Monday, August 11, 2008

Here Be Dragons

I just finished a novel that I picked up in Westminster Abbey's gift shop. Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman is about the Welsh Princess Joanna. She was King John's (as in Robin Hood John) illegitimate daughter that he married off to the Welsh Prince Llewelyn. The story begins with Llewelyn's youth and their marriage, leading through the reigns of King Henry II, King Richard the Lion Hearted, King John, and King Henry III (the English kings died at a faster rate than Llewelyn). For someone who doesn't revel in history, I felt the book was wonderfully written.

From what I can tell through minimal research, the historical accuracy of the novel is impeccable. In the author's note, she said, "I took but one factual liberty; Llewelyn captured Mold Castle in January of 1199, but I placed the siege in April, the better to integrate the Welsh and Norman story lines." I can hardly say four months is worth a squawk. However, the book isn't a historical chronicle. It is in every sense a novel. What Penman couldn't elaborate in plot she put in dialogue and character insight.

However, I'm sorry to say that I can't reccomend this book and keep conscience. I want to, I really do. It's probably the best historical fiction/romance I've ever read, but there is just way too much unnecessary graphic description. As I read through it, I wish so much that I owned whiteout, so that I could read it again and again without subjecting my mind to unnecessary descriptions (for a lack of a better term).

I find it so frustrating that authors (and film producers, and singers, and... etc) feel it is necessary to elaborate on private matters. One of my favorite books, Redeeming Love, is a story about a prostitute. It explores some of the same struggles that Joanna faced but did so tastefully. I think Here Be Dragons has the power to be an amazing insight into humanity, with or without the sexual descriptions, and would win a wider audience without them. Some of the main themes are guilt and forgiveness, and Penman deals with them wonderfully.

My favorite scene was near the end, when Joanna and her daughter Elen are discussing Joanna's infidelity and remorse. It's the first conversation they've had where they are truly honest with each other and Elen learns about her mother's youthful lack of confidence: "'But scrape away the surface gloss, dig through the glaze to the raw clay, and you'll find a little girl forbidden to play with the other village children, a little girl who'd lie for hours in the heather above Middleham Castle, wanting only to belong.'" (Penman, 748)

PS: When I buy whiteout and deface my copy, I welcome anyone who wants to borrow it rather than the original version.

Photo by Gabriela Camerotti. . Creative commons licence: Attribution, Non-Commercial.

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