You could call this the original 'stitch n bitch' story, since it is a tale woven (sorry, couldn't help myself) around the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. But actually, this book is so much more than the story of the sewing of the famous embroidery, and it seems to have left readers somewhat divided. As it's nearly the anniversary of the battle, it seemed timely to revisit this book.
Odo rallies William's troops during the battle in 1066
It begins on the battlefield, where Odo, brother of the conqueror, is introduced. Odo is a bishop and it is he who will commission the embroidery. This brings him into contact with Gytha, an Englishwoman. The chapter where she is introduced was more powerful, in my opinion. I've read about the battle itself many times, but what is less often written about is the immediate aftermath; the destruction of the world as the English knew it. Those early scenes of panic, confusion and fear are realistically drawn.
"Rape. That's what they all believe, the sullen crowd gathered before Winchester's West Gate, in the square where the tax man usually collect the duty on beasts brought into the city for market. It's clear from their faces, fear mixed with impotence and embarrassment, and the round eyed children, clinging to their mothers' skirts, who don't understand but just want to look at the soldiers."
A little boy darts out of the crowd, dazzled by the ornaments on the bishop's harness, and is trampled. The soldiers panic, one runs the grieving mother through with his lance. There is horror on the streets of England's capital. In this scene, Gytha first lays eyes on Bishop Odo.
I'm giving no secrets away when I say that Gytha and Odo fall in love, but theirs is no straight-forward story, and I'll say no more about that, for it would spoil the enjoyment for anyone new to this book. Bower takes a scene from the tapestry (show below) in which an unknown woman, Ælfgyva, appears with a 'certain cleric' and comes up with an interesting reason for the inclusion of the scene.
This is an almost completely fictional tale, and I don't mind that. If I'm told at the outset that a book is a work of fiction, I'm quite happy to judge it as such. The setting is authentic and Bower has clearly done her research. If you want to know why this book has divided readers, look no further than the reviews on a well-known online retailer - the main concerns are the use of the third person present tense, and the lack of narrative structure.
It is a clever book. I read it many years ago and I don't recall the use of the present tense bothering me, particularly. Sometimes it is just a bit too clever, but there are many passages where the writing, and the insight, are sublime.
At one point, Gytha lies awake, unable to sleep as the wind picks up, remembering how the sound of her father checking the salt pans and barrels in the yard on stormy nights used to be comforting. That passage resonated with me; don't we all sometimes wish we were young again, with grown-ups watching out for us - why should eleventh-century folk be any different in that regard?
"When Odo is with her, she loves stormy nights, secure in his arms, curtained and cosseted. Even when he gets up, to check for broken shutters and fallen branches or calm his horses, the feeling of safety stays with her. Her father used to do the same; several times a night on rough nights she would hear...her parents whispering together, clothes rustling and the creak of hinges as he went out ..."
I found the book challenged me, because I am anti-Norman, and could not understand why on earth Gytha would become so enamoured of Odo. It dared me to alter my perception and by the end, I had begun to understand, a little, at least, the attraction between the two of them.
Reviewers have expressed surprise at the portrayal of Archbishop Lanfranc, but I had no difficulty in believing in him as a villain - probably my anti-Norman bias again - even though he perhaps strays onto the pantomime stage from time to time.
This is not an easy read; the flashbacks sneak up on you so you have to concentrate. But it is a brave book, a strong book, and quite different from a lot of historical fiction. The detail about how the 'tapestry' was constructed is fascinating, and, I'm sure, accurately portrayed.
As for the suppositions, well, Bower claims artistic licence, and why not? As with so many other periods of history, with no-one to ask, we can only wonder, 'what if'...
It is a 'Marmite' kind of book, I suspect. But if you are interested in this period of history, give it a try. Even if you don't find that you love it, I think you will admire the author's accomplished way with words, and the different approach to novel writing. You will be immersed in period detail, and you will emerge enriched.
[A word of warning - the language in this book is often x-rated and at times very explicit.]
A Tale of Journeys - Author Elaine Moxon Casts Some Light ...
Today I'm delighted to welcome as my guest:
Why the ‘Dark Ages’? What draws you to this period?
"There are many who argue it was not so dark, as art continued to thrive. It is certainly ‘dark’ in terms of available texts of the time as the Roman Empire had disintegrated in Britain. Any written accounts you can readily find were written several hundred years after the events they describe (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Bede, Nennius).
This absence of information is one of the things that draws me to this period. Strange as it sounds I like the challenge of creating a landscape from only a few scraps of evidence and the creativity provided by being able to fill in the voids! It is an elusive time, one of immense change and of the movement of people from several lands. To me this is magical and exciting and I love searching for the ‘light’ to bring my stories to life."
Researching this period, as I know, can be difficult – there are no buildings and towns still in existence from that long ago; do you have any tips for envisaging the world as it was then in order to convey it to your readers?
"I use any medium I can to build my landscapes and characters. Archaeological photographs of ancient sites can still give me an idea how the land lies and compass points of access to settlements. Photographs of artefacts are useful to see colour and shape of everyday object, though it’s much better to be able to see them first hand in museums or replicas you can hold. Likewise, if you can visit historical sites where they have reconstructed buildings this helps enormously, as you can walk inside and feel the materials used to build it, feel the light/dark or heat/cold and gain a truer atmosphere. Sometimes even visiting an area and seeing how the land lies can be inspiring. Where this is not possible I use artistic impressions drawn by reputable archaeologists.
I transfer this to my fictional landscape by drawing pictures of places and people and making maps so that I can see how my characters can move within what I’ve created, whether based on real or imaginary locations. Another resource is re-enactment groups, but I can talk more about that in a later question!"
Can you tell us more about Wulfsuna?
"Wulfsuna is a tale of journeys: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It is about identity, perception, loss, love and betrayal. In its simplest form it is about three characters trying to find their real selves, while dragged into a legendary saga that has their fates mapped out for them.
The tribe of the Wulfsuna (Old English for Wolf Sons) have sailed to Britain to reunite with kin they left behind twenty years previous, when Rome abandoned the isle. The tribal Lord’s son Wulfgar and his best friend Sieghild find their lives inextricably changed when betrayal finds them on their arrival. Weighed down by unwanted responsibilities, the two young men attempt to continue as planned, but external forces impede them at every turn.
Magic and romance appear in the guise of a young Seer called Morwyneth, herself expelled from her settlement having foreseen an attack by savages. The ghost of her mother tells her to ‘let the wolf in’ though Morwyneth does not understand who or what this is. Meanwhile the Wolf Spear Saga weaves its ancient power, drawing strangers into one another’s lives, the victims unable to deny it.
Wulfsuna is currently the first of nine stories spanning seven centuries (though who knows where it will lead?) – I wanted to show the immortal power of the Wolf Spear Saga, that it runs through time and through generation after generation. If your name means ‘Wolf Spear’ or you are a Seer, it will find you!"
Where did your love of history stem from – was it there in your childhood?
"My love of history was fed by many wells of knowledge. My Italian heritage plays a large part in that. Knowing I had ancestors from another part of the world from that in which I lived made me hungry to explore. Having one line of that family that ceases after 3 generations due to a great-grandfather who was an orphan and had most likely been given a made-up name by Nuns created many questions I wanted answers to.
Then the words and names surrounding me were different to those at school and I grew fascinated by the historical aspect of surnames. Both my maiden name and that of my paternal grandmother are Saxon and I guess that’s where my love of that period began."
Which came first, the desire to write, or the love of history?
"Writing has always been a part of me. From my first memories of being able to write, I was creating stories and illustrating them for family to read. As a young teenager I kept journals and wrote what today is called ‘Fanfic’, though in my day it was pen on sheets of paper handed round in form time!
As for history, my parents love ancient sites and there are photographs of me being taken round them in a pushchair. Then I remember, as a child, hearing about my Italian heritage from my grandfather and mother. I was eight when we first visited the family home in Italy, which was a farmhouse in the Dolomites. I remember feeling like ‘Heidi’, exploring old outbuildings and abandoned villas; running through meadows of wild flowers and collecting pebbles by streams. I found fossils on small pieces of rock just lying on the roads and have several lumps of crystal, which forms naturally in the area and can also be found lying around.
I think writing and history have always been synonymous in my life. I can’t find a memory where they didn’t co-exist!"
Writing a novel is no easy undertaking – how do you make sure that you are able to set aside time to write?
"I have a young family and many of my early drafts were written during nap times and late at night. Keeping company with the moon had its effects on me during the day, so I had to minimise how often I wrote late. Now I have daylight writing time, I try to avoid burning the midnight oil, though sometimes I can’t avoid it if inspiration strikes and I have to get the words down! Having a published book out in the universe also brings the necessity to promote and market that book, while still finding time to write the next one. I’m getting to grips with that now, but it’s taken me a few months to settle into a new routine.
Unlike many writers I don’t set myself specific word counts to achieve each day or week. I like my writing to be organic and flexible. I set myself the task of writing ‘something’ every week and set aside ‘online’ time for social media interaction and promotion, plus I run a blog. I find I do most of my writing (new material) during the darker half of the year, so this coming autumn/winter I will be head down, scribbling away."
How does being a re-enactor help with your writing?
"I’m not an official re-enactor within a group. In fact I’ve only recently begun to collect items to make my own Saxon costume. At a recent living history event at Letocetum Roman Museum (which is mentioned in Wulfsuna) I decided to dress as a 5th Century sub-Roman woman. It wasn’t the best it could have been, but I dyed it myself with beetroot and bought some replica brooches from another stall on the day. I’m in the process of looking for fabrics for a new garment and hoping to improve on it for the next public event I attend. I must admit it’s a bit addictive!
However, re-enactment has been a huge part of writing Wulfsuna. I have several friends who are active members of many groups and getting to know these people has been amazing. These people camp with authentic equipment, cook food and make crafts with tools of the time. It has enabled me to handle replica clothing, weaponry and everyday objects. I’ve even been part of a shield wall, been shot at with an arrow and fought with a shield and axe. Learning how to handle these objects and experience how it feels to hold or wear them has been invaluable for my writing. It’s as close to being a Saxon as you can probably get, without using a time machine."
"Wolf Spear Saga – Book 2! I’m currently writing the next saga, set 26 years after Wulfsuna. Readers will probably like to know there are some old faces as well as new ones and the fateful saga is once again wreaking havoc. Without revealing too much plot, I’ll say it takes in the western side of Britain as well as a foreign location and there are one or two surprises to be found.
Elaine can be found at Silverwood Books