Review: Here Be Dragons

Here be DragonsHere Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman. New York, Ballantine Books, 1985.

Summary: The first of the Welsh Princes Trilogy set in the early 13th century, this book explores the conflict between John, the King of England, and Llewelyn, who sought to unify a divided Wales against the English threat. Their lives are intertwined by the daughter of John, Joanna, who becomes the wife of Llewelyn, finding herself torn between loves for father and husband, then husband and son.

From youthful conflicts while in the house of an English lord through the rest of his life Llewelyn knew that the English were a threat. Yet Wales was hopelessly divided in clan warfare. Meanwhile, John, the youngest son of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, through ruthless shrewdness comes to the throne of England and Norman France. He, too, is caught in a continuous battle for survival with rival lords on both sides of the channel and with Philip, the king of France. The wars of John allow young Llewellyn to begin to unite Wales and establish his own power, and it becomes clear that while Llewelyn is under the sovereignty of John, the two must contend with each other.

Into this volatile mix enters Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of John. When her mother dies, she is welcomed into John’s court, finding herself loved and accepted as John’s daughter. Yet to be the daughter of a powerful house is to be a resource for political alliances, which results in her being betrothed at fourteen to Llewelyn, whose first wife has died after giving him a son Gruffydd, as well as daughters. Over time, a political marriage turns into a deep, yet complicated love and results in adding a daughter, Elen, and son, Davydd to the family.

Joanna must wrestle with the conflict between her love for John and Llewelyn and this is sorely tried when the two are at war, nowhere worse than when her intercession for Welsh hostages results in saving only Llewelyn’s son Gruffydd, while over twenty others, some children, are ruthless hanged. The conflict is even more complicated because Gruffydd, the firstborn, is the rival for her own son Davydd, to lead a united Wales when Llewelyn dies. These conflicts will both try Joanna’s soul and her marriage.

Penman has written an absorbing story that teases out of the mists of history a narrative that explores the complexities of loyalty and conflict, of nobility and ruthlessness, that can run through the character of a person. It explores the questions of how far love and loyalties may be tried before they turn to resentment and hate. Perhaps what engaged me most was the rich and nuanced dialogue between various characters, most notably Llewelyn and Joanna, as they threaded their way through the necessities, conflicts, and sometimes broken trusts that occur in human relationships. This made for a great summer read and has me on the lookout for copies of the second and third parts of the trilogy, titled Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning.