|Here Be Dragons|
|By Sharon Penman
(William Collins & Co. Ltd, Glasgow)
Reviewed by Frances Grattan
|o you love stories set in the Middle Ages, romantic but based in fact? Do you hunger for knowledge of the people of this time period, how they lived, fought and loved? Do you enjoy learning about real characters of this time—characters with strong personalities, but with imperfections that let you visualise and believe in them? If so, then you will love Sharon Penmans books. I have not yet read them all, but from the ones I have Here Be Dragons is so far my favourite.
Set in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century in England and Wales, the story opens by introducing the 3 main players.
Joanna—the Kings illegitimate daughter. Brought to her father at the age of 5, a dirty urchin who was coldly rejected by her mother because of her paternity. She instantly falls in love with the man who recognized all his natural-born children, if he soon forgot the mothers face and name. At 14, she is used as a political pawn and is bewedded to the prince of Gwynedd, Llewelyn, a man more than twice her age.
She is thrust into a country completely alien to her, with hostile inhabitants. The Welsh did not only mistrust the English, they despised them, none more so than Joannas father. She cannot speak their language, is not more than a child herself, and has been torn from all she knows and loves.
The King of England—John Plantagenet, the youngest child of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. John finally becomes King after living years in his brother Richards shadow. History tends to portray John as ruthless and undeniably cruel. Sharon strips away a lot of the myth and shows a different side to John. Charming, thoughtful, and capable of strong love. There is no more obvious example of this than in the relationship with his illegitimate daughter Joanna. The reader will come to understand Joannas reluctance to believe ill of her father and will feel her torment as the truth becomes clear to her.
Llewelyn—Prince of Gwynedd, hes known in Welsh history as Llewelyn Fawr, or Llwewelyn the Great. After reading this book I couldnt agree more. He had everything one looks for in a hero, and for the modern-day reader, he, although certainly human, was very advanced in his thinking for the time. He dreams of a united Wales, independent of English rule. As young as 14, he instigates a rebellion to reclaim land he feels his uncles stole from him. Although his dream was never to be, Llewelyn proves to himself an insatiable warrior and achieves a great deal for his country.
There are moments of incredible tension, sadness, and triumph throughout the story as Joanna falls in love with her Welsh husband and continually has to choose between him and the man who was the first to show her love and affection.
The reader is able to understand Joannas torment. We are there, when as a terrified child, John gathers her in his arms. She is certain her father will hate her, but instead, this kind man holds her close and gently says to her: Dont you understand? I am your father!
When Joanna is caught with her grandmother in a terrifying siege, John and his army ride an almost unbelievable 80 miles to rescue them, taking his nephew Arthur and his supporters totally by surprise. When he lifts up Joanna and kisses her, you feel both her pride in her father and also Johns elation at such a momentous victory.
In order to retain power John will stoop to anything. Time and again he and Llewelyn cross swords, and John quickly regrets wedding his daughter to the Welshman. Joanna is torn, and because of her blinding love for her father, she makes mistakes—mistakes which might cost her the love of her husband, the man she now loves.
Llewelyn is also torn by family loyalties. His elder son, Gruffydd, is extremely jealous of Joanna and their son Davydd. Welsh law differs from the English and a mans illegitimate children are able to inherit, yet Gruffydd suspects Joanna has such a strong influence over his father that these laws will not be heeded. We understand why he hates the English as John kept him hostage for 4 years and Gruffydd showed immense courage during his captivity.
It becomes evident that Joanna cannot have both John and Llewelyn, and that Llewelyn will not be able to reconcile Gruffydd with Joanna. The tension is so strong that it rips holes into the marriage of Joanna and Llewelyn, and it is then that Joanna makes her biggest mistake of all.
The resolution will take your breath away. When Llewelyn raises his sword to Joanna, believe me, you will gasp. You will read the love on his face, feel her shock and fear.
Does Llewelyn forgive her? Is he able to put Joanna before his country, before his sons? Does he return the inheritance to Gruffydd, or does Davydd manage to retain his fathers respect???
Ill leave you to read the book—you will not be sorry!