“The cheesemaker’s daughter and I were inseparable: nipping into and out of each other’s households as if we were fosterlings… climbing through the tall apple trees to gather the last of the fruit that still hung there… running to the gate as the hunting party brought in a full-sized boar, slung on a pole between two warriors… milking the cows as they grazed in the field or skimming the risen cream from the flat stone basins in the dairy yard. And everywhere we turned there were apples…”
- Child of the Northern Spring by Persia Woolley
My best friend bought this book for me at a thrift store, saying it looked like something I would read. The cover is lovely, which is probably why it caught her eye: stylized but not cliche, mystical but not cheesy. Nevertheless my expectations were low. I loved the Arthur legends as a teenager, and I thought I would have heard of a book about Guinevere’s childhood, if it was any good. Not so. Persia Woolley puts Guinevere right in the center as a Cumbrian tribal princess, traveling all over their kingdom with her father. I had somehow never given much thought to Guinevere’s childhood at all, having no idea what to imagine for the life of a rural princess in early Britain. Embroidery? Because I had no pre-conceived notion, the story lacked that uneasy inner dissonance that often accompanies re-tellings of old stories, where you find yourself waiting for the author to make a wrong move.
The story starts out slow and stays pretty slow the whole book, but it’s an idyllic, mostly-interesting sort of slow, rich with historical details. Woolley’s bio lists her as a “scholar specializing in the dark ages,” and her research is very visible in the images of this book. Gwen spends a lot of time riding around on horseback, being tutored by a druid and scolded by a nurse, and getting into small amounts of trouble. She’s cast as a very emotional, empathetic sort of tomboy, fond of attention and pleasing others, spontaneous, daring, and a little arrogant. The story opens as Arthur is coming to claim her as a bride, and that is the frame story for a childhood told in long nostalgic flashbacks. Gradually the story of her youth approaches and meets the story of her approaching marriage, and the last third of the book is set in only one time period, after she meets Arthur. Woolley slowly unveils how each of Gwen’s childhood traits (hinted at through narrative but never directly pointed out) add something to the utopian kingdom that Arthur and Merlin want to build.
I felt guilty for overlooking Guinevere, for I’d spent more time pondering the origins of Morgan and Nimue than her. It was nice to see Gwen cast as more than a pretty face or an ivory-tower princess, and I’ll be interested to see how Woolley handles the love triangle in the later books of this trilogy. While the writing here was at times stiff or cheesy or boring, I think anyone interested in history would enjoy the insight into the daily lives of early Britains written by someone with both knowledge and imagination. The cultural tension is fascinating, as populations who have been Christianized by the Romans are living side by side with the pagan Celts, and both are being attacked by the Saxon raiders as well as subject to petty tribal raiding and infighting. Woolley simply drops this information quietly in the background, staying mostly focused on the life of a young girl who will one day be a queen.
A good read for rainy winter days, a trip to England, fans of Arthur stories, or those with an interest in Celts/the dark ages/impact of ancient Rome on modern Britain.
Am tagging as fantasy because Arthur stories are the ancestors of modern fantasy, even though there’s not really any magic in the story.