Long before the bloody defeat at Hastings, long before the Normans were unleashed on England’s Anglo-Saxon populace, the Fates were at work changing the course of English history. It’s these events author Glynn Holloway focusses his eye upon, and these that make up the fascinating bulk of this novel. To English history lovers, the year 1066 has long been familiar, as have the names William the Conqueror, and Harold Godwinson. But in 1066, What Fates Impose, Holloway attempts to bring these characters and the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England to life, and to make some sense of the madness surrounding the succession of Edward the Confessor.
A king who has no son, and who finds his bride repulsive, is never a good thing. Edward the Confessor’s horror of women and possible homosexuality (whether as embellished in the author’s vivid and disturbing wedding night scene, or entirely accurate) leaves him without an heir. (Couldn’t Edward have just closed his eyes, thought of England, and done the deed? Good grief! But, in fairness, maybe he did, and it just wasn’t in the stars for him to reproduce. We’ll never know.) Witnessing the resultant political jockeying, squabbling, betrayals and subterfuge as portrayed by the author here are almost enough to make one understand and forgive that much later King’s (Henry VIII) anxiety over the matter.
The Godwinsons, on the other hand, are fulsomely prolific. A powerful, landed family in their own right, and always hungry for more, they are of value to Edward for their very strength. But, as with any strong ally, they were also a constant threat. Charming and naturally diplomatic Harold; psycho, nun-raping Sweyn; their powerful father Godwin: these were the characters Edward had to contend with, outmaneuver, keep in his corner with favors, and chase off when they over-stepped.
The author is obviously passionate the complex times he wrote about here. We are given a taste of everything: the facts, and the rumors, feuds and calculated but ofttimes tenuous family connections. The broader political situation is delivered in small palatable slices where pertinent to our understanding of the story. Told in a floating omniscient point of view, with occasional inserts of hind-sighted wisdom via the narrator, 1066 reads like a hybrid of historical fiction and history. The narrative glides from the general to the specific in a natural way that works quite nicely, filling the reader in on historical background and spanning large stretches of time, then moving in closer for the bigger, more dramatic scenes. An energetic narrative drive carries the story forward, spiced with some skillfully-handled medieval gruesomeness—hand-loppings, eye-gougings, and infanticide.
Holloway takes time to introduce and firmly establish a huge cast of characters, which serves to capture the reader’s heart and sympathies, so that one feels exactly what’s at stake. Following Harold, coming to know him and to like and admire him, while at the same time knowing his sad fate, lends a poignancy to all that precedes and builds to Hastings. Not an easy feat to induce suspense when the historical outcome is already known, Holloway nonetheless manages it, in spades.
The language is somewhat 20th century-sounding, and uses some modern turns-of-phrase to which the purist in me mildly objected. The dialogue, oddly formal and polite, often reminded me of the black and white movies of the 1940’s – yet Holloway makes it work here. There’s plenty of conflict in each chapter, and what is happening quickly captures the attention, despite the occasional clunky stretches of dialogue.
His power as a writer lies in his descriptions, and in the most brutal parts, in what he doesn’t tell us, as much as what he does tell. It takes a deft hand to convey horror with restraint. Holloway does so admirably, allowing the medieval world to be what it no doubt was, without spending too much time rolling around in the entrails of the worst parts (as some authors tend to do). There’s just enough here to let the reader know: yes, this is war, and yes, in war there are rapists and probably an inchoate serial-killer or three.
When the end comes, the final battle is harrowing. Each setback for King Harold is keenly felt. The last scenes give a feeling of just how close the battle was, and how nearly the history of England missed being a very different story altogether.
After graduating from Coventry University with an honours degree in history and politics, G K Holloway worked in education in and around Bristol, England. After reading a biography about Harold Godwinson, he studied the late Anglo Saxon era in detail and visited all of the locations mentioned in the sources, until he had enough material to weave together facts and fiction to produce a novel. 1066 What Fates Impose is the product of all that research – and imagination. A sequel is on its way.
For readers who’d like to find out more about Glynn: