LORD OF SUNSET
by Parke Godwin
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
One of my favorite fantasy novels of recent times is Parke Godwin's wonderful examination of the Robin Hood legend, Sherwood, in which Godwin jettisoned much of the story's baggage, such as its associations with Prince John and Ivanhoe, and tried to find a more fitting context, the years immediately following the Norman Conquest. Sherwood's sequel, Robin and the King, may not have lived up to Sherwood's promise, but it was nearly as well written and enjoyable. Godwin has now turned his attention to a slightly earlier period and has presented the world with the biography-cum-lovestory of Harold Godwineson and Edith Svannehals. I approached this novel a little tentatively for a couple of reasons. First, I wondered if it could live up to my opinions of the previously published stories in the sequence, second because both Harold and Edith figure prominently in my own unpublished (as yet) novel.
Although Lord of Sunset succeeds, it has some failures as well. The opening sequence describes Edith after the Battle of Hastings, being asked by William to identify Harold's corpse. Once this gruesome business is out of the way, Edith begins reminiscing about the last twenty years, a period during which she has been Harold's common law wife. In and of itself, this wouldn't create problems, however the novel, which is told in the past tense, also includes Harold, Swegn, Edward, and several others as viewpoint characters, all of whom have died by the time Edith begins remembering the past. Their first-person narratives are jarring because Godwin has already established that these characters are no longer counted among the living. Furthermore, Edith occasionally makes a side comment to the effect that she knows how everything will turn out, again dropping the reader from the story.
Godwin's characterization is good, particularly that of Harold. Through Harold's own testimony and the way he is viewed by Edith, Swegn and others, we see that he is a complex individual who takes on different roles depending on who he is with. Some see him as barely capable, others see him as the most able of Godwine's sons. Swegn sees his brother as a jokester, although Harold's sense of humor is less evident in most of his other relationships. Harold's first meeting with Edith, shortly after the death of his first love, gives the author the opportunity to show, early on, Harold's relationships with various women.
The language Godwin's characters employ to tell their stories tends to be very fancy and stilted, often giving the feel that Godwin is putting style before substance. Nevertheless, this attention to vocabulary and courtly phrasing, while seemingly a little anachronistic, serves as a reminder that all the characters Godwin presents are at the highest level of Anglo-Saxon culture, as opposed to Godwin's Robin of Denby who exists in a less rarified strata of society. Taken with the Robin of Sherwood novels, Lord of Sunset provides a good look at Anglo-Saxon society, and Godwin makes clear that this novel is set in the same world by having an early encounter between Edith and Aelred of Denby, Robin's father.
When Godwin introduces witches (Wiccan) to Lord of Sunset, his Wiccan seem to be based more on the modern concept of the religion than any historical version of Wiccan. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say they are based on the modern Wiccan version of historical witches. In any event, their inclusion and rites do not ring true to the period, but may help make the novel more saleable for the modern audience and open it up to those who practice Wicca.
Godwin's witches aren't the only anachronism which appears in the novel. He also makes passing references to Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, which may or may not have existed in some form in the 1040s, but seem out of place. He also makes a reference to universities which wouldn't exist until the next century. Another, less easily identifiable anachronism is King Edward's insistance that Harold was a "patriot." In the eleventh century, the king was still styled King of the Angles and the Saxons. The idea of country existed, but not in the way we currently think of it and certainly not in a way which would inspire what we think of as patriotism (and yes, I know this is a novel, not an historical thesis).
The novel on the whole is a straight-forward re-telling of the historical events from the marriage of Edward to Eadgytha Godwinesdohter to Harold's death at Hastings. Interspersed with these historical events is the romantic story of Harold and Edith Svannehals's love for each other in the face of the Church and monarchy. Lord of Sunset is easily the most literarily ambitious of the three novels which Godwin has written surrounding the Norman Conquest. Unfortunately, it isn't quite as readable or enjoyable as the earlier works.
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