The 11th century in England was a time of invasion, conquest, subjugation and tyranny. Kings had to rely on bribes, military might, persecution and guile to claim and hang on to the throne and the one period of relative calm – the reign of Edward the Confessor in the middle of the century – was sealed by the most infamous invasion of them all. English, Vikings, Danes and Normans all believed they had a stake in the land and, while this caused uncertainty and upheaval amongst the upper levels of society, it also brought catastrophe into the lives of the people of these islands.
In Three Kings – One Throne, Michael Wills examines these difficult years, this transition from Saxon and Viking to Norman and medieval, through the lives of two contrasting men: Torkil, the grandson of an Anglo Norse Thane on the Isle of Wight, who becomes the swordsman of Harold Godwinson, and Ivar, a Danish slave to prince Harald, whom he follows to Byzantium. It would seem, though, that all roads lead to Hastings and that is indeed where the novel takes us.
Three Kings – One Throne is a short novel but every page is filled with historical detail and knowledge. Not a line feels unconsidered and there is a strong sense as you read it that this is indeed how people of mixed classes and fortune lived, from the clothes on their backs, to the food they ate, ships they sailed and also their loyalties to clan, lord or king.
This air of authenticity that Michael Wills is so careful to create is also, for me, the difficulty with the novel as a story. As a piece of historical writing it is fascinating but as a story it felt far less successful. I’m not a fan of footnotes in a novel unless they serve a literary purpose (as with Pratchett), but here there are many of them and all they did was throw me out of the story. Such details – mostly translations – have a happier existence in a glossary where I can consult them when I choose. There are other devices which serve history far better than the characters. For instance, Torkil’s grandfather spends his deathbed days telling his daughter and grandson in every meticulous detail his life story from the beginning of the century. While what we learn is fascinating and gripping – his mother tried as a witch, raids and persecutions and so on – it suffers from the circumstances of its telling.
Matters aren’t helped, as Wills states himself, by two major characters sharing such similar names. It is difficult to avoid a confusion over the Haralds and Harolds.
Where Three Kings – One Throne succeeds is in its sincere and historically faithful (as far as I could tell) recreation of history during one of the most utterly absorbing periods of English history. Clearly, Michael Wills has much to teach us about these years and the men and women who suffered and fought through them. I would suggest, though, that he keeps more of an eye on the needs of a reader who wants to be taken away from the pages of a history textbook and thrown into the heart of such a potentially compelling human tale.
Michael Wills’ website.