Skimming the other reviews for The Anglo-Saxon World, I see I’m just adding to the consensus but, you know, sometimes a consensus exists because something is true: this really is the best one-volume introduction to the Anglo-Saxon world around. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.
Hello! If you’ve just come via the link from Daily Science Fiction (or even if you’ve turned up by chance), you’re most welcome. ‘Ghosts of Mars’ was my fifth story in Daily SF – if you’d like to read something else by me, here’s the page with links to my published stories (there’s 33 of them! For a long time, I was averaging one story published per decade. Although there might be a story in the 330-year-old writer kept alive by the slowness of his publication stream, thankfully it’s no longer autobiographical.)
I’ve also had seven books published (seven! I still find that hard to believe), with my latest, a biography of Alfred the Great, out in a couple of weeks. Here’s the link to my books page; I’m particularly pleased with Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy that tells the story of the Dark Ages kingdom of Northumbria. No less a writer than Bernard Cornwell (yes, that Bernard Cornwell) called it ‘a splendid novel’, so if you like historical fiction you might want to take a look at it.
Finally, there’s lots more here on my blog, or you can follow me on Twitter @EdoardoAlbert or join me on Facebook. Thank you again for reading Ghosts of Mars’ and let me know what you thought of it – comments are welcome!
Of all the battles Alfred fought, we have the most information about the Battle of Ashdown, which suggests that it loomed large in the king’s own memories. Alfred was still young, in his early twenties, and Ashdown was remarkable in a number of ways: for its victory (and Anglo-Saxon victories were rare indeed at this time), for it being the first time where Alfred clearly takes command and plays a crucial role in the battle, and for the toll it took on the high command of the Great Heathen Army.
There are quite a few books on Alfred the Great around, and I’ve read most of them, so it’s unusual to find one that adds anything new – David Sturdy’s does. He does so by, first, providing a fresh translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, around which he weaves the story of Alfred and Wessex, and then through a forensic examination and interrogation of the charters that survive from the 9th century. This proves particularly fruitful, as the gradual movement of magnates and priests up the rigid hierarchy of signatories tells the reader much of the political and social system of the time. It also allows Sturdy to reconstruct, in more detail that one would expect, the lives of some of these individuals, presenting Bishop Werferth, for instance, as tutor to the young Alfred. The emphasis on the charters also provides a greater understanding of the actual workings of Alfred’s Wessex than other books I have read; the imagination is fired by the image of the magnates of the land lining up to place their hands, as witnesses, upon the charter document lying upon the altar, whether of a great church or a hastily erected field chapel set up on campaign. The book is further enlivened by Sturdy’s waspish comments on the judgements of other historians. All in all, while I wouldn’t recommend this as the first, or even the second, book to read on Alfred, it is excellent for shedding new light on the subject for a reader who already knows a good deal about the king.
Quite a lot! First, and I’m about half way through this and typing frantically with one eye on the approaching 16 May deadline, is a biography of Alfred the Great with Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist (she works with bones) who is leading the search for the mortal, but lost, remains of the king. There was a recent BBC 2 TV programme, The Search For Alfred The Great, hosted by the lustrous Neil Oliver, on the efforts to find King Alfred’s body, which can be seen in part here. This biography tells his life, and extraordinary achievements, and Dr Tucker will be writing about her search for his lost remains. The book is called In Search of Alfred the Great: The King, The Grave, The Legend and will be published by Amberley Publishing.
Then there’s volume two of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswald: Return of the King.
The sequel to Edwin: High King of Britain tells the story of Edwin’s nephew, Oswald, who with his family fled to the sea-spanning kingdom of Dal Riada when Edwin defeated and killed his father in battle when he was a child – in the Dark Ages, the personal really was political! JRR Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, took his inspiration for Aragorn, the dispossessed king who returns to claim his kingdom, from Oswald, and his story is crucial in the history of England. It was a time of great danger – no king of Northumbria before Oswald had managed to die a natural death – but also the sudden birth of great beauty, as if the precariousness of life made the preciousness of things made with consuming skill all the greater.
I’m aiming to have written Oswald: Return of the King by the end of October for publication next Easter. After that, I’ll be working on the final volume of The Northumbrian Thrones, Oswy: King of Kings, which is about Oswald’s half brother and successor as king of Northumbria (in a time before surnames, parents gave their children names with the same prefix to indicate they were siblings; thus Alfred the Great’s five elder brothers and his sister all had names beginning with Æthel. Presumably even his mum and dad were getting confused when they came to number seven and called him Ælfred instead). Volumes two and three of The Northumbrian Thrones will be published by Lion Fiction.
And to round things out, there’s The Light That Drowns The Stars: A Spiritual History of London. Now, I’m an unusual creature: someone living in London who was actually born here, and lived all my life in the city – to be precise, up and down a six-mile section of the Piccadilly Line. This is an exciting, making it up as I go along sort of book, where I’m writing a spiritual history of the town that is both the Great Wen, a pustule on the bottom of the country, and the inspiration of religious and spiritual movements ranging from Methodism to the Alpha Course. Also, London formed me, for ill and good, and that story, I realised, forms how I write its history and thus is part of its history too. It’s a thrilling, though, nerve wracking, book to write. It should be out later next year from Lion Hudson.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
A lot of Early Medieval historical fiction concentrates on the heroic aspects of the Heroic Age: shieldwalls and battles, with a side order of wenching and pillaging – sort of Rambo in the sixth century. I wanted to take this and build a bigger picture: the obscurity of the Dark Ages hides the birth of England, Scotland and Wales, the foundations and many of the lift shafts of everything that came afterwards. And, what is more, it was the battles that often settled the questions: would England expand and dominate the whole country? Answered, emphatically in the negative, in the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685. Would the Romano-Britons be able to drive the Anglo-Saxons from their land? Again, a question answered in blood at Mount Badon and Catterick and elsewhere, and the reason I am writing today in English, not Welsh.
So, with The Northumbrian Thrones, I wanted to widen the focus and look at the interplay of nation building and identity, and how they worked out in the crucial period when the pagan kings of the Anglo-Saxons decided where their religious, and cultural, future lay. The personal choices made by a few men and women then determined our national trajectory up until today.
This was all made considerably easier because I had already written a non-fiction book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria, with archaeologist and director of the Bamburgh Research Project, Paul Gething. Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom, and the many conversations I had with Paul, gave me almost everything I needed in terms of historical research and, in Paul, I had access to one of the finest, most incisive analysts of the Early Medieval period there is. We spent many hours discussing the finer points of shieldwall battle tactics and the etiquette of duelling, with Paul always able to bring to bear some archaeological nugget or fascinating ethnographic parallel.
Another difference is that I don’t simply write historical fiction. Edwin: High King of Britain is my first novel, but I’ve had five books published before it, four on history and one children’s book (the details are all on my books page). I’ve also had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, in genres ranging from science fiction and fantasy, through literary fiction to a stab at romance! There’s a page linking to my stories here.
3. Why do you write what you do?
Because someone paid me! First off, writing is a job. The strange thing is, for all the years I looked on writing as an art and vocation and all that sort of stuff, I got virtually nowhere, wrote very little, and had almost nothing published. Since I’ve switched to looking at it as a job, and started – against all my instincts – to push myself forward and market myself in all sorts of hideous ways, I’ve not had time to stop.
But it’s also fair to say I get very grumpy if I don’t write – my sons found the perfect image of what I’m like if I don’t write regularly: it’s not a pretty sight, is it.
4. How does your writing process work?
I get up at 5am, make a cup of tea, say my prayers, and start writing. Getting up at that time means I get two hours before the rest of the family are up, or at least 45 minutes if I have to leave to do some freelance editing at Time Out or Bella or one of the other places I do shifts at. I know many writers find reading about the actual writing process fascinating, but I avoid reading it and I’m not much cop at writing it. In the end, it comes down to putting one word after another. The main, perhaps only, thing I’ve learned is: trust the words. They’re tough little blighters, and will do all the heavy lifting for you, if you give them the chance.
Thank you to Justin Hill (author of Shieldwall and a very fine writer) for asking me to continue the tour. Read his answers here.
The blog tour has stopped recently at Matthew Harffy’s blog (author of the Bernicia Chronicles, which are also set in seventh-century Northumbria); AH Gray who, although condemned to the sunshine of Perth, Western Australia, finds her true home also by the cold grey waters of the North Sea – she is the author of the Northumbrian Saga.
The tour continues…
Christi Daugherty takes cool and brands it in her own inimitable style. The author of the best-selling Night School series of YA novels, she combines writing about the sort of teenagers I wish I’d been with an unerring nose for a good cup of coffee.
A former crime reporter, political writer and investigative journalist, CJ Daugherty wrote for several American newspapers and for Reuters before becoming a full-time novelist. Her young adult series, Night School, set in a boarding school for the children of the political elite, has been translated into 21 languages.
Julian Bell will warm the heart of English teachers throughout the world – after years teaching the subject all over the world, he is about to step into the page with his first novel, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
Julian Bell has worked as a teacher for twenty-seven years in London, Hong Kong, Spain, Kent and Hertfordshire. He is currently Head of English at the Godolphin and Latymer School in West London. He has written comedy scripts for BBC Radio 4 and a variety of stand-up comedians, and his poetry has been published in a number of magazines and has won several prizes. He has also been a restaurant and book reviewer, and has been commissioned by the Royal School of Church Music to write the lyrics of a Christmas carol. He writes a weekly column on London at www.lifelonglondoner.blogspot.com.
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, his novel set in Dublin in 1920 at the height of the Anglo-Irish war, is the first volume of a planned trilogy: the second volume, My Enemy’s Enemy, will be set in London in 1940 – 41 during the Blitz, and the third, Ourselves Alone, in Belfast, London and the Lake District in 1975. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
The Dark Ages were dark not for reason of savagery (although they were), or for ignorance (there were remarkable instances of learning amid the fighting), but for obscurity: after the legions’ withdrawal in AD 410, history… stops. For a century or so there is virtually nothing. The fifth century – the time of warfare between Britons, Angles and Saxons, the time of Arthur (if he existed) – is almost blank. The sixth and, more, the seventh centuries emerge a little into the light, with most of the illumination coming from Bede’s extraordinary – truly extraordinary in the context – Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And that very history might have permanently brought English history back from the silence of archaeology, for the Christian Church required men and women who could read and write to carry out its services, if not for the irruption of another group of raiders and invaders, very like the Angles and the Saxons: the Vikings.
The fact that history does not go completely silent again is due in no small part to the works contained in this crucial book: the biography of Alfred the Great, by Asser, and extracts from some of the works the king himself commissioned and, in some cases, translated. For Alfred, almost uniquely among war chiefs, saw fighting as the lesser part of the task of kingship. What he set his mind and his kingdom to was nothing less than cultural renewal, a re-establishment of the learning that had swiftly become the hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only to decline to almost nothing before the ferocity of the Viking attack. This wonderful edition contains Asser’s contemporary biography of Alfred (the only such document we have from the period), and extremely valuable, and thorough, editorial notes on every text from noted scholars Michel Lapidge and Simon Keynes; the notes on the provenance and work that went into each text by generations of scholars are particularly valuable. An indispensable book for anyone interested in the Anglo-Saxon period.
On the never rains but it pours principle, to add to the contracts for the next two volumes of The Northumbrian Thrones, signed yesterday, I’ve also just put my signature to a contract with Amberley Publishing to write a biography of Alfred the Great! This is particularly exciting because I’ll be writing the book with Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist at the centre of the research efforts to locate and identify Alfred’s remains, as shown in the recent BBC2 programme, The Search for Alfred the Great (it’s no longer on iPlayer, but a search on YouTube might just find the whole programme).