by Ray Bryant
First published 1987. Edition reviewed: Caxton, 2001, ISBN 1-84067-384-2.
The novel is set in England, with excursions to Normandy, Brittany and Denmark, and spans the period from 1013 to 1066, ending on the morning of the Battle of Hastings. Most of the characters are real historical figures, including Aethelraed Unread (Ethelred the 'Unready'*), King Canute, Queen Emma, Sweyn Forkbeard, Earl Godwin of Wessex, Hardicanute, Harold Harefoot, Queen Edith (daughter of Godwin and wife of Edward the Confessor), Harold Godwinsson (later Harold II), Edward the Confessor and Aelfgifu ('Gifta'), daughter of Aethelraed Unraed. In the last two-thirds of the book there is also a major fictional character, Cedric Cedricsson or Cedric Shieldless, friend to Harold Godwinsson and leader of his bodyguard.
Warriors of the Dragon Gold is a novel on a vast canvas, no less than the political history of England over a fifty-year span, from the last days of Ethelred to the eve of the Norman Conquest. It begins with the invasion of England by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute, and ends with the twin invasions of England by Harald Hardrada of Norway and, days later, by William of Normandy. The novel explores the turbulent politics of this half-century of war, intrigue and murder, and the many threads that led up to William's invasion. In his preface, the author states that he set out to explain a puzzling scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, where an unidentified lady Aelfgifu and 'a certain priest' appear once and are never mentioned again. The author identifies this lady as Aelfgifu (Gifta), daughter of Ethelred Unraed and half-sister of Edward the Confessor, and builds his tale on the premise that she holds the key to William's conquest of England.
The vast scope of the novel and its enormous cast of characters makes for a rather sprawling narrative. The family trees provided at the beginning of the book are most helpful in keeping track of who is who. There is no one central character throughout the novel, and different people dominate as the narrative progresses. The first third of the story centres on Gifta (the back cover blurb implies that she is the central figure throughout, but this is misleading), and follows her flight into exile, the loss of her husband and most of her family, and the comfort she finds with a young priest. Then she disappears for well over 200 pages, and the story shifts to English court politics and centres on Canute, Earl Godwin, Earl Godwin's son Harold and Harold's friend Cedric. This makes for a complex and episodic structure. Readers who like a story structured as a three-act play centred on one key protagonist will probably find this novel hard going. On the other hand, it means there's a range of characters for readers to identify with, which was just as well for me, because for some reason I didn't warm to Gifta and was much more interested in Harold and Cedric.
The large cast means that only some of the characters are fully developed. Earl Godwin is a vital and powerful figure, dominating the middle third of the novel as he dominated the politics of the time. Harold Godwinsson is likeable and engaging. Cedric progresses from a shy teenager to hardened battle commander, and is the character who changes and develops most during the story. Similarly, some of the story threads disappear for long periods, or play only a small part in the overall narrative. Gifta's espionage activities, which are supposed to be crucial to Harold's defeat at Hastings, are never shown in the narrative. There is a mention that Godwin 'had not handled the thread of Tostig's life as carefully as he should' - which is a great line - but the relationship between Tostig and his father and brothers is not explored in any detail. Yet Tostig's decision to get Harald Hardrada to join him in invading England is surely one of the most far-reaching events in English history - if Harold Godwinsson had not had to fight both Hardrada and then William, at opposite ends of the country, within days of each other, the outcome at Hastings might have been very different. Overall, the book gave me the feeling of a trilogy or possibly even a series shoehorned into a single book by means of ruthless pruning.
There are some splendid set-piece scenes, such as Cedric's duel with Olaf, the murder of Ethelred's son Alfred, Harold Godwinsson's successful invasion of Wales, and the poignant scene between the English warriors on the eve of Hastings. The cultural contrasts between Anglo-Danish society and Norman ways are well drawn, with a vivid description of a Norse earl's hall and a Norse feast. Readers who like to play Hunt the Anachronism should be warned that there is a reference to Godwin's tenants paying rent in pigs and potatoes, and the name Cedric is first recorded in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names. Since the name Cedd was certainly in use in the seventh century (Bede mentions an English priest of that name), it seems to me entirely possible that it might have been compounded with the common name element -ric to make Cedric and the compound happened not to be recorded, but it seems an odd choice of name for a major character.
A sprawling novel in a complex and fascinating period of history.
*The popular modern form of the nickname. Unraed means 'Ill Counsel' or 'No
Counsel', a pun on Aethelraed which means 'Noble Counsel'.