Book review: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

 

The Vicar of Wakefield
The Vicar of Wakefield

Fascinating. Quite fascinating. I’m not sure what Oliver Goldsmith would have made of Mr Spock, but the eponymous Vicar of Wakefield could almost be an 18th-century take on the Vulcan’s position, aboard the Enterprise, of observer and actor in human dramas, but with sturdy Anglican morality (a tautology in the 18th century but not now) taking the place of an alien devotion to logic. Generations of readers and critics have been unable to decide if Goldsmith means the vicar to be example or exemplar; both, I think. He shares something of Captain Mainwaring’s (from Dad’s Army) pomposity, yet also his essential goodness – at the end, when all comes right for the vicar and his tribulations are resolved amid a torrent of coincidences the reader is right there beside him, rejoicing in his deliverance. So, above all else, the vicar is a human being: composed of contrasting traits, some good, some bad, others annoying or endearing, and that is the secret of the novel’s enduring success.

Book review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Something Wicked This Way Comes

It’s a strange facet of its own success, but ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ has almost become a cliche; a travelling carnival calls into a sleepy plains town and, of course, the ringmaster will be a sinister, threatening figure, promising gifts to the unwary that come at the cost of something much greater; there will be freaks, unfortunate, tortured individuals offered up to the ridicule of the rubes; and there will be two town boys, living on the cusp of puberty, running semi-wild and drawn to the carnival as irresistibly as, well, as boys to a travelling show.

Bradbury’s original is still wonderful, although the writer’s word painting grows a little tedious sometimes; I presume he is a fan of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as he imports many of Hopkins’ techniques into his prose, but where alliterative word runs work beautifully in the concentrated explosion of the Windhover, they become repetitive through 250 pages of prose. A writer can become too intoxicated by words. But the strength of the story and the imagery carried me through, with a little skimming here and there, to the end.

Book review: Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Abels

Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England
Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England

A clear and thorough examination of, well, lordship and military obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. Abels is particularly good on the changes brought about by the rise of bookland, that is, land that was given by hereditary right, first to the Church and then to the king’s retainers, and way the kings of Mercia and then Wessex responded by redefining the three common burdens of service, fortifications, bridge maintenance and military service, into the Alfredian system of burhs with garrisons and a standing, mobile army.

An extra commendation for this book having the longest section of footnotes I’ve ever encountered; the text runs from page 1 to 187, the footnotes from 204 to 282! Add in the other appendices, bibliography and index, and there’s an additional 126 pages of text. That’s what I call a proper academic book! But Abels writes well too, so don’t be put off if you’re interested in this, rather specialised, subject.

Book review: Godric by Frederick Buechner

Godric by Frederick Buechner
Godric by Frederick Buechner

I very rarely give a book five stars; Godric deserves it. This short book contains some of the most intensely poetic language I’ve ever read in a novel, but it’s poetry used in service of the story, never in the flashy, look-at-me manner that disfigures self-consciously clever novels. Buechner evokes, mimics and recreates the language and rhythms of the medieval period without ever sacrificing readibility. The protatgonist, St Godric, tells his story from beginning to end, and end to beginning, each telling coming to a natural, beautifully wrought conclusion at the climax of the book. Godric is a saint, but no plaster statue; rather, he is a cantankerous, decrepit old man, alive with fire.

The novel succeeds in bringing to life a man and a spirituality that is almost completely out of step with modern sensibilities: Godric is intensely ascetic, practises mortifications of the flesh including walking barefoot for half a century, immersion in bone-cold water, physical chastisement – all the things we find most incomprehensible nowadays – and yet Buechner makes it all completely natural and matter of fact. Of course Godric would do this. He almost makes me want to do it too, to waken the tepid embers of my own faith. After all, his privations are such small things in comparison to what he sees. This is a world of miracles, but the miraculous is everyday and thus as precious and simple as a new-born’s cry or the first spring flush. In some ways it is impossible to enter into another era, but with Godric, Frederick Buechner has come as close as anyone I’ve read.

Since I’m writing about two earlier, more martial Anglo-Saxon saints, St Edwin (Edwin: High King of Britain is just out from Lion Hudson) and St Oswald (Oswald: Return of the King will be published next Easter), I’ve found Buechner’s approach particularly fascinating. Edwin and Oswald were warriors rather than monks, but the ascetic, miraculous, natural brand of Godric’s Christianity is much like their own.

Book review: Alfred the Great by David Sturdy

Alfred the Great by David Sturdy
Alfred the Great by David Sturdy

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.

Book review: Vikings by Neil Oliver

Vikings (and Neil Oliver's lustrous locks)
Vikings (and Neil Oliver’s lustrous locks)

I am naturally inclined to dismiss any book written by a TV presenter, particularly one with locks as lustrous and flowing as Oliver’s, so it pains me to admit: this is really good. Oliver – and I think it is him, not his editor – writes with a sureness of touch and an ability to find the telling detail that brings his subject as close to life as is possible for a people that raged against the dying of the historical light a thousand years ago. His description of the taste, smell and texture of eating preserved basking shark – like ‘a French kiss with the living dead’ – is a classic, and he makes good use of the opportunities offered a TV presenter to bring us closer to Viking life: meeting, at sea, a replica long ship sailing from Norway to Dublin and finding the crew soaked, exhausted, cold and morose, and all too willing to deal out some violence to interlopers, provides a better understanding of life on a drakkan than most academic texts.

Book review: Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources

Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great

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.

Justin Hill’s read my book!

This just gets better and better! After the wonderful message from Bernard Cornwell on Friday, my editor received an email from Justin Hill, author of Shieldwall (only the best novel about Anglo-Saxon England out there) this morning. He’s read Edwin: High King of Britain as well and he likes it too!

Justin Hill
Justin Hill

So, here’s what Justin (we’re on first name terms now, you see!) has to say about Edwin:

‘At the dawn of England seven kingdoms struggle for supremacy: but there is more than honour and power at stake; paganism, Christianity and the future shape of the English nation will be decided.  A fast-paced and gripping tale of the great Northumbrian King Edwin, reclaiming one of our great national figures from the shadows of history.’

I am, I must admit, feeling slightly overwhelmed at the moment, but in a good way! By the way, if you’ve never read Shieldwall, I can’t recommend it enough. Here’s my review of it.

Shieldwall
Shieldwall

Book review: Innocence by Dean Koontz

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** spoiler alert ** The engine driving this story, and the key to one’s enjoyment of it, is the mystery of the protagonist. Addison Goodheart lives in isolation in the tunnels under New York, and has done so for 18 years, only venturing out in the quietest times of night, or when the city’s normal inhabitants are driven indoors by particularly bad weather. He sequesters himself – as one of the Hidden, and we learn there are, or were, at least two others – because, on seeing him, people try to kill him. The midwife tried to smother him at birth, his own mother came near to killing him and, in the end, banished him from their home because she could bear the sight of him no longer, strangers seeing him, assault and try to murder him, but Addison remains innocent of wrongdoing. So, the question driving the book, and the reader, is why? One’s initial thought is some physical disfigurement, but it quickly becomes apparent that is not the case. I did wonder, as I’d reached near five sixths of the way through the book (which retains Koontz’s normal narrative flair although in retrospect there may have been some authorial handwaving to drive us past some plot points), whether Koontz would simply leave it open; I was beginning to suspect that he’d dug himself a hole from which there was no escape, other than ignoring the fact he was in a hol in the first place. But doing this would have been a complete authorial cop out.

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Why Do Writers Do It?

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The last two sentences of The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

‘Have you had a nice dream?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have.’

Why? John Masefield, why did you do it? I’d followed Kay Harker through 308 pages of adventures, from mysterious strangers, who apparently remembered this land from pagan times, warning him that ‘the Wolves are running’, through trips in time, changes in size, encounters with talking animals and medieval philosophers, flying cars, pompous policemen – and I’d even read the poems you’d stuck in the text, word for word, and how many readers do that and don’t just skip the poems and carry on with the story, and then, and then, you go and spoil everything.

It was all just a dream.

Is there any more pathetic, more deal breaking, more deceitful and fraudulent phrase in the whole of literature? I, as the reader, have accompanied the writer through the story, accepting it and embracing it, and then, at the end, the writer turns around and spits in your eye: Ha! Fooled you! It was all a dream.

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