The Funeral That Wasn’t

Duke of Normandy

William, Duke of Normandy


Novel-writing is an extended exercise in creative decision making. You start out with a blank page or screen, like a block of stone that a sculptor has yet to touch. And just as that sculptor looks at his block, pondering where to place his chisel and hammer for the first blow, so a writer considers the story that he or she wishes to tell and wonders where it should start and with whom.

I find that the first quarter of any book I write takes almost as long to complete as the following three quarters combined. So many ideas are tried and discarded, so many characters are auditioned for a role in the narrative, but don’t quite make the grade – or in a few rare but thrilling cases – seem so alive that they demand much more of a presence. As this sketching process goes on little fragments of story are created and discarded, and to read them again always makes me wonder: what would have happened if I had taken this fork in the road?

Here, for example is the start of what might have been a sequence of scenes about the successors to Rollo the Strider, the founder and first Duke of Normandy; the seed from which a mighty dynasty grew. It’s just a few sentences, but it conjures up images of the pagan Viking roots of Normandy’s rulers and reminds on that they were not French but, as the name of their duchy says, ‘Norse-men’.

The legends tell that when Rollo the Strider neared the end of his days and looked into the fiery furnace to which he was surely heading he abandoned the Christianity he had acquired along with his fiefdom in Normandy and returned to the pagan religion of his youth. Some say his body was burned in one of the longboats in which he and his men had sailed up the rivers of northern France, savaging everything in their path. Others talk of a return to the distant past, to the rituals of Borum Eshoj and the Sacrifice of Nine – nine cats, nine dogs, nine cattle, nine horses and finally nine men – as he sought to appease the primitive gods of the distant North.

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