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Gytha and Vladimir: A Medieval Love Story - an Editorial Review of "Wild Field"

Author Bio:

Johnny Stonborough lives in London with his beautiful American wife Jane. Wild Field: an 11th Century Love Story has already been short listed as a 'must read' in two top US magazines Du Jour (winter 2021 edition) and Town and Country (Dec 2020 edition). He is now working on a second love story, drawn from his fascination with the untold lives of great women in medieval Europe.

Interesting fact: His great uncle was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

You can chat to him on, and find him on Instagram @johnny_stonborough

Book Blurb:

From the life of Gytha of Wessex and her marriage to Prince Vladimir

This untold 11th century love story, plucked from the mosaic of English medieval history, is about a young woman’s triumph in a man’s world. Gytha is 13 years old when her father King Harold of England dies at the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD. Her adored mother Edith ‘Swan-neck’, crazed with grief, is lost to her. She and her brothers go on the run from William, the Conqueror. In this lyrical tale of true love and real evil, Gytha first travels west to Exeter, where she is to marry a painted Celt Prince. She flees to Denmark. But with no dowry, no parents and no country to call home, she is bartered to a wicked bride-trader and taken to the farthest edge of Christendom to wed Vladimir, a prince of Rus; only to find he is promised to another girl. You will love Wulfwyn, Pig-Boy and the scented Swetesot, fear and admire the handsome river prince Vladimir, hate Oleg and the Cold Trader and all those with dark hearts who seek to harm Gytha in the Wild Field.

‘Behold the Wild Field, where the sky neither ends nor the earth begins, where a million flowers bloom and riders steer by heaven’s unweary stars’

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Editorial Review:

Of late it has been a pastime for amateur devotees of the period and serious writers alike to turn their gaze upon the fate of the family of King Harold after the disaster of the Battle of Hastings and the toppling forever of the Anglo Saxon Kingdom by the Norman Conquest. Recently there have indeed been a number of fine and engrossing works of Historical fiction speculating upon the subject, the writings of Carol McGrat immediately springs to mind. Here, with ''Wild Field'' is a further addition to this historical quest. In truth, the historical evidence is sparse, to be sure. But through the fog of ten centuries there are glimmers of facts to be found and seized upon. The author, Johnny Stonborough, along with a few other writers, has built what is known or can be deduced into a meaningful, realistic and believable narrative. These, surely, are the twin holy grails of a good Historical Novel - the search for historical veracity and, where the facts are known, to relate them in a meaningful way. And where these facts are missing, to skilfully weave a story relying on the individual's imagination to depict a story.

This, largely speaking, has been Johnny Stonborough's achievement with ''Wild Field''. In a recent interview he remarked: ''It is hard to distil fact from fiction. The historical figures are mine to shape. I stuff the gaps between them with my actions, words, thoughts, likes and hates.'' He also quotes Marx in describing historical figures acting''not of their own free will, but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they [were] confronted.'” So, adding the relative scarcity of actual facts to an impressive imagination and the ability to shape facts into a highly readable narrative, we are presented with a lengthy epic with, at its centre, the heroic figure of Gytha, the daughter of the slain King Harold Godwinson. The book positively bristles with authentic detail [much of it doubtless noted and stored in the writer's own travels and research to Denmark, Russia and Ukraine] and contains all the necessary ingredients of a Medieval epic; romance, princesses in distress, battles, treachery and intrigue. There are, in this long book, extended and sustained passages of lyrical beauty carefully observed. Here the writer, an Englishman, himself born in Gytha's Wessex, describes the early Spring of 1067 as Gytha and her immediate family and devoted supporters flee before the destructive forces of William the Conqueror arrive:''The days grew longer. Dabs of colour painted the hills and the town. Wisps of white hawthorn blossom speckled black branches. Then the willow on the riverbank turned from russet to the palest green almost overnight. In the Orchard, birds sang furiously.''

Poor young Gytha, just thirteen-years-old and in the company of her three brothers, her Aunt, her truly formidable Danish grandmother and what remains of the family treasure, is chivied and chased all the way to the siege of Exeter, then to the marsh refuge of Athelney, to the lonely and barren island of Flatholm, where - and not for the first time - they are starved; and then, beyond, Gytha gains understanding and courage, while experiencing the full extremes of love and hate. There follows a very long sequence of events indeed. No one is happy with their new life in Denmark, where the new wife of the King is the widow of the mighty Harold Hardraada of Norway, killed in battle at Stamford Bridge by Gytha's own father. There is no love lost in the court of the Danes and Gytha finds herself apparently claimed as the new betrothed bride to the mysterious Prince Vladimir in distant Smolensk, deep in foreign and alien lands. [Readers will here find the map included in the book invaluable and a good basis for their own subsequent research]. The intention is that her two brothers, for Magnus, the youngest brother, is dead, will find fame and fortune as mighty warriors there. They are entrusted into the care of a slave trader, the deeply unpleasant and odious Zhiznomir from Kiiv. There follows a lengthy journey to meet Vladimir at Smolensk. The journey is full of adventure, appalling weather and hardship, tragedy and triumph. The writer's keen eye for topography and human activity does not desert him, perhaps drawn from his own experiences:

''They rowed upriver against the stream, the forest all about live.Some of the little boats bearing wax, furs, honey and slaves, were only tree trunks with planking on the side. In places, the dark pines withdrew; marsh was everywhere and owls flew on whisper wings low across the reeds. Wolves howled in the night. But sometimes, where the ground was higher, alder and unblemished birch stood in flowered glades, sunlight twinkling through their quivering leaves.........''

When, at last, the much put upon English party with their 'hoard' finally catch up with Gyth's intended bridegroom, the Prince Vladimir, 'the Lone Warrior', the Duke of Smolensk, he at least seems to possess all the necessary adjectives befitting a man of such stature and importance. But, alas, the course of love ne'er runs smooth. The Duke's cousin, Prince Oleg, is a constant bitter enemy and it transpires that the Prince Vladimir is betrothed to another, the girl Kilikia, daughter of the leader of powerful allies against all of Vladimir's many enemies. Oleg, who remains an implacable enemy to the very end, says that there is no betrothal and, more than that, Gytha is no virgin. There follows a period of bitter struggle for Gytha. Her brother become a hopeless drunk, it is the young English Princess who emerges as a strong, decisive and resolute English 'shield maiden' who will ultimately emerge as the natural leader of her English community of followers, now much denuded in number. Through all the terrible perils and adversities that now beset her she wins through, much strengthened by the appearance of the beautiful and mysterious Swetesot, who she had last seen what seems years ago at the siege of Exeter in England. As Gytha, after all her troubles and wandering, enters the majestic city of Kiiv to enter into the rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a final recognised Holy Union with Count Vladimir, we finally reach the end of this very lengthy book, certain in the knowledge that more adventures must lie ahead. And there , beyond Kiev, lies the limitless horizon, the land of the 'Wild Field', the home of her dear friend Swetesot who, long ago and back in England, had vividly described the mighty city to her:

''There is a mighty Church above the river with twelve golden domes which shine as bright as twelve suns in the day. The great river is like your sea, with the shore far distant and the Wild Field beyond. In the spring, countless boats bringing blond giants from the Northland who ride the snow melt with the harvest of collared grinding-slaves, furs, warm amber-stone with living flies within, and sweet honey from the endless forest. And from the scorching sun land of the south, come brown men on camels tied head to tail led by turbaned traders with gold, silks, perfume and spices for the Princes and their jewelled wives. And in winter,, when the snow is deep enough to lose a horse and the great river freezes thick, the poor people must fish through ice-holes and drink firewater to stay warm.''

It has been a very long and very difficult journey indeed for Gytha and for the readers of this book to arrive finally at this place and we are left with the impression that, perhaps, a further story lies ahead on the limitless horizon beyond, in the Wild Field itself which Swetesot described; talking of her birthright and of her homeland:

''My father has one thousand hunting hawks, where sky neither ends nor earth begins. Where a million flowers bloom and riders steer by Heaven's unweary stars. Where numberless pink flamingos rise as one from white salt lakes, where giant aurochs graze and tear on antelopes, a land where wild partridges leap skyward to tell of danger before any man can know it. My father is the mightiest Khan with a hundred wives, one thousand camels and ten thousand horses.''

The writer is certainly worthy of praise for this book, taking as he does the scantiest of available facts. He has gathered these together and then deployed them meticulously to weave out of them a long and vividly portrayed romance of adventure: the story of the lost children of Harold, last king of the English.


“Wild Field” by Johnny Stonborough receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company

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