Sunrise in the West

Edith Pargeter

First published 1974. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. Sunrise in the West, 186 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

Sunrise in the West is the first in Edith Pargeter's series of four novels telling the story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, the last Prince of independent Wales, and his mercurial brother David ap Griffith in thirteenth-century Wales. Many of the major characters are historical figures, notably Llewellyn and David, their mother Lady Senena and their two other brothers Owen Goch ("Owen the Red") and Rhodri, and King Henry III of England. The narrator Samson, clerk and secretary to Llewellyn, is fictional, as is his lover Cristin and her husband Godred. Sunrise in the West tells the first part of Llewellyn and Samson's story, from their birth in 1228 to Llewellyn's achievement of a (more or less) united Wales in 1258.

The result of a single night's liaison between one of Lady Senena's waiting-women and an unknown father, Samson is brought up by the monks of Aberdaron and educated as a clerk, learning to love books and music. When he is twelve, his life changes for ever when Lady Senena makes a bargain with the English King Henry III and Samson goes in her retinue to the English court in London. But far from buying her husband Griffith's freedom as she intended, Senena finds she has only succeeded in exchanging his Welsh prison for an English one. A tragedy at the Tower of London results in Samson returning to Wales, where Senena's second son Llewellyn has been carving out an independent princedom of Gwynedd in defiance of his mother. Samson becomes Llewellyn's clerk and confidante, placing him at the heart of the turmoil in Gwynedd as Llewellyn strives to unite the notoriously fractious Welsh lords under his leadership - thwarted at every turn by his brothers, who vie ruthlessly for power.

I read the Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet years ago, and am pleased to see it reissued. Edith Pargeter's writing style is deceptive. When I started re-reading Sunrise in the West it seemed excessively dry, especially the long and detailed opening account of Samson's conception and birth. I began wondering if my memories of the novel from the first time round were absurdly rose-tinted. However, the writing has a quiet skill that soon drew me back into the complex, colourful, contradictory world of medieval Wales. Samson, first as a child and then as Llewellyn's clerk, is more of an observer than a participant and recounts the twists and turns of politics and betrayal with a cool detachment that brings clarity to events that might otherwise be difficult to follow. It has to be said that Samson himself is not the most compelling of characters, especially in this first book of the quartet, and his star-crossed love for the noble Cristin is barely introduced. Centre stage belongs to Llewellyn and his charming and enigmatic youngest brother David, both fully developed as complex individuals. These two, and the fraught relationship between them, are the best features of Sunrise in the West (and I would say of the whole quartet).

Llewellyn is portrayed as a true hero, able, courageous, honourable, generous and intelligent, selflessly working for the good of his people. He is thoroughly admirable as well as likeable, though I occasionally found myself shaking my head over his apparently naïve determination to think the best of David's actions. David is an altogether more complex and contradictory proposition. Like Llewellyn, he is able, brave and intelligent. He is also handsome and charming, but even though he is only about twenty by the end of the novel a darker side to his character is already apparent. This is shown not only in his dealings with Llewellyn, but also when he rebukes Samson for not murdering a defenceless man. It seems David is torn between noble instincts and baser ones, between his love and respect for his brother and his own greed and ambition. He reminds me of a fallen angel, half wilfully destructive, half striving towards the light. "He is as deep as the sea of Enlli, and as hard to know," his mother Senena says of him when he is still a child, and that seems a fair summing. If Llewellyn is the hero of the quarter, David is its star.

There is some battlefield action, though much of the conflict between the brothers is emotional and verbal rather than physical. Landscape descriptions are a particular feature in Edith Pargeter's writing, and Sunrise in the West is no exception. The steely mountains of Snowdonia, the rolling sheep pastures, the salt marshes of the coast are all beautifully painted in words. There is no map, at least in the advance review copy, so readers who want to follow Llewellyn's campaigns and Samson's travels will need to have an atlas to hand. Also no author's note, which is a shame but probably reflects the period when the novel was originally written. A glossary of Welsh terms at the back of the book will be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the setting, though I found the terms clear enough to understand from context.

Please don't pay too much attention to the cover. I don't normally comment on cover design, but in this case a graphic of a woman in a low-cut frock with uncovered hair that might be anywhere from the Restoration to the Regency, and another of knights in plate armour that wouldn't be out of place at Bosworth Field (not to mention Rowan Atkinson's funny hat from Blackadder I) seem to me to be wildly out of context for thirteenth-century Wales. Similarly, I hope and expect that the large number of distracting OCR errors in the text of the advance review copy will be fixed in the final version.

First in a thoughtful and evocative quartet of novels telling the powerful story of Llewellyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales.