David Rose,
The Viking Sagas: Godiva
(Whitaker House, 2004)

Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry to save the townsfolk from a burdensome tax.

That -- and the fact that she gave her name to a line of fancy chocolates -- is pretty much the sum of what most people know about her. Godiva, or Godgifu, was certainly real -- the proof of her existence in 11th-century England is far more concrete than that of King Arthur and Robin Hood -- but the details of her legendary ride are vague at best. It's possible, historians say, that the notorious ride is entirely fictional, a tale that grew up around the lovely wife of Earl Leofric III of Mercia.

David Rose, in his first novel, plays fast and loose with the bare facts to create a Godiva who is beautiful, wise, bold, selflessly charitable, modest, loving and kind to children and animals. The story he tells, which is woven thoroughly into the story of Danish leader Canute's conquest and rule of England, is interesting -- it was, at times, hard to put down -- but it is not entirely satisfying.

A recurring problem is dialogue, which is too often stilted, overly expository and repetitive. Even more disappointing is Rose's portrayal of all Christians as good-hearted and fair, while pagans of the time (including Canute) are ruthless and vile. In the most extreme examples, both occurring early in the text, a Christian nun sings hymns while being burned at the stake for her defiance, while Canute proves unable to bear the sound of a victim reciting the Lord's Prayer in his defense. And, while legend states that Godiva made her famous ride to persuade her husband to lift a tax on Coventry, Rose has made it the evil Canute's decree.

Rose also links Godiva's ride to a distasteful pagan tradition, then goes to great lengths to make it acceptable to devout Christians of the time. The ride itself, which occurs in the last few pages of the book, sparks a dramatic, yet wholly unbelievable, religious conversion.

The novel has very little areas of grey; the good people (Christians) are always good, while the bad people (mostly pagans) are always bad. The one exception to this rule is a major character whose rapid shifts in mood become absurd.

Still, Rose has a pretty good handle on battle scenes, and his portrayal of Godiva is entertaining, if overly pious and pure. Despite the novel's many failings, I never felt the time spent reading it was onerous, and I was eager to see how he would resolve the situations he created.

While Godiva is certainly not the definitive work on this intriguing character, it is a pleasant reading experience for those who enjoy stories set in a tumultuous period in English history.

by Tom Knapp
4 February 2006

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