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Ostara Publishing

24 May 2013
Books: The Legend of Hereward

Review by Andrew Wiilliams


History doesn't offers more than a glimpse of Hereward the Wake. Monastic records tell of an Anglo-Saxon warrior who fought the Conqueror's knights in the marshes about the Isle of Ely almost a thousand years ago. But the monks liked a good story and shamelessly embroidered their accounts of his life. Myths swirl about him like the fenland mist he is reputed to have used to such good effect in his battle with the Norman invaders. Into the history breach, novelist and former archaeologist, Mike Ripley with `The Legend of Hereward: A Novel of Norman England'.

Ripley can tell a story, and his clever business is not simply to repeat the heroic legend but to subvert it. In his version of events, The Legend of Hereward begins in the chilly cathedral library at Lincoln with one of the great chroniclers of the middle ages, Gerald of Wales. It is 1205 and poor Gerald has been commissioned to write `a family tree' for a Norman knight who wishes to acquire `a suitably fashionable Saxon lineage' in keeping with the temper of the times. Who better to claim as an `ancestor' than Hereward? Gerald has discovered an account by a monk called Thomas of Ely who knew the hero and was determined to set down the unvarnished facts `however much it disappoints the fishwives, and gossipmongers and minstrels'. Ripley's story is told by these two clerics; Thomas carrying the narrative, Gerald offering a tart and worldly commentary on events and the character of our hero.

In Thomas' history, Hereward introduces himself with a savage act of violence, cutting off the hand of a priest who he accuses of stealing from his dead mother. For this crime he is declared `outlaw' and banished the kingdom, finding service as a captain of arms with the Count of Flanders. He returns to England after the Conquest to find a Norman knight has been given his family's lands. The Conqueror has the country firmly in his grip, resistance is hopeless or so it might seem to a more reasonable man. `When you see a pile of s***, my love', Hereward's astute wife observes; `you jump in it with both feet'. Hereward's `resistance' to the Normans begins with the sacking of Peterborough Abbey. He takes its treasure and the monks to the Isle of Ely where he rallies men of the fens to `his cause'. Is he fighting for the common weal? For liberty? Not a bit of it. Hereward is fighting for the treasure he has stolen from the abbey and for the manor that used to belong to his family. Above all, he is fighting because he loves to fight. Peasants can go hang, and when our hero's struggle is over many do. But first the Normans must take Ely from him and there is only a single causeway through the marshes. The defence of it is indeed the stuff of legend, and Ripley's narrator offers it to us in a suitably epic style: `Brother Thomas gives me too much - and too little!' Gerald of Wales complains at one point. The action skips along at the pace of a great Anglo-Saxon poem; the struggle for the causeway is colourful and convincing, and away from the battle, there is clerical intrigue enough for a series of Game of Thrones.

Ripley knows his history and offers us a strong flavour of the times. The ordinary folk are exploited mercilessly by both sides. Rarely has there been a time in England when life was nastier, more brutal or shorter. But there is humour too - the dialogue is as pungent and earthy as a peasant's hovel - and one senses the novelist's pleasure in writing, tongue sometimes firmly in cheek. First and foremost The Legend of Hereward is a rip-roaring yarn; more than this, it is the story of legend and myth shaped from unvarnished history. Both strands are tied at the end of the novel with a fiendishly clever twist, that offers some sort of justice for the common man.
Ripley's hero is not wise, he has no fine feelings - he cries over his dead horse but not for his friends - nor is he an idealist or a freedom fighter, but he is a leader, a man of energy, insanely brave, always in the front rank and a clever strategist. Perhaps that is enough for a legend.

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