Sharon Kay Penman’s masterful historical novel set in thirteenth century England and Wales tells the story of Llewelyn ab Iorwerth, Prince of North Wales, who dreams of unifying his country under his rule. At the time, Wales was divided among many warring factions. In an attempt to make an alliance with England’s King John, Llewelyn, a man in his thirties, marries John’s illegitimate daughter Joanna, a girl of fourteen, who is terrified at the thought of the marriage and of being sent into what she considers a country of barbarians. But the unlikely couple comes to fall in love with each other, and Joanna comes to love her adopted country, although many of Llewelyn’s nobles resent her for her Norman-French blood. King John, who thought of the marriage only as a political alliance, has ambitions to bring Wales into his own kingdom, and so the two men Joanna loves best—her father and her husband—go to war with each other.
At times, there are so many strains on Llewelyn’s and Joanna’s marriage that it is doubtful it will endure, in spite of their love. Llewelyn’s illegitimate son, Gruffydd, hates Joanna in spite of her early attempts to befriend him, and a conflict arises when Joanna attempts to secure the succession for her son Davydd. Under Welsh law, unlike Norman law, illegitimacy is no bar to succession, and Gruffydd thinks he should be Llewelyn’s successor. But the hotheaded Gryffudd is temperamentally unsuited to rule Wales, and Llewelyn knows that, so he agrees to name Davydd as his successor. But, of course, Gruffydd will not step aside for his hated half-brother.
Penman draws the reader into the world of the thirteenth century so thoroughly that it is difficult to leave it. Her characters, and her world, are complex. There are many different factions in both England and Wales, and, the way she portrays the conflict, no one is entirely right or entirely wrong. King John, so often portrayed as a villain, as in the Robin Hood legend and Shakespeare’s play, is not completely evil in Penman’s novel. He does some incredibly brutal things: he orders a group of young Welsh boys, held hostage at one of his castles, to be hanged, and only Gruffydd is spared, as a favor to Joanna, even though he is totally ungrateful for the favor. And, in one particularly brutal scene, he has the wife and son of one of his enemies starved to death in a dungeon. But he is a loving father to Joanna, taking her in after her mother’s death, when her mother’s family rejected her, and she can never forget his kindness, even though she knows the brutality of which he is capable.
At over 700 pages, Here Be Dragons is not a quick read or a particularly easy one. It lacks a genealogy or a list of characters, at least in the edition I read. Penman’s later books include both. Readers will have to make an effort to keep track of all the characters. And so many people change sides in the various conflicts that it’s not always easy to tell who’s on which side at a given moment. She also uses old-fashioned words such as “mayhap” and “certes”, but not to such an extent that it overwhelms the reader. But if you stick with it, Here Be Dragons makes for an incredibly rewarding reading experience. Once you finish it, you will miss her world. Luckily, there are two sequels, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning.
Here Be Dragons is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library: http://mirlyn.lib.umich.edu/Record/002714685 .