learn this stuff any more, especially since some college graduates have a hard time locating England on the globe. But the battle for the windswept island, which was eventually won by the Northmen (the Normans were descended from the Vikings), grafted the military expertise and cunning of the Normans onto the culture of the Anglo-Saxons with their passion for jurisprudence and hero-worship. The result was a people with a stubborn streak and a stiff upper lip.
The period immediately before and following the Norman invasion is the setting for The Time of the Wolf: A Novel of Medieval England, by James Wilde (Pegasus, 2012, 336 pages). Wilde (a nom de plume for Mark Chadburn ) has previously written mostly mist-shrouded British fantasy novels but in The Time of the Wolf his subject is historical: a Mercian with anger management issues known as Hereward. History calls him by several names: Hereward the Wake (“the watchful”), Hereward the Outlaw, and Hereward the Exile to name but three. You’ve heard of Robin of Locksley (aka, “Robin Hood”) and King Arthur (aka “The Sword in the Stone”)? Well, in Britain, Hereward is as renowned as those other two–with one big difference: Arthur and Robin were shades of the legendary past whose forms were filled with the straw of folklore; Hereward is no less a man of legend, but his historical framework was very real and very intimidating.
Hereward’s fame had more in common with William Wallace than with Robin of the Hood. In Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson’s paean to Wallace, we were treated to medieval warfare at its goriest, and similarly explicit descriptions of the many beheadings and blood spraying arrow, spear and sword piercings lend a cinematic effect to Wilde’s writing that suggests he is angling for a movie option. Wallace and Hereward both fought for freedom against tyranny. Wallace was a man unknown beyond his own country before Mel Gibson brought him to life. And I had never heard of Hereward the Wake before picking up this novel.
This book would make a good movie, no doubt about it, but as much for the story as for the bloodletting. When we first meet Hereward, he is arising from a pond like some demon from Hell to avenge the slaughter of an entire village by men who were sent to kill him. Later, an unlikely friendship is formed between Hereward and Alric, a monk who is running from his past. Both have something in common: they were each responsible–or thought to be–for the murders of women they loved. In Hereward’s case, the murder was committed by an agent of a usurper to the throne in a failed attempt on Hereward’s life. The monk killed his woman by accident, in the act of defending himself from an attacker. Hereward was innocent, Alric only partly responsible. But their anguish helped them form a bond.
It is not an easy bond to form given their oil and water mix of personalities. Hereward’s youth was wild, unchecked, and brutal and his service to the crown as a warrior reflected his quickness to anger. Alric was a man of God who felt the heat of damnation for his great sin, and who saw his chance to find salvation in his efforts to save the soul of this Devil he met with in the north of England. Hereward wants many things, but having his soul saved is the least of them. He is damaged goods. He seeks only revenge and blood and to erase the memories of his childhood especially that of the day his father beat his mother to death.
The novel revolves around intrigues in the court of King Edward (the Confessor), whose passion for rebuilding St. Peter’s in London into what would later be known as Westminster Abbey brought him derision from his peers whose concerns are more worldly. His heir apparent has been murdered, and Hereward uncovers this plot and immediately becomes a target — and a hunted exile. Harold Godwinson, the mastermind behind the plot, will later usurp the throne of England as Harold II. However, succession had been promised to William of Normandy. When Harold takes the throne, all hell breaks loose and the history of England will change dramatically.
In the thick of it all is the sword of Hereward, hacking, slicing, splicing, and shish-ke-bobbing. Blood literally runs in the streets and leaves the fens with a coating of bile and blackened gore .
There is love in this story (women aren’t put off by his blood stained clothing and ill manners apparently) and there is treachery. Hereward is a man whose trust is sometimes misplaced. Once William conquers England, Hereward finds his true claim to fame. He fights against the tyrant William, and continues to fight against him from his hiding place in the marshy Fens, deviling the Normans the way Francis Marion (“The Swamp Fox”) would later devil the British in the Carolinas during the American Revolution. This is a great read because it is more than the story of a man, it is about the spirit shared by many like the legendary Arthur, Robin of the Hood, Hereward the Wake, William Wallace, Francis Marion, and Davy Crockett. It is the spirit of men longing to be–and to stay free.
Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris