Monday, December 19, 2011

Musings: I am the Chosen King

I am the Chosen King Helen Hollick
Ever since reading David Hastings' 1066:  The Year of the Conquest, I have wanted to read more about King Harold.  He was so sympathetically portrayed in Hastings' book; I felt so sorry for him as it really seemed like the fates just all turned against him at the end.  He is someone very deserving of fame and remembrance, so I was very excited to finally get my hands on Helen Hollick's novel about his life, I am the Chosen King.

Hollick starts her story when Harold is a teenager who gets along well with his parents but not so well with his siblings.  We follow him through three more decades- are with him when he meets the love of his life, as he gains confidence and consolidates power, deals with the difficulties of his capricious siblings and then, of course, see him setting on that fateful course that would pit him against William of Normandy.

This book was a little long for my liking, but that does not mean that I did not enjoy it.  England was in the midst of very complicated politics for the duration of Harold's life, and Hollick highlights all of those situations here.  There's King Edward's bitter relationship with his mother, King Edward's unsuccessful marriage with Harold's sister, King Edward's inability to be a strong ruler.  There's Harold's black sheep of an older brother, Swegn, and his traitorous younger brother Tostig, and his self-absorbed sister, Edith.  There's William of Normandy, ruthlessly going after anyone who stands in his way of his goals.  So much going on!  It's all fascinating, yes, but perhaps not all necessary to be included in the book.

I hope I haven't turned you off the book by talking first about its length.  It took me quite a while to read this novel, but it was completely worth it.  I fell completely in love with Harold, as I'm sure anyone who has read about England before the Norman invasion probably has.  He was elected to kingship unanimously by the earls of England, won the respect of the common people and was politically astute.  He was kind and well-liked.  He was an amazing battle commander.  It's only that he had to fight too many battles in too short a time.  I admit that I think Hollick may have portrayed Harold a little too positively and some of the other characters a little too negatively, but I can't really blame her for that.  I have a feeling that the more I read about Harold and his life, the more I'd have the tendency to hero worship him, too.

I think one of the reasons I so appreciated Harold is that oftentimes, we lump the Middle Ages into this horrible period of famine and war and rape and misery and religion that it's hard to imagine there were any bright spots.  Too often, I've complained about books or series (ahem, George R R. Martin, I'm looking at you) that have really grisly, cruel and rapacious characters at their hearts, only to hear people (many of whom know nothing about Medieval history, I'd hazard a guess) tell me that I'm overreacting because "that's just how life was in the Middle Ages."  As though every man in Europe went around raping and pillaging and being evil, and so that makes it okay. King Harold stands out as a counter-argument to that way of thinking, as someone who was conscientious and thoughtful and prioritized his country over himself.

If you know English history, you know what happens to Harold.  But this novel puts flesh on those old bones, brings the history to life, and really just makes you want to cry out with the injustice of it all.  In many ways, my reaction to this book was as emotional and visceral as my reaction to The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Kay Penman's fantastic book about the doomed life of Richard III.  Like so many books about Richard III and King Arthur, I opened this book knowing exactly how it would end but ended it wishing desperately that things could have gone differently.

In many ways, 1066 is one of history's great "What ifs?"  What if William of Normandy had lost the Battle of Hastings and been sent back to Normandy?  What if England continued to be ruled by English kings, not Norman ones?  The English system was very sophisticated and much more democratic than those of its Continental neighbors; it's tempting to go down that road and imagine what might have been.  Particularly tempting to imagine Harold continuing with his life and his loves and dying an old man, content and respected.

But I suppose in many ways, those historic figures with tragic endings is what makes them so romantic, and it's the speculation about what might have been (and the accompanying assumption that what might have been would have been idyllic) that interests us so much.  Harold Godwinson absolutely fascinated me, and I'm so grateful to Hollick for writing a detailed and respectful novel about his life.  Highly recommended for historical fiction fans.

Does anyone recommend any other books to read about the Godwinson clan?  I'd love to read more!  Also, do people in England learn a lot about history before the Norman invasion and thus give Kings Edward and Harold significance in teaching?  Or do you really just start learning post-1066?  I'd be interested to know!


  1. This is the only one of Hollick's straight historical novels that I haven't read yet. I did look at it on my shelf the other day and think that I really need to get to it soon...along with a ton of other books!

    I have no idea what happens in the UK, but I certainly had limited knowledge of what happened between the Romans occupation and 1066 until I started reading authors like Helen Hollick. Have you read Emma? That was an excellent read too.

  2. I have this to read, but not sure when I will get around to it. My reading is just depressing lately...

  3. I know nothing about Godwinson clan, but I LOVED what you said about how the Middle Ages are usually portrayed. So true.

  4. I was a Medievalist as an undergraduate, and I'm so glad to see a wealth of interesting books coming out that really bring that period in history to life. I worry that most people's idea of that time comes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- hilarious, but not to be taken seriously. Thanks for the review, Aarti. I will definitely put this on my list for the Historical Fiction Challenge!

  5. I've read so little about this time period; this sounds good! I may have to look into Harold!

  6. This is a horrible admission, but I have never even heard of Harold, and now I am super intrigued! It sounds like he was an extraordinary man for his time, and although the book was long, it seems like something that I would love. I am so glad that you found so much in this book to ensnare you, and I am adding it to my list right now! Fantastic review today, Aarti!

  7. I am back to say that I just bought it!

  8. Marg - No, I haven't read the book about Emma, but it sounds good! I'll keep it in mind. Thanks for letting me know, too, about the education. Sounds a bit like the US and the way we don't really teach any history pre-Colonists.

    Kailana - Aw, it's ok. It will get better :-) This time of year is hard.

    Nymeth - YES, it's so ridiculous, isn't it?! I get so angry at the broad, generalizing comments people make about things they don't really know anything about.

    Col - Oh, that must have been a fascinating period to study! What period/country did you focus on? I think you'd like this one.

    rhapsody - He's worthy of looking into! Really interesting person, as was his father.

    Zibilee - Oh, yay! I'm so glad you got it. I don't think it's horrible that you've not heard of Harold before, I think he has been mostly looked over in history. But now he's back to life!

  9. You've definitely piqued my interest in this work (and the talk of length straight off didn't deter me one bit) and in this author more generally.

    In Canada we focussed on Cdn history in public school, but when I got to university, I opted to study English history, and the courses there were divided into 55BC to 1399, 1399 to 1688, and 1688 - present, with each intended to be studied consecutively. My favourite parts were the earliest bits!

  10. An old classic about Harald is Henry Treece's 'Hounds of the King'.

  11. Has been a few years since I read this - it was called Harold the King then - and I loved it.

    Bernard Cornwall and Alfred Duggan have both written several books about the Anglo-Saxon kings.

  12. Now you made me want to read a book where they take that what if story and turns it around. I love what if history. I read one where the Roman empire did not fall, and one where the Nazis one. Scary stuff

  13. To answer your question about history education in the UK, I remember learning a lot about the Battle of Hastings but very little about Harold's or Edward's lives before 1066. One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is because it gives me a chance to learn about some of the periods of history that were completely ignored at school. This book sounds fascinating - definitely something I'm interested in reading!

  14. Buried in Print - Oh, what an interesting range of dates. I can see 1688 being a major date, but what happened in 55BC and 1399?

    Katherine - Oh, thank you! I have never heard of that one.

    Cat - Yes, it has gone through a name change in republication. I will look up Duggan, too.

    Blodeuedd - Oh, those sound interesting! What were they called?

  15. *sigh* I have so little patience with medieval books. Especially about war! I always get sad that they don't have Homer to compare their lives to because THEY DIDN'T HAVE HOMER. Poor people, no wonder it was miserable.

  16. I've heard this author recommended a few times but this kind of book isn't really my cup of tea. Still, I should try and read outside my comfort zone sometimes shouldn't I?

    Have a wonderful holiday!

  17. I like the sound of this --first review I've read.

  18. Nice blog. Love your content.



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