Duck Duck Book

17 – the last english king
05.3.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The last English king / Julian Rathbone.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
[MCL call number: FICTION RATHBONE; four copies, no holds]

A major difficulty of historical novels is that they are not histories. One cannot rely on them to present historical fact — or at least one cannot rely on them to make clear which bits are fact and which are fantasy, supposition, elaboration, or argument. But the person who wants to read a historical novel is often a person who is curious about the history part, and yet unwilling to go to the trouble of discovering which historical work is best for the subject, and further unwilling to suffer through reading the undoubtedly dry and horrible tome. I am often such a person, as I am impatient with dense or overly academic writing, and intolerant of it when it gets in the way of the pleasure of language. So I read historical novels and then I am frustrated by them. The Last English King is a great exception to this rule. It is more of a nice fictional story surrounded by but distinct from an accounting of what might actually have happened. I haven’t actually fact-checked the story, but it fits right with the things I already knew (mostly) and the only sin I can easily imagine historians ascribing to its author is that he does not pretend to be objective.

Rathbone tells the tale of the English or Anglo-Saxon losers of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He manages to make me think of the English as a noble, admirable people, something I’m not used to thinking — undoubtedly because I am more familiar with their more recent history than I am with the bits before the Norman Conquest. (I don’t despise the English, but if I am going to worry about the rehabilitation of a nation of imperialists, I like to start at home.)

The story is told through Walt, son of a minor landowner from who is part of King Harold’s inner circle of bodyguards and is with him at his death at the Battle of Hastings. Walt loses his hand, but fails to block the blow that kills Harold. Shamed by this, he flees across the channel and wanders all the way to what is now Turkey, where he meets a traveling companion to whom he tells his story.

We all know how it ends — Harold dies, Walt loses his hand, William the Bastard becomes king of England, and he and the Normans steal the harvest, salt the fields, burn villages, rape all the women, murder the men and the babies, and sell the children as slaves. Languages and cultures clash and foundations are laid for a thousand years of tensions between the English and the French. But what makes The Last English King a worthwhile read is that it is an engaging tale. Walt’s journey across Europe to the Black Sea and into Turkey is entwined with the story of his childhood and the way of life in Wessex during the reign of Edward the Confessor, and with the story of how Harold became king of England. Family, politics, sex, the everyday workings of society in England, Normandy, and on Walt’s journey, and the relationship between the humble and the powerful figure greatly in the narrative.

The Last English King tells the losers’ story, and is therefore necessarily a tragedy. The stories of victors are adventures, the kind of accounting of history that is taught by the strong to the subjected. But tragedies — failed causes, doomed love, bungled genius — are stories of people who kicked ass against the odds but didn’t quite hit every high note. Tragedies are glorious but not perfect, like the difference between a hero and a saint, and very, very human. This one is a wonder.


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