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"The Last English King" by Julian Rathbone

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In "The Last English King" we get a close, graphic portrait of the Battle of Hastings and its devastating effect on the Saxon royalty and gentry in England. It's told through the eyes of Walt, a member of King Harold's vanquished bodyguard. Walt loses a hand in the battle, and after it's over he leaves on a pilgrimage for the Holy Land.

Perhaps he's looking for redemption of some sort; he meets up with a sleight-of-hand artist and a lapsed monk, among other questors. The various conversations he has with this wise-to-the-world monk begin to erode his faith. A young girl, just coming into womanhood, restores his dead and stunted arm to life and feeling again, simply by caressing it. Along the way we get a lovely passage on the Hagia Sophia - its awe-inspiring architecture and its interior spaces, colors, and icons. Walt gets as far as the south coast of Asia Minor, when his land and its newly-defeated people compel him to turn around and return home. What we are to make of this failure to complete the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I'm not at all sure.

Rathbone has fashioned a vivid picture of a critical moment in Anglophone history. This book works rather well on several levels, not the least of which is an allegory of devastating change. The Norman Conquest wreaked upon English speakers wrenching alterations - the only result possible of broken promises and a doomed determination to survive as a culture and a nation. Even if you don't take an interest in the Norman conquest, this book is well worth your time for its vivid portraiture of a long-ago time and the timeless human cadence of hope, aspiration, and conflict.
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