A Stitch in Theme

HASTINGS, England. Oct. 14, 1066 – Harold Godwinson got seriously creamed here today.

Not that he’d been goofing or being otherwise remiss; it simply was not easy being number two man to the king, Edward the Confessor. Indeed, Harold had only just discovered some Scandinavians to the north in York, savaging the area with, well, weapons of mass destruction. No sooner had Harold routed the Scandinavians, when news came that William, Duke of Normandy, had torn up the pea patch between the old Roman ports of Pevensey and Hastings on the Sussex coast. Touchy sort, that William. But he did have his reasons.

It was said of Edward with some sarcasm that he would have done better to pray less and work more at propagation, thus leaving an heir to the throne of England. Never in particularly good health, Edward trudged into his death bed in January of 1066, where he was heard by some to proclaim, “Unto Harold’s hands I commit my kingdom.”

OK for starters. Harold was actually anointed king on Edward’s death. Trouble was, William, Duke of Normandy, had a story whereby Edward had named him the king, and swore he had Harold’s confirmation of the deal. Now you see why William was touchy. Didn’t help his disposition any that he was called William the Bastard, thanks to his nobleman father having had a long relationship with a commoner.

If the battle of Hastings was bad news for Harold, it was utter disaster for the Angles, Saxons, and Scandinavians, the lost control. The Norman Conquest changed among other things the face and language of England. Nearly a thousand years after the fact, William’s smashing victory has an effect on us – without it we’d most likely be speaking something that sounds very much like Dutch. At the very least, we would not have had The Great Vowel Shift (lest you think I exaggerate here, try Google or Ask.Com about the implications of The Vowel Shift).

After the battle of Hastings, William became King of England. He was no longer William the Bastard, rather now a respectful Guillaume le Conquerant, William the Conqueror.

To commemorate this epic political confrontation, a work of art emerged – emerged being the appropriate word. No written record exists to attest the provenance of the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot by approximately 20-inch embroidered cloth, which technically isn’t a tapestry at all (because tapestries are woven, not stitched). Lovely and convincing theories abound, leaving a delicious set of mysteries which R. Howard Bloch of Yale sets forth to unravel in “A Needle in the Right Hand of God,” from Random House.

Little wonder that there is no contemporary record of the Bayeux Tapestry, relatively few of the populace could read at the time. Many of those who could read were settled in at monasteries, coping out records and sacred texts by hand.

One imaginative way of regarding The Tapestry – it is truly a magnificent and dramatic vision – is to think of it as The Classic Comics or Cliff’s Notes of its day. Starting with the death of Edward, The Tapestry is a meticulous, detailed, hand-stitched representation in scenes of Harold’s ascent to the throne of England, William’s representation of his own claim to be king, the arrival of William’s forces once again into England, the clash between William and Harold at Hastings, the death of Harold (being rendered shish kebab by a Norman spear) and the subsequent primacy of the Normans in England and France.

It is only fitting that Professor Bloch’s study has an excellent and detailed set of photos of The Tapestry to bring it to vivid life for those who have not seen it. Although he could use some help from Brian Fagan in the area of narrative detail, Bloch has allowed his curiosity and his enthusiasm to shine through, allowing us to see not only a curiosity but a relevant mystery come to life. The Tapestry has rightly become an important symbol for France; the fact of it having possibly been stitched and assembled in England only serving to illustrate the connective tissue between the two countries as well as the mutual suspicion each bears the other.

My favorite of Professor Bloch’s scenarios for the origin of The Tapestry is William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, a man with a few agendas of his own. My favorite unsolved mystery related to The Tapestry: How in the name of Anglo-Saxons and Normans did those inventive and suggestive couplings get onto some of the outer margins? Not to forget the more modern scenario in which The Tapestry became an object of great interest to Hitler and his notorious SS.

Second Servings

Second novels are often a tricky business, either causing us to give the author a wide berth or winning us over to that author with a bonding of loyalty. Nearly two years ago, this column spoke with some warmth of a series launch, “The Cold Dish,” in which Walt Longmire, a fifty-ish, slightly overweight sheriff of a fictional-but-authentic-sounding county in Wyoming, set forth on an intriguing adventure, abetted and sometimes addled by a likeable ensemble cast.

With the publication of Craig Johnson’s latest, “Death without Company,” I had a moment of fear that my admiration of “The Cold Dish” might be undercut. The matter was put to test when J. F. “Jerry” Freedman arrived with the new title.

Many of the characters are the same, intelligently used, all seeming to belong in this small, out-of-the-way county. One of the ensemble cast is the former sheriff, Lucian Connally, who is among other things Walt Longmire’s weekly chess partner and his mentor, now living at the Durant Home for Assisted living. We knew from “The Cold Dish” that Lucian had his secrets and a past. When Lucian calls Longmire to inform him of a death under suspicious circumstances at the Durant Home, his past and his secrets begin unraveling before our – and Longmire’s – eyes.

At first Mari Baroja’s death seems to be from natural causes but Lucian presents information that links Mari to the Basque community, possible ties to the Basque Separatist Movement, and the coal bed methane industry. Longmire orders an autopsy, and when the results come in, the violence, intrigue, and webs of suspicion prove irresistible. A stunning surprise is Lucian’s past history with Mari Baroja, and the subsequent effect on his credibility.

Longmire is every bit a modern lawman; if he does not have the actual technology in town, he is aware of it and uses it to build his case. He and his staff all have their reasons for living in the ruggedness of semi-rural Wyoming, reasons that define character, motive, and behavior.

Craig Johnson knows the country well and writes of it convincingly, his eye for the terrain and his ability to evoke the presence of snow and the absolute coldness of weather add even greater depth to his intelligent use of plot points.

The title, “Death without Company,” comes from a Basque proverb. Johnson clearly knows these people as well as the Native Americans who so convincingly appear throughout these pages. Johnson has outshone his creditable first effort; he has carved out a place where the setting and human behavior vibrate with believable force.