Written by John Enfield
Gazing upon this over 950 year old tapestry hither and thither, people have wondered how anyone would tell the story illustrated here (depicted in plant-dyed wool thread and captioned in Latin) in a way that would be more compelling to modern readers than, perhaps a dry, academic essay might be. We need wonder no longer, because ‘Bayeux’, a graphic novel by Tapestry Comics. In a way, a graphic novel is the perfect way to retell the story of William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson since the earliest known record of it is this tapestry, itself a graphic novel in a sense.
Tyler Button and the whole team are real history fans, particularly of this period in history, as evidenced by the detail and care they have lavished on this graphic novel. The trouble they went towards being accurate, even to the point of consulting with a historian who is an expert on the period and with the curator of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum was well worth it here. The few anachronisms are explained and given rationale in a nice little afterword at the end of the book. These sorts of changes are usually irksome, but such changes are entirely understandable in this instance.
I am a huge map enthusiast and enjoy poring over maps in books; even sometimes drawing a few myself. The overview map is nicely done. Cross-hatching shadows in the water along the coast are notable, along with the ‘old parchment’ look of it. The map shown above is also quite helpful since it lets the reader know where key locations of the story are, in relation to each other. It helps readers who might be unfamiliar with the story at hand. I was somewhat mystified as to whom the portraits on the cover and this map were supposed to be, but that is cleared up later on in the narrative.
The inconsistent use of languages is a bit vexing. It is rather understandable that they would use mostly modernized English and French since, as Button mentions in the afterword; they actually spoke versions of those languages back in the Eleventh Century that would be nearly unrecognizable to us today. It is however, a bit strange that characters whom have been established as French do not consistently speak that language, even to each other. It would have been preferable if the French characters either never spoke French, or spoke it almost all the time (with English translation captions below the panel.)
Gerry Kissell’s art style exudes high levels of detail, along with the play of shadow and light. Amin Amat and Lee Xopher have certainly studied the original tapestry because their color pallet is quite similar, with reds for the Normans and blues and purples for the English. The somewhat muted colors and the realistic detail are a bit reminiscent of the styles used in the Prince Valiant graphic novels.
One thing that makes it stand apart from many other such books is the amazing use of ‘camera’ angles. They do not stick to the standard side and occasional front views of the action. Sometimes, they show us bird’s eye, or castle wall top views of what is happening. It has a very dramatic effect that, along with the occasional use of change of focus, where either the foreground or background goes blurry depending on where they want to draw the eye, gives the book a cinematic feel. They also make effective use of panels to show the passage of time when characters are traveling or waiting for something to happen.
The only place where this cinematic style becomes questionable is when William draws a sword from its sheath and it goes ‘shinng!’. That’s a movie trick, used to make a weapon seem more dangerous than it otherwise might on the screen. That never actually happens when a real sword is drawn. The only way to get such a noise from a sword is to strike it with something metal or something much harder and rougher than it is. Scabbards are not lined with metal and are in fact lined with leather, sometimes even lamb’s wool, to protect the blade from striking anything that might dull it.
They are aware that most readers will not recognize the locations, so they do neat establishment shots with location captions that, with the help of the map at the beginning, keep us from getting lost.
A few of Phaedrus’ Fables such as ‘The Fox and the Crow’, which are variations on the perhaps more familiar ones by Aesop, are used to interesting effect in this book, to foreshadow coming events. It is a clever choice as it is something that was familiar to the characters in the story. They come to our storyteller, Earl Godwinson’s, mind as he’s travelling deeper into France, and trouble, showing that he doesn’t really trust the flattery of his rescuer, in the case of ‘The Fox and the Crow’.
Much of the real backstory of both William and Harold Godwinson is told in this book through narrative and dialogue in a way that helps inform readers of their motivations and attitudes without seeming like a burdensome amount of exposition. No doubt to minimize the exposition, the backstory of several characters is glossed over, for example Harold Hadrada of Norway and his somewhat complex claim to the throne through his relation to Cnut, King of Denmark who had been made King of England, thus forcing Edward into exile in Normandy prior to the beginning of this book.
It is good to see moments when Earl Godwinson’s narrative reminds us of the way people thought at that time, such as the serious nature of accepting weapons and armor from someone of authority (in this case, making Duke William into Godwinson’s overlord) and of swearing oaths, especially upon holy relics (which the story shows very vividly to mean grave danger, from both mortal and immortal sources, to any who would break them).
This story also makes effective use of chess as an analogy in the ‘second act’ if you will, after Godwinson returns to England. Many of the characters in the story are compared to chess pieces and they were, indeed, used that way in the actual events. You might say that stories like this are the real Game of Thrones, complete with betrayals and counter betrayals. No dragons, however. Malicious intent on all sides and poor judgement, arising partly from ego and partly from a lack of information, are the only monsters shown in this book.
Tallefer, William’s jester, is a likable fellow. I have not heard of him in other versions of this story, but he is an enjoyable character who provides a few nuggets of wisdom wrapped up in the trappings of jocularity as he himself is in his fool’s garb.
Tyler and his team did an admirable job of taking on such a difficult task; rendering a historical event into an accurate, yet entertaining graphic novel. I also admire him for his efforts in teaching history to a special education class. My wife taught in a special ed classroom for several years, so I can imagine the challenges he must have faced in trying to make history, a subject which some people find dull and boring, engaging for them. This graphic novel is certainly one way to do that. I am sure that you will enjoy it as much as I did.