Portrait of a dark Britannia

Portrait of a dark Britannia

A prequel to Ken Follett's hugely popular Kingsbridge series, this novel entertains as well as educates.

The Evening And The Morning

To read Ken Follett’s The Evening and The Morning is to wonder about the origin of many English ‘things’. Things which many of us have come to believe have been part of the English psyche forever. Afternoon tea, dressing for dinner, stiff upper lip, how to be prim and ‘propah’, a la the Queen and so on.

However, the characters who figure in this novel do not exhibit any of these supposedly English characteristics or indulge in any of these ‘typical’ English habits. Ken Follett’s doorstopper of a work is set in a very different Old Blighty altogether. The story begins in CE 997, more than half-a-millennium after Roman rule in Britain had ended. England is ruled by King Ethelred the Unready (this epithet is not from the modern word ‘unready’, but from the Old English unræd, meaning ‘poorly advised’ and is meant to be a pun on his name, which means ‘well advised’).

Well-meaning, Ethelred is unable though, to entirely impose his writ on the populace. Many chieftains (ealdorman), while making a show of deference to the monarch, casually defy him and run the show on their own terms in their fiefdoms. Ethelred’s perennial problem is to find a way to contend with the periodic Viking incursions that paralyses the population. Dependent as he is on the chieftains to raise an army to defend the island against the Vikings, he has to turn a blind eye to their excesses.

Much churning

It is in such circumstances that ealdorman Wilwulf and his stepbrothers Wynstan (a bishop)  and Wigelm rule the roost in their corner of England. On a trip to Normandy across the English Channel, Wilwulf meets Lady Ragnhild (Ragna), daughter of Count Hubert. They fall in love and Ragna, against parental advice, marries Wilwulf and settles in England, which is by Norman standards, a backward place.

At home, Wilwulf is a different kettle of fish. He is unfaithful, bewilderingly indifferent and not as devoted to Ragna’s needs as she was led to believe. In time, their passion cools. Ragna overcomes the language barrier and with Wilwulf often away fighting the Vikings, throws herself into the administration of the realm, something that she has a natural aptitude for. This prompts the scheming Wynstan to attempt to sideline Ragna. Ragna, however, is more than able to hold her own.

In the course of her duties, she meets and develops a liking for Edgar, a young man who has relocated to Wilwulf’s domains after being forced out of his hometown by the pillaging Vikings. As Edgar (and his brothers and mother) attempt to build a new life for themselves, he frequently has to deal with Ragna and together, they attempt to outwit Wynstan and the many others who are ranged against them. With Ragna and Edgar is the monk, Aldred, who too has fallen foul of Wynstan.

As the novel moves into the first decade of the new millennium from its original starting date, there is much churning. The lead characters go through their rites of passage to earn their spurs. Villains get their comeuppance and eventually, all’s well that ends well, as it should be in this kind of novel.

Edge of barbarity

The England depicted in the book is a dark, forbidding place peopled by folks on the edge of barbarity. They drink copious amounts of ale, fornicate merrily and indiscriminately, are often forced to forage for food and have appalling manners.

Death through unnatural means is commonplace and at all times, the possibility of it happening, either at the hands of a local or the Vikings who flit in and out of the island at will, hangs over the plot.

As characters go, Ragna is unusual (for the novel) — a polished woman who survives admirably among men who lack her finesse. Edgar too is stock hero material — largely righteous, ethical and straightforward. Aldred is the ideal sidekick, with secrets of his own that do not behove a monk, but striving to go beyond that and dreaming of disseminating education and learning at a time when these things scarcely mattered.

But scheming, evil Wynstan is among the novel’s more interesting characters. Villainous in his outlook, prone to violence, with a disregard for priestly etiquette and intent on becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, his is the guiding force behind the actions of the leading characters. His co-conspirator is his mother, Gytha, the stereotypical stepmother who is ambitious for her sons and will do anything to sideline Wilwulf. Interestingly, Edgar’s mother too is a strong influence on him and guides his actions in the early part of the book.

Holiday read

The novel is a prequel to Follett’s hugely popular Kingsbridge series, comprising The Pillars of the Earth (1989), World Without End (2007) and A Column of Fire (2017). Readers of Pillars... might recall that the novel is about cathedral building and those preoccupations come to figure towards the end of the current novel too, providing the inkling of an opening to the earlier works.

Ideally suited to be a holiday read, the novel both entertains as well as educates. As for the origin of the English things mentioned at the beginning, another work will have to unearth those!