A marvelous adventure story with a medieval setting about the legendary hero of England.
I picked up the new Audible edition, read by the brilliant local storyteller Sebastian Lockwood, himself from the region where Hereward took action just after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Lockwood is a great narrator, who adds just enough vocal variation to the characters and uses his expressive voice to enhance the narrative.
Hereward is the son of the famous Lady Godiva (yes, that one) who is outlawed after he steals silver from a churchman, a deed which will come back to haunt him throughout his life. He goes from the home of one obscure relative to another, living for a time in Scotland, and having numerous adventures like slaying a polar bear (part of a lord’s menagerie) and rescuing a princess from a tyrannical suitor to send her to her betrothed.
Accompanied by the stalwart and somewhat insane Martin Lightfoot, he winds up in Flanders where he grows into a bold and revered captain of soldiers, and falls in love with the beautiful Tolfrida, who becomes his wife and companion through many later adventures. In 1070, they return to England to foment rebellion against the French invaders, on behalf of the Swedish king who has a claim to the English throne through King Canute (now there’s an alternate history it would be interesting to write).
This book is a delight of rich language, heroic deeds and tangled loyalties. It is written very much in the spirit of the legends of Arthur and other great heroes, mingling the historical truth of Hereward’s activities with smaller quests involving mysterious ladies, powerful giants, and saintly interventions.
However, this is the story of three clashing cultures. Three? Yes, because at the time, the north-central section of England where Hereward and his followers live and make their stand identified strongly with the Danes (this is the period of the Danelaw, a sort of culture-within-a-kingdom of former Vikings and their descendents). Many of their oaths and visions of the afterlife involve Odin and Valhalla, as often as they involve St. Peter or a Christian heaven. Their honor and morality is somewhat different to that of the Anglo-Saxon population.
When William the Conqueror comes from Normandy to press his claim to the throne, the divisions between these cultures of Britain must be erased in order to present a united defense. And we all know what happened there. Hastings, anyone? Hence the residents of the Danelaw supporting a Scandinavian king while those in Northumbria have already put forward a different candidate. Three kings, of three cultures, each trying to win over a people as yet uncertain of their shared identity.
And so, Hereward the Wake is at once a thrilling Chanson de Geste, or song of deeds, which even makes reference to the “Song of Roland” and those of other great knights, and an exploration of the uneasy blending of the occupants of a place before it truly becomes a single nation.