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There is a village in pre-Norman Sussex called Horstede which has been invaded by a time traveler, or so it seems. I am tempted to speculate that not even a member of Regia Anglorum like author Paula Lofting could create a story like Sons of the Wolf unless she had lived among them. I suspect that in spirit, indeed she has. Her novel is the product of a writer who not only loves her subject and knows it well, but also knows her craft. As I read the opening pages, I can smell the woodsmoke and feel the warmth of the greetings of the villagers as protagonist Wulfhere and his right hand man Esegar return from a bloodly battle as the opening curtain rises. I remain a captive of the story until its final page, and best of all, beyond. Thankfully there is a sequel coming.
Any meticulously researched and authentically presented historical novel set in a well known milieu faces the risk that devotion to historical truth may become its own spoiler. Such is not the case with Sons of the Wolf. To avoid the common pitfall, Lofting has masterfully selected two characters from the pages of Doomsday Book about whom little is known. The only references is to their names –Wulfhere and Helghi—and the amount of land they owned. Their respective societal ranks can be guessed from a notation as to the size of their respective estates. The balance is Lofting’s creation.
Wulfhere is the thegn of Horstede and Helghi’s superior in rank. Helghi also is a landowner but a tier below his rival. Their families have been fueding for years, and the conflict brings out the worst of each. Their abiding hatred forges their destiny and contaminates others. Wulfhere is a good man who seeks to do the right thing, but he does not always like it. Helghi is the consummate villain, obsessed with bringing Wulfhere to his knees, and willingly sacrifices the future and the well-being of his family to do so.
When the historical character Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and brother-in-law of King Edward seeks to reconcile Wulfhere and Helghi, he sets events in motion that make matters worse.
After I read the initial four chapters of the book I put it down, not because I did not like it, but because I was utterly unfamiliar with its historical context. My intense study of British history is framed by the Plantegenets on one end and the Marlboros on the other. What I knew of the Norman invasion could be summarized in a line from the 1953 movie Young Bess. Says adolescent Elizabeth, "England has never been invaded, except by the Normans, who do not count because they were us." What I knew of Anglo Saxon Britain would have scarcely filled a journal page. I profited from spending a few minutes on Wikipedea, and once I had a better understanding of what transpired in Britain in the years immediately prior to 1066, I was ready for a breathtaking, violent, fast and furious and often heart-rending ride through the years before the Normans came.
|*Horstede (AKA Wychurst)|
The protagonist of Lofting’s tale is Wulfhere, a great bear of a man, who is a creature of principal, although he often wishes he were not. He is a loyal servant of the king and of Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex, but he is also the guardian of Horstede and the protector of his family, and his loyalties and responsibilities often come in conflict. And that is a dilemma for a man who attempts to be all things to everyone.
As early as his homecoming in the first chapers of the book, we sense his guilt for having lived when others have not, and his stress due to the horrors he has witnessed. He and his wife had quarelled before he left and he worries that his homecoming will not be as joyous as he would like. Because of the carnage he has witnessed, he returns not as a victor but as a survivor.
When his wife Ealdgytha greets him with open arms, we question whether her joy in his safe return has more to do with matters of her personal security than any great affection she feels for Wulfhere. As the scene develops, we realize that she is sincere in her welcome. She, too, has personal desires and physical needs. Wulfhere is suspicious, but takes what pleasure he is offered. Their shared joy is only on the surface and it is short lived.
Due to Wulfhere’s past infidelity and the tensions of his fued with Helghi, soon his family is falling apart. His twin sons are undisciplined, his wife runs hot and cold, he is estranged from his lover Alfgyva and the restraint he exercises in dealing with his traditional enemy Helghi in order to please Harold Godwinson is not working. In addition, his favorite daughter Freyda’s romance with Helghi’s son only makes matters worse, and provides a weapon that Wulfhere’s enemy Helghi uses against him. Nevertheless, true to his nature, Wulfhere tries to hold it all together, and it is there that the intrigues begin.
Lofting takes those facts and builds her storyline from there. Then she adds her own considerable knowledge of the sociology and politics of eleventh century Saxon England. Next she adds to the mix all of the ingredients that make a novel of any genre readable--love, sex, hate, jealousy, remorse, guilt, infidelity, vengeance, death and profound tragedy. And to all of that, she adds her incredible talent for bringing blood and gore into her action scenes without overpowering the essence of her story, and writes her action scenes as if she were riding in the van.
Readers will almost smell the copper of the blood and feel the weight of the dead. One can actually sense the terror of erstwhile proud and mighty warhorses as they, too, face slaughter. Her knowledge of medieval warfare puts her at the head of the pack of those writing in the medieval military subgenre. It is as if Lofting siezes the reader, puts a weapon in her readers' hands and sends them into the fray. No writer I have encountered does battlefield action better, not even Oliver Stone, and like Stone in his masterpiece Platoon, Lofting captures the pathos.
Without spoiling the story, be assured that a reader will acquire enough insight into the politics of the day to understand a bit of what King Edward was facing, and to explore the character of the king’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, his lady and the plotters who threaten them. The reader –even one who knows nothing about 1066--will sense that William of Normandy is coming, and that he is bringing change. But a more immediate and equally formidable danger is threatening Wulfhere—a menace that lurks no farther away than his bad neighbor Helghi’s nearby lodge. When Wulfhere’s concern for his family collides with the fealty he owe to Harold and the king, he does the best he can to balance one against the other and in doing so, he suffers an egregious loss. Although few of the issues facing him and his family are resolved in the final pages of this first novel in the series, the reader is not left frustrated or dissatisifed, but with a sense that while a stage of Wulfhere’s life has come to an end, the most challenging and eventful chapters in his adventure are yet to come.
While this is primarily Wulfhere’s story, he does not stand alone. Much of the plot is driven by the teenage libido of our hero’s daughter and our villain’s son. The place of the historical character Harold Godwinson and that of his wife and his sister Edith are well portrayed, and Helghi is definitely an easy one to hate. The vowel-rich spelling of medieval names and places makes the first chapters difficult for the unanointed, but worth the effort. Lofting cleverly prefaces her story in a brief recount of an actual event involving two aristocratic boys whose abduction sets in motion the tensions that culminate in 1066. The Norman invasion had its own version of the princes in the tower long before either Richard III or Alison Weir came along. The fate of the boys is mentioned periodically throughout the book, but not to the extent of making Wulfhere’s tale into Harold’s story. The storyline has just enough historical reference points to place it in the eve of the invasion without reducing Wulfhere and his family to minor characters in an overwhelming historical event. This is not a tale of William of Normandy, who does not appear. Nor is it a story of the very compelling historical person Harold Godwin. From beginning to end, it is Wulfhere’s story.
I love this book. It is Paula Lofting’s first novel. And yes, there is a sequel, The Wolf Banner, coming soon to my bookshelf.
* Wychurst is owned by the members of the Re-enactment Society Regia Anglorum
Paula Lofting’s book Sons of the Wolf is available at Amazon, and as a paperback. The sequel to Sons of the Wolf, The Wolf Banner, will be available soon.
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|Paula, ready to rumble|
Linda Root is the author of the four titles in the Queen of Scots Suite. A fifth book, 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, is coming in the spring.