Friday, May 9, 2008

Here Be Dragons

I love to read other people's favorite books. Amy M. recommended this to me, although I don't think she described it as her favorite. Just a book she had read a long time ago that she remembered loving. Having never even heard of it before, I pulled out my super reading powers and gave it a whirl.

First, this is NOT an easy read. The edition I checked out contained more than 700 thin pages of small print. Second, it's historical fiction about a time in history I had no prior knowledge of - 13th century England and Wales. Lastly, there are many, many characters to keep track of, most with unusual names and many being interrelated.

All these difficulties aside, I really enjoyed this story. At its heart is the love story between Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales who later became known as Llewelyn the Great of Wales, and his bride, Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England's King John. Its development and conflict anchors a story that is forced to span war after war after battle after skirmish after war. Really, these ancient leaders never stopped fighting.

The title, Here Be Dragons, describes a map making technique used long ago. When map makers had limited or no knowledge of certain areas, they wrote, "Here be dragons" on the area with drawings of the mythical creatures to describe this unknown danger.

Both the Welsh people and the Norman-french, who currently held the English crown (really, it's all very interesting) were suspicious of the other and held strong prejudices against any of its citizens. The marriage, which could have and should have brought about peace between the two nations, only put Joanna, who loved both her Norman-French/English father and eventually her charismatic Welsh husband, in the middle.

After I finished reading, I spent a good deal of time researching the accuracy of the facts presented in the book. Many, if not most, are true. Obviously, the fiction comes from the interplay between characters and description of feelings, which can't ever be wholly known, but I think the author did a great job of infusing historical figures with life. The struggles over choosing heirs and the family feuds that any transfer of power creates, were believable and likely.

Most importantly, when applying this history lesson to our current times, I realized human nature doesn't change much...even eight-hundred years later. The names of the countries may have changed but we still believe there are dragons over in the unknown. We still use power and ignorance to fuel our wars and pride and wounded egos to justify them.

Will the human race ever grow up? Time with continue to tell. In the meantime, I'm happy I read this smart, complex and excellent book.

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