The Green Branch

by Edith Pargeter

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Warner Futura, 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0474-2. Sequel to The Heaven Tree (Review).

Edith Pargeter also writes as Ellis Peters.

The Green Branch is set in Wales and the Welsh Marches in 1228-1231, when Henry III was King of England and Llewellyn ap Iorwerth (also known as Llewellyn Fawr, or Llewellyn the Great) ruled Gwynedd and most of the rest of Wales. The central characters are fictional. Historical figures including Llewellyn, his Norman wife Joan, their son David and the Norman lord William de Breos play significant secondary roles.

The novel continues the story of the master-mason Harry Talvace and his patron Ralf Isambard that was begun in The Heaven Tree.

Harry Talvace the younger, born within a few days of his father’s death, has been raised at the court of Llewellyn Fawr in Gwynedd. His father was the Harry Talvace of The Heaven Tree, master mason and creator of a magnificent church under Isambard’s patronage, who was brutally slain on Isambard’s orders over a point of honour. The younger Harry harbours a compulsive desire for blood-vengeance against Isambard, and worships both Llewellyn Fawr and Llewellyn’s wife Joan. When Harry becomes unwittingly embroiled in the personal and political fallout resulting from Joan’s extramarital affair, he sets off to challenge Isambard in a confused attempt to regain what he sees as his lost honour.

As with The Heaven Tree, the pace of the book is unhurried and the language is rich and evocative. The characters are complex and multifaceted; Harry, ardent, impulsive, adolescent, gradually learning that the world is not centred on him; William de Breos with his charm and vivacity; Joan facing middle age and making a doomed bid to cling to her lost youth. Isambard is perhaps the most complex, still consumed by his hatred for the elder Harry Talvace and taking out his malice on the son with terrifying psychological refinement.

Real historical figures mingle with the fictional characters and events to a far greater extent than in The Heaven Tree. Harry’s actions are inextricably bound up with the disaster of Joan’s adultery and with Llewellyn’s wars. As far as I can tell, the fictional events fit into the gaps between the documented ones, and the fictional characters are influenced by the historical figures rather than the other way round. So, for example, it is a tongue-lashing from Llewellyn that precipitates Harry’s ill-fated attempt at revenge, but I noticed no example where Harry’s actions significantly influenced Llewellyn’s behaviour. I don’t have a problem with the mingling of real and fictional characters in these circumstances, but readers who do may like to take note. However, I did find that the two storylines - Llewellyn’s marriage and Harry’s conflict with Isambard - each distracted me from the other. Although Harry’s attempt to avenge his father is the central plot, I found Joan and Llewellyn at least as interesting and was frustrated to leave them for hundreds of pages*. (This is a personal preference and one I often encounter with novels that feature both real and fictional characters; for me, the real characters often overshadow the fictional, even if they are supposed to be secondary).

I found the plot a little disappointing. This may reflect the novel’s position as the second in a trilogy. Although the back story is woven in, I think it would be hard to comprehend the depth of Isambard’s malice towards the two Harry Talvaces without having read The Heaven Tree. Moreover, the end makes no pretence of ending the story and is clearly only a pause. So The Green Branch is very much the middle book of a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. Easily frustrated readers would be well advised to read it in its place, and particularly to have the concluding volume (The Scarlet Seed) to hand before starting this one.


*Readers who share my interest may like to know that the story of Joan and Llewellyn is told in much greater detail, mainly from Joan’s point of view, in Sharon Kay Penman’s novel Here Be Dragons.