One of my favorite Victorian sequences, #2: the ending of Hereward the Wake.

Well. That was an eventful week. My book on twentieth century horror fiction is now available from my publisher. (Amazon’s publishing date is incorrect). I got to do a Big Idea piece for John Scalzi’s blog. And I got a whole lot of writing done on the game (second game in a row) that I’m writing on spec but have high hopes for.

But that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here for me to tell you about the Real Cool Moment. In this case, it is the ending of Hereward the Wake. I’d hazard a guess that 99% of you haven’t read it, so let me tell you about it.

Hereward the Wake was written by the Rev. Charles Kingsley and first appeared in as a magazine serial in 1865 before publication as a novel in 1869. It is a fictionalization of the life of the historical Hereward the Wake (circa 1035-circa 1072), a rebel against the eleventh century Norman invasion and occupation of England. Although he became a national hero to the English and the subject of many legends and songs, little is known for certain about Hereward, and it is theorized that he was actually half-Danish rather than of Saxon descent.

In Kingsley’s version of Hereward’s life, Hereward is the son of the Lord of Bourne, a Saxon nobleman of a powerful family. Hereward’s mother is Lady Godiva, and Hereward is as rebellious, spirited, irreligious and rambunctious as Godiva is spiritual and kind. After a friar complains to Lady Godiva that Hereward and his band of friends robbed him of Church money, Godiva is angry and hurt, for this is just the latest in a series of Hereward’s misdeeds. She confronts him and he freely admits to it, showing no shame. She is left with no choice but to declare him outlawed, which is what he wants. (It will allow him to have adventures, rather than be stuck at home). Hereward leaves his father’s house, accompanied only by a family retainer, Martin Lightfoot, who vows to serve him as friend and servant. Hereward then begins his adventuring. In Scotland he slays a giant bear and gains much renown thereby; in doing so he saves the life of a young girl, Alftruda, who he would encounter again. In Cornwall he meets the king and saves the king’s daughter from a bad marriage by killing the would-be groom, a red-bearded giant named Ironhook. This frees the daughter to marry the prince she truly loves and adds to Hereward’s reputation. Hereward adventures further about the British Isles, gathering about him a troop of men and becoming widely known as a doughty fighter and a canny captain of soldiers.

Hereward and his men, traveling by sea, are wrecked on the Flemish Coast, and they take service under Baldwin of Flanders, defeating the French for him. Hereward falls in love with Torfrida, a beautiful woman who is reputed to be a sorceress. Torfrida is equally smitten with Hereward, and the two marry and have a daughter. Meanwhile, back in Britain, King Edward dies and Harold Hardraada succeeds him. But William of Normandy invades Britain and defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Hereward is unhappy with the thought of the Normans ruling England and decides to visit Bourne. There he finds that the Normans have driven his mother from her home and are treating the Saxons badly. Hereward kills the Normans in Bourne and vows that he will go back to Flanders and then return with an army to kill every Norman in England. Hereward puts his mother up in Crowland Abbey, is formally knighted by the monks there, and returns to Flanders. Unfortunately, many of the English in Britain are confused and disunited, and the leader the Danes sent to aid Hereward is stupid and vain and refuses to listen to Hereward’s advice, getting many of his men killed and badly damaging the prospects of the English. When Hereward and his men and the Danes eventually land in England, they are easily defeated, and the Danes flee, leaving Hereward to carry on the fight. Hereward and his men stage a brave, lengthy holdout on the island of Ely, but are eventually betrayed by a group of monks.

Hereward and Torfrida and his men live as outlaws in the forests and fens of England, but as time passes and their situation grows increasingly desperate, they grow unhappy. Torfrida is cold toward Hereward and he commits adultery (either in the flesh or in spirit, it is never confirmed which), and when she discovers proof of this she goes temporarily mad and then gets herself to the nunnery at Crowland, where she takes care of Lady Godiva and has her marriage to Hereward dissolved. Hereward, bereft of hope and now his wife, gives up and enlists under King William, marrying the bewitching Alftruda, who has loved him for years. Hereward is not happy, however, for God’s grace has turned against him, he does not love Alftruda (he is afraid of her but besotted with her looks at the same time), and he has many enemies at the French court. Eventually he is tricked into a duel and imprisoned. He escapes and returns to Alftruda, but his enemies surprise him and kill him, although he takes twelve of them with him. When Torfrida hears of his death, she travels to the location where his body is kept and retrieves his body and has it buried in Crowland.

Now, Hereward the Wake—which you can read online here–is mostly forgotten about today. This is understandable; writing styles and readers’ expectations change, and Kingsley’s style in Hereward is a bit dated and subject matter not something that’s going to automatically appeal to modern readers, English or otherwise. Hereward is jingoistic—Kingsley wrote it at a time when the political and cultural revolutions and turmoil on the Continent left many English feeling insecure, so Hereward contains a stirring—and blatantly chauvinistic—call to the English to maintain English culture against external invaders.

But Kingsley wrote Hereward when he was old enough and skillful enough as a writer to smoothly incorporate his didactic intent into the novel and to put enough exciting action into the novel that the reader does not mind the mouthpiece passages. The problem that bedeviled Kingsley in Westward Ho!–the struggle between Kingsley’s ideology and his storytelling sense–is far less evident in Hereward the Wake. The statements of Kingsley’s prejudices are not so crushingly blatant, and the integration of those biases into the story is smoother. Kingsley’s belief in the racial superiority of the British (more broadly, the inhabitants of the British Isles, the Teutons, and the Scandinavians) to Continental Europeans and his belief in the religious superiority of Protestantism to the Catholic Church appear in Hereward the Wake, but they are far more evenly woven into the book than in Westward Ho!

The end result is an excellent read. Despite its length, the lecturing passages, and the occasional chapter or story which has little to do with the overall plot, Hereward is vigorous, full of memorable characters, duels, heroic triumphs and valiant defeats. Hereward the Wake is a fine combination of action and emotion. Although some critics have found and continue to find the battles and duels too numerous and even nauseating, most modern readers will disagree.

My favorite moment in the novel comes near its end, after Hereward has been killed, when his ex-wife Torfrida—who, remember, is rumored to be a sorceress—goes to retrieve Hereward’s body from the wicked, drunken Frenchmen who killed him, mutilated his body, and hung his decapitated head over the door of their drinking hall. Three days later:

It was the third day. The Normans were drinking in the hall of Bourne, casting lots among themselves who should espouse the fair Alftruda, who sat weeping within over the headless corpse; when in the afternoon a servant came in, and told them how a barge full of monks had come to the shore, and that they seemed to be monks from Crowland. Ivo Taillebois bade drive them back again into the barge with whips. But Hugh of Evermue spoke up.

“I am lord and master in Bourne this day, and if Ivo have a quarrel against St. Guthlac, I have none. This Ingulf of Fontenelle, the new abbot who has come thither since old Ulfketyl was sent to prison, is a loyal man, and a friend of King William’s, and my friend he shall be till he behaves himself as my foe. Let them come up in peace.”

Taillebois growled and cursed: but the monks came up, and into the hall; and at their head Ingulf himself, to receive whom all men rose, save Taillebois.

“I come,” said Ingulf, in most courtly French, “noble knights, to ask a boon and in the name of the Most Merciful, on behalf of a noble and unhappy lady. Let it be enough to have avenged yourself on the living. Gentlemen and Christians war not against the dead.”

“No, no, Master Abbot!” shouted Taillebois; “Waltheof is enough to keep Crowland in miracles for the present. You shall not make a martyr of another Saxon churl. He wants the barbarian’s body, knights, and you will be fools if you let him have it.”

“Churl? barbarian?” said a haughty voice; and a nun stepped forward who had stood just behind Ingulf. She was clothed entirely in black. Her bare feet were bleeding from the stones; her hand, as she lifted it, was as thin as a skeleton’s.

She threw back her veil, and showed to the knights what had been once the famous beauty of Torfrida.

But the beauty was long past away. Her hair was white as snow; her cheeks were fallen in. Her hawk-like features were all sharp and hard. Only in their hollow sockets burned still the great black eyes, so fiercely that all men turned uneasily from her gaze.

“Churl? barbarian?” she said, slowly and quietly, but with an intensity which was more terrible than rage. “Who gives such names to one who was as much better born and better bred than those who now sit here, as he was braver and more terrible than they? The base wood-cutter’s son? The upstart who would have been honored had he taken service as yon dead man’s groom?”

“Talk to me so, and my stirrup leathers shall make acquaintance with your sides,” said Taillebois.

“Keep them for your wife. Churl? Barbarian? There is not a man within this hall who is not a barbarian compared with him. Which of you touched the harp like him? Which of you, like him, could move all hearts with song? Which of you knows all tongues from Lapland to Provence? Which of you has been the joy of ladies’ bowers, the counsellor of earls and heroes, the rival of a mighty king? Which of you will compare yourself with him,—whom you dared not even strike, you and your robber crew, fairly in front, but, skulked round him till he fell pecked to death by you, as Lapland Skratlings peck to death the bear. Ten years ago he swept this hall of such as you, and hung their heads upon yon gable outside; and were he alive but one five minutes again, this hall would be right cleanly swept again! Give me his body,—or bear forever the name of cowards, and Torfrida’s curse.”

And she fixed her terrible eyes first on one, and then on another, calling them by name.

“Ivo Taillebois,—basest of all—”

“Take the witch’s accursed eyes off me!” and he covered his face with his hands. “I shall be overlooked,—planet struck. Hew the witch down! Take her away!”

“Hugh of Evermue,—the dead man’s daughter is yours, and the dead man’s lands. Are not these remembrances enough of him? Are you so fond of his memory that you need his corpse likewise?”

“Give it her! Give it her!” said he, hanging down his head like a rated cur.

“Ascelin of Lincoln, once Ascelin of Ghent,—there was a time when you would have done—what would you not?—for one glance of Torfrida’s eyes.—Stay. Do not deceive yourself, fair sir, Torfrida means to ask no favor of you, or of living man. But she commands you. Do the thing she bids, or with one glance of her eye she sends you childless to your grave.”

“Madam! Lady Torfrida! What is there I would not do for you? What have I done now, save avenge your great wrong?”

Torfrida made no answer, but fixed steadily on him eyes which widened every moment.

“But, madam,”—and he turned shrinking from the fancied spell,—“what would you have? The—the corpse? It is in the keeping of—of another lady.”

“So?” said Torfrida, quietly. “Leave her to me”; and she swept past them all, and flung open the bower door at their backs, discovering Alftruda sitting by the dead.

The ruffians were so utterly appalled, not only by the false powers of magic, but by veritable powers of majesty and eloquence, that they let her do what she would.

“Out!” cried she, using a short and terrible epithet. “Out, siren, with fairy’s face and tail of fiend, and leave the husband with his wife!”

Alftruda looked up, shrieked; and then, with the sudden passion of a weak nature, drew a little knife, and sprang up.

Ivo made a coarse jest. The Abbot sprang in: “For the sake of all holy things, let there be no more murder here!”

Torfrida smiled, and fixed her snake’s eye upon her wretched rival.

“Out! woman, and choose thee a new husband among these French gallants, ere I blast thee from head to foot with the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian.”

Alftruda shuddered, and fled shrieking into an inner room.

“Now, knights, give me—that which hangs outside.”

Ascelin hurried out, glad to escape. In a minute he returned.

The head was already taken down. A tall lay brother, the moment he had seen it, had climbed the gable, snatched it away, and now sat in a corner of the yard, holding it on his knees, talking to it, chiding it, as if it had been alive. When men had offered to take it, he had drawn a battle-axe from under his frock, and threatened to brain all comers. And the monks had warned off Ascelin, saying that the man was mad, and had Berserk fits of superhuman strength and rage.

“He will give it me!” said Torfrida, and went out.

“Look at that gable, foolish head,” said the madman. “Ten years agone, you and I took down from thence another head. O foolish head, to get yourself at last up into that same place! Why would you not be ruled by her, you foolish golden head?”

“Martin!” said Torfrida.

“Take it and comb it, mistress, as you used to do. Comb out the golden locks again, fit to shine across the battle-field. She has let them get all tangled into elf-knots, that lazy slut within.”

Torfrida took it from his hands, dry-eyed, and went in.

Then the monks silently took up the bier, and all went forth, and down the hill toward the fen. They laid the corpse within the barge, and slowly rowed away.

Perhaps this sequence only gains its awesomeness after you’ve been with Hereward and Torfrida through their long lives. But for me, it’s great, my favorite sequence in the novel, a touch of sinister magic in a novel that’s anti-magic. (Oh, sure, Kingsley calls it “false magic,” but I think you and I both know it was the real stuff and Torfrida was going to do some horrible things to Tallebois and Ascelin and the others).

Hereward the Wake has its flaws—what novel from 1865 does not? But by my way of thinking it’s one of the best historical romances written before Stanley Weyman took pen to paper.

This entry was posted in victoriana and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *