Monday, September 26, 2016

Bookish Banter: The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

I hate book clubs. I've tried quite a few, but I've yet to find one I really fit into and I find that incredibly frustrating as someone who loves talking about books. It's not something I generally think about, but after stumbling over another list of pre-written discussion questions, I found myself wondering why I shouldn't work through them on my own. I'm a book blogger aren't I?Putting my ideas out there is what I do!

For the record, Bookish Banter is not a regular post here at Flashlight Commentary. Not every book has questions and I don't have the time to sort titles that do to the top of my TBR, but as a semi-regular event I thought it'd be fun to post my two cents when the opportunity presents itself. 

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  Try to conceal your shock, but this post contains SPOILERS. Proceed at your own risk.

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Emma arrives in England as a shy thirteen-year-old girl, her marriage arranged to a man she has never met and who is much older than herself. She is obviously nervous but remembers her mother’s parting words: “No matter how ill, how frightened, or how angry you might be, child, censure your feelings. Smile. Hold your chin high, show only pride, nothing else. Fear and tears are to be kept private. You are to be crowned and anointed Queen of England. The wife and mother of Kings. Remember that”. Was this good advice from Emma’s mother? How does it help Emma to deal with her new husband?
I think that it solid advice for a woman who will be living her life on display, but I think it a hard message for a thirteen-year-old girl with no real understanding of her role and responsibilities. I think the advice worked in the long run, but it took years for the lesson to settle as I didn’t see it materialize in Emma’s actions until the conception of her first child. 

In Saxon times it was perfectly acceptable for a King to take a “handfast” wife, setting her aside for a different woman if it so pleased him. Any sons of such a union were called æthling—“king worthy”—and each had a chance of becoming the next King if elected by the Council. Emma had attempted to comprehend Æthelred’s previous marriages and England’s laws and customs, but in Normandy the eldest legitimate son inherited everything, and the younger ones receiving nothing. How does the difference in English and Norman ways affect Emma’s actions?
This is an interesting question as she treats it differently. She naturally wants her children to inherit before Æthelred’s older sons, but she sets her boys by Æthelred aside in favor of the boy she bore Cnut. Ultimately I don’t think Emma cares much for æthling status as it only applies when and how she wants it to. 

At her coronation Emma begins to realise what it means to become a Queen. For the first time in her life she is treated with respect—even her arrogant brother has to bow to her. Would you enjoy being in this position as a ruler? What would you see as the benefits or downfalls of being such a visible leader?
No, I’d detest living in the public eye. It is a necessary evil for those in power and there are obvious material benefits, but there are a million ways to interpret any action and I’d struggle with the idea that something as meaningless as who I sat next to for lunch could have political connotations. 

Emma is called Ælfgifu during the ceremony; later, she realises she is to be officially known by this other name and she objects. Everything else has been taken from her, and all she has is her pride and her name. What things do you hold dear that you would never let go of?
Interesting question and one I can't really answer. The things I take pride in are routinely attributed to others so it was easy to empathize with Emma, but I'd be hard pressed to identify something that hasn't been diminished by the insinuations and arrogance of others.

“…Emma smiled at Pallig, marveling at how a man could possibly be so superbly handsome”. Does Emma have a crush on Pallig? How does Pallig handle Emma’s growing affections for him?
Emma obviously has a crush on Pallig which is awkward considering the circumstances, but I appreciated how he tried to show her kindness regardless. His gentle guidance is endearing and I think it made him one of the strongest members of the novel’s cast. 

With Swein Forkbeard and the Danish Vikings expected to come raiding again, we see that Æthelred is not a competent King, and we begin to understand why his eldest son is always arguing with him. Emma thinks Æthelred may be a coward. Do you agree with her? Is some of the weakness of his rule caused by unreliable advisers? Who would make a better King?
Yes and no. Hollick chose to tell at least one scene from Æthelred’s point of view and that moment made it difficult to hate him outright. I’m not excusing his actions, there are moments when he is completely selfish and his actions are entirely inexcusable, but I found him difficult to pigeonhole after being privy to the inner workings of his mind. He's easily influenced and that speaks to certain weaknesses, but it also leaves him open to the influence of poor advisement. As to who would make a better king, I feel there were a handful of characters who were capable of making better decisions, but their individual interests concern me and I don't think they'd be able to put those interests aside to effective rule in Æthelred’s place.

Christianity was a relatively young religion in the early eleventh century, and many people, especially the Vikings, were still pagan. How much was either faith ruled by superstition? Later in the book, Archbishop Wulfstan orders specific days of prayers and fasting, believing the misfortune of England to be caused by God’s disapproval at the turn of the century. Is this superstition? How do some of these superstitions still manifest today? (Think how everyone thought the world was going to end at the year 2000.)
Likening faith to superstition is dangerous ground, but I think it’s important to understand that both are very real to those who subscribe to them which makes speculation on either a moot point.

Both swans and powerful women can be very dangerous. When Emma chases a swan away with a stick, is she being brave or foolish? When she later stands up to Lady Godegifa, is she being brave or foolish? Should Emma have challenged her sooner?
Taking on a wild animal when you’ve no skill is foolish, but I thought Emma standing up against Lady Godegifa was necessary. Emma needed to establish herself and allowing Lady Godegifa free reign would have lasting consequences Emma could not afford to incur.

How must Emma feel when Pallig is killed? Though the scene was imagined, the murders and destruction in Oxford were factual. Do you think people in the past felt as shocked and traumatised as we do today at acts of terrorism? Or were they more used to violence and death? 
I think death is universal and that we are each impacted by it in different way. I think people in the eleventh century would have been more used to such violent concepts, but I don’t they’d have been immune to the shock or trauma of witnessing that kind of carnage.

Just before the St. Brice’s Day Massacre at Oxford, young Godwine is helping Edmund find Athelstan. Godwine will become a respected Earl as an adult. Does his initiative with the tavern keeper demonstrate an astuteness for handling people and desperate situations? Where else does he show this? 
I was actually frustrated with this scene. I understand where Godwine ends up historically and I think this scene was written to compliment his legacy, but as a reader, I’d have much preferred witnessing the moments that shaped his character and honed his skills as opposed to simply seeing a younger version of a man who was apparently born ready for his role.

What sort of man was Athelstan? We see him in many different moods: he apparently despises Emma yet he takes care of her at Oxford, and he sees the amusing side of her outburst when he fetches her from the nunnery. In other circumstances do you think he could have been friends with Emma?
Athelstan was actually one of my favorite characters. In many ways he’s a walking contradiction and I think that has a lot to do with his personal identity. For much of his life his position as eldest son was unquestioned, but when he is set aside through no real fault of his own, he flounders. Emma is the easy target for his frustration, but I think he hates what she represents more than he does her person and I feel that they’d have gotten on much better if circumstances had been different.

During the time this story takes place, childbirth was extremely dangerous for women. Emma’s ordeal when giving birth to Edward was long and very difficult. Given the way Edward was conceived and the pain of his birth, can you blame Emma for not wanting anything to do with him? How was the situation different with her second pregnancy and the birth of her daughter? Do we have any modern superstitions connected with childbirth? 
I had mixed feelings here and the situation was made worse by Emma’s lack of attachment to her children. Edward is a hard case considering the circumstances of his conception, but Goda was not conceived in violence and Emma isn't shown to be a particularly hands on parent in her case either. In the end, I don't think Emma is much of a mother one way or the other and her failings have nothing to do with the circumstances under which her children were brought into the world.

As Emma matures, she gains courage and self-assurance. What were some of the particular turning points for Emma when she demonstrated her new maturity?  
This is a hard question as there are large gaps in the timeline of Emma’s life and much of her development occurs ‘off screen’. There were several moments where I felt her character had changed, but I had difficulty wrapping my head around them as they seemed to come out of nowhere.

There is a lot of treachery between the elders and Earls—Alfhelm is murdered by Eadric Streona, for example, and others die in unpleasant ways because of lies and political machinations. Rarely do modern-day politicians actually get murdered in our society, but have political attitudes and motivations really changed? Is there just as much squabbling and treachery in bidding for power nowadays? 
Two words: Taco Trucks.

Defending Winchester from Swein Forkbeard, who marches past with his army, a Dane and Emma exchange words. This is Cnut and Emma’s first sighting of each other. Although unrecognized, do you think this was love at first sight? How does this compare to other later scenes where they meet—as Emma enters the Danish camp just before the Archbishop is murdered, and when she boldly walks into Cnut’s tent and suggests he takes her as his wife?
I don’t think Emma is capable of love at first sight. Call me crazy, but I think her first marriage left her jaded and wary which makes instant attraction an outright impossibility. Her later actions support this theory as her suggestion is politically motivated.

Edward grows up a petulant boy. He resents his younger brother and his mother, and things do not change as he grows older and is exiled in Normandy. Could things have been different if Emma had not been so indifferent toward him? Would Edward have been happier if he had been allowed to take his vows as a monk? 
Hollick's Emma is not an attentive mother so speculation on her indifference toward Edward in particular is an irrelevant question. That said, I do feel that entering the monastery would have given Edward the structure, support, and purpose he craved.

Cnut was disturbed by the violent death of the old Archbishop, yet he resisted any interest in Christianity. He converted after the sudden death of his father. Do you think he would have become Christian if his father had not died, or would he have remained stubbornly pagan? Before he became King, Cnut was not a very nice person. What do you think was most influential in changing him: becoming Christian, becoming King, or having Emma as his wife? 
I don’t think Cnut’s faith was ever a wholly spiritual question. Conversion had political connotations and I think it'd be foolish to ignore the benefits of publicly claiming an alliance with the church.

Cnut took Ælgifu of Northampton as a handfast wife and she gave him two sons, but despite her status she was a jealous, spiteful woman. Should Cnut have handled her differently both before and after he married Emma?  
Let’s be honest, Cnut has a type and that type is 'difficult'. Ælgifu is a jealous harpy and Emma isn’t exactly a walk in the park. He made a hard bed in seeking to keep both and he deserved the headaches incurred by lying in it.

With Edmund dead and England about to fall to Cnut and the Danes, Emma had a choice of fleeing into exile or staying to make a bargain with Cnut. By this time, she was proud of her position as Queen, and she regarded England as her realm. Did she do the right thing to abandon her sons—who would have been killed had they stayed in England—or should she have gone with them and forgotten England and her crown? What should be more important to a ruler—the realm and its people, or family? 
Hollick's Emma does not actively rule her people so I justified her staying as a matter of pride above duty. I also understood flight to Normandy to be a surrender of her individual freedom so it'd be lunacy to say that remaining in England was not personally beneficial to her. When push comes to shove, this was not a sacrificial or selfless decision. Going with her children would have been both, but staying in England to retain her freedom while sending her children to fend for themselves under the rule of a brother she doesn't trust is not about the realm, its people, or her family.

As a woman, and as wife to Cnut and the mother of one of his sons, Emma has become a very strong and powerful woman. It took courage to climb the cliffs at Green Man Bay holding a baby in her teeth for part of the way. Did you admire her for this act? The author based this scene on an actual event when her own grandmother climbed the cliffs with her father when he was a baby. Does the fact that this scene is based on a true story make it more dramatic to you as a reader? 
I don’t mean to be insensitive, I think it’s a really cool story, but I didn’t think this scene fit the book. It showed a lot of character, but the character in question didn’t feel authentic to Hollick's interpretation of Emma. It felt out of place and I thought that odd until discovering it was based on the author's grandmother. The disparity suddenly made sense and while I admire the sentiment I can’t help feeling the scene was forced into the narrative for personal reason reasons and not substantiated by character or plot development.

The boy Harthacnut is somewhat spoilt by Emma. Why does she dote on him so much?  
Somewhat is a bit of an understatement. Harthacnut is spoilt, plain and simple. Emma dotes on the idea of him and allows the boy free reign, but there are so few scenes of her actually interacting with him that it’s hard to believe she has genuine affection for him. Like most things, I got the impression that Emma attached herself to the child because he solidified her position as queen. Cnut is her current card and Harthacnut is her next play and she'll support both until a better offer comes along.

Do you think Harthacnut deliberately meant for Ragnhilda to drown? Does he ever regret her death? 
I don’t think Harthacnut meant Ragnhilda to drown, but I don’t think he ever truly regrets the event as he wasn't attached to his half-sister and doesn't feel he was in any way at fault in her passing.

Much later, Harthacnut proves to be of little use to Emma because he remains in Denmark too long. Was this really Cnut’s fault? Should he have left the boy in England, not taken him to Denmark? Why do you think Cnut did this? And why did Harthacnut not want to return to England?
I think removing Harthacnut from Emma was a good thing. The boy seems to benefit from the separation and learn something of the world as a result. The move left him indifferent toward England and had obvious political consequences, but I don’t think he’d have fared well if he’d been allowed to remain under his mother's thumb.

The story of Cnut holding the tide back is a famous legend. Have you heard it before? Do you think the version presented in the book is more likely to have been what happened? Do you suspect that there are mundane explanations for many of the legends in history? 
Believe it or not, I had not heard the story before, but I do believe that most legends are exaggerated. Lady Godiva is a great example and it’s easy to imagine how small embellishments here and there grow over time.

After Cnut dies so unexpectedly, England is in chaos. In desperation, Emma turns to her eldest son, Edward. Was she wise to do this? Would Edward have made an effective king at this time? Earl Godwine is dismayed at her actions; do you think he intended to get Alfred out of England as quickly as possible, or would he have just handed him over to Harold Harefoot to secure his own position?
I thought Emma turning to Edward hilarious. What reason had he to answer her call and if he did, what reason had she to suppose he’d offer her loyalty? As to Godwine, I felt his true loyalty was to himself and whoever could offer him security and influence. As such I’m of the belief that he’d have handed Alfred to Harold.

Tragically, everything collapses around Emma at the end of the novel. She has had to fight for survival almost her entire life. Do you admire her, or do you think she should have done some things differently? What things and why?
Forgive me for saying so, but I did not admire Emma. I’ve read other interpretations where I appreciated more of her character, but Hollick's characterization struck me as selfish and fractured. She had moments, but I didn’t understand where they came from and thought she should have done quite a few things differently. In particular, I wish she’d have taken more interest both her children and stepchildren. Can you imagine what sort of influence she’d have held if she’d managed to ingratiate herself to Athelstan? Could the power struggle have been averted if she’d made it a priority to smooth ruffled feathers? She had two daughters, what sort of influence might she have had if she’d invested herself in their upbringing? What would have happened if she’d convinced Cnut to foster her elder sons and allow them the enter the church? Would it have been possible for her to undermine Ælgifu if she convinced Cnut to allow her to foster the boys at court? Pardon the assumption, but I think there was a lot of untapped potential here and I think Emma shortsighted in not taking advantage of it.

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Have you read this book? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!

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