Adventures in Bookland: The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England by Hilda Ellis Davidson

The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England by Hilda Ellis Davidson

This might be a relatively venerable work (first published in 1962, which makes it slightly older than me!) but it remains just as relevant – in its fairly specialised area – as ever. Hilda Ellis Davidson was an extraordinarily accomplished scholar, fluent in Old Norse, Latin, German, Russian, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, who was the first to combine literary and historical knowledge with archaeological evidence. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England is a perfect example of this approach, combining a thorough examination of the archaeological evidence at the time with a truly broad investigation of the literary sources. As such, it serves as a model for the best sort of historical investigation and while the archaeology may now have more examples, the literary evidence has not changed and, as a mark of the excellence of her work, Davidson’s book remains relevant, interesting and seminal today. A landmark in Anglo-Saxon studies.

Adventures in Bookland: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Still funny 131 years after it was first published. There’s not many books you can say that about and, as such, Three Men in a Boat requires no further review (but good to know that a favourite book of my childhood and youth still retains all its charm and humour when I revisited to alleviate some of the cloying, Kafkaesque gloom of repeated lockdowns).

Adventures in Bookland: Chase the Morning by Michael Scott Rohan

Chase the Morning by Michael Scott Rohan

Have you ever felt, with a sense verging on a conviction, that if you just took a different turning or went down another street, that you could simply walk right out of this world? Do you suspect that some among the lost and the disappeared, those who go and never come back, are some who did exactly that? Have you felt the shift of the world’s scenery and thought that, for a moment, you glimpsed the other scenes upon other stages?

I have. I don’t know if Michael Scott Rohan did too, before his death (now, he knows the truth of what he perhaps glimpsed), but Chase the Morning is predicated on just this happening to its hero, Steve, a yuppie shipping agent: the hollow man of the 1980s when greed was good. Steve stumbles out of this world and into another, and then the other world comes after him in this one, and he has no choice but to follow, out of the Core and into the Rim, sailing into the cloud archipelago of the worlds of deep history and deeper imagination that exist in parallel to our own mundane reality. What’s more, the Rim is a world of pirates and adventure and dark magic and mystery. If you get to step out of our world directly into another, Rohan’s would be one of the most adventuresome to visit. It’s a gripping, vivid read, made better by Rohan’s excellent prose and well-written characters, none more so than Steve, the slowly filling hollow-man protagonist.

I wonder where Michael Scott Rohan is wandering now. I hope he has visited the Rim and found there adventure beyond anything he imagined.

Adventures in Bookland: Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Helena is probably Evelyn Waugh’s least regarded novel but it is a personal favourite. In part, that’s because of Waugh’s portrayal of Helena herself, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine, which is one of his most vivid and affecting character studies. But most of all it is for the single finest passage in Waugh’s writing – and there are so many – but Helena’s prayer outmasters them all for it is Waugh’s prayer for the salvation of his own soul. It is the prayer for the learned, the great, those who think they bend history to their will and learn only at the end that history is but another name for divine play. I can do no better than to quote the final part of the prayer here, dear reader. If your heart responds and tears start from your eyes, then this book is a gift from Waugh to the deepest parts of your soul; if you read it simply as words then, pass it by, for it will seem dated and strange and odd.

The passage comes as Helena reflects on the journy of the Magi, the Three Kings, to Bethlehem, following the Star to the birth of a new King.

“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”

“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.”

“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

Adventures in Bookland: Quartered Safe Out of Here by George MacDonald Fraser

Quartered Safe Out of Here by George MacDonald Fraser

In 1942, a young Scotsman, George MacDonald Fraser, found himself unwittingly assigned to Nine Section, a group of mostly Cumbrian hillsmen, in the 17th Division of the Burma army. The war in Burma was the ‘forgotten’ theatre of the Second World War, with none of the glamour of the Desert Rats nor the elan of the pilots of the Battle of Britain. It was fought through jungle and plain against an enemy that, to the British, was completely alien in their psychology and tactics.

Fraser, in later life, would become first a journalist and then the writer of the Flashman novels. This memoir brings all his writing gifts to the fore, perhaps most clearly his ear for language (the almost phonetic presentation of the Cumbrian accents of the other men in his section is a delight), his ability to depict character and the writer’s eye for detail. War is not often written from the level of the ‘grunts’, the boots on the ground who do the fighting and the dying. This memoir brings those men, all dead now, back to life. There could be no more fitting memorial.

Adventures in Bookland: The Janissaries by Godfrey Godwin

The Janissaries by Godfrey Godwin

A history of the shock troops, administrators, Praetorian guard and power behind the rise, dominance and slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, a history all the more fascinating in that the Janissaries were, at least to start with, slave soldiers, impressed Christian boys taken in levy from conquered Christian lands, converted to Islam and made into the personal slaves of the Sultan. It is indeed a fascinating history but one that leaves unanswered the key question with such troops: how were these children, taken as slaves, so effectively turned into the slave soldiers of those who had taken them as slaves? Of course, part of the answer might lie in the eminence that could be attained by the most talented among the Janissaries, but I would still like to see a work where the psychological, physical and other measures taken to turn these boys into slave soldiers is properly examined. I suspect that there might be some parallels with the child soldiers used in some conflicts in Africa but it seems to be the great unexamined area of Ottoman scholarship, as if to investigate it would somehow be indelicate or rude. If anyone knows of such a study, please tell me!

Adventures in Bookland: Western Esotericism by Wouter J. Hanegraaff

Western Esotericism by Wouter Hanegraaff

What is Western esotericism? You may well ask, and the author, a distinguished Dutch academic, spends the first chapter trying to answer the question and worries away at it in asides throughout the book. Perhaps the best way of describing it, now, is marginal knowledge: the bits that don’t fit neatly under the tags of arts or science. But perhaps a better way of expressing it, which Hanegraaff does not say in his book, is that esoteric knowledge bears the same relationship to human understanding that professional sportsmen do in comparison to amateurs. Let me explain. Back in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, when the Western esoteric tradition was taking form as an agglomeration of knowledge drawn from sources as diverse as Platonism, Hermes Trismegistus, Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, Pythagoreanism and early natural philosophy, there was a legitimate question as to the nature of knowledge, namely, could everyone understand it? Once some piece of knowledge was uncovered, did it then become open to all, like opening Tutahkhamun’s tomb. Or was the knowledge accessible only to those who had trod the path to its attainment? To make this clearer, I can play cricket. I know how to play a cover drive, a backward defensive, and so on. But no matter how much I practise, I will never make a professional cricketer, let alone ascend to the ranks of an all-time great such as David Gower (I can still remember the first time I saw the teenage Gower bat in a Sunday League match on Sunday on BBC2 when, in the golden light of a September evening, he seemed a curly haired god bestriding the world of mortals, sending the ball where he willed with the merest flick of his wrists: that is the mark of true greatness in any field, be it sporting or artistic). In some fields, mastery is beyond all but a small elite of people. The question in the early modern period was whether knowledge was like that. The answer we went for, the answer of the modified form of natural philosophy that became modern science, was no. It might take an Einstein to discover relativity but having made his way up the mountain of knowledge he can bring its fruits down to the rest of us. However, western esotericism holds that there are some forms of knowledge that can only be gained by those who climb the mountain: they cannot be shared, only seen. Another analogy would be my knowledge of the colour red. The only way I can truly share this with you, if you have never seen red, is to give you a tomato and say, “Look, this is red.”

That is western esotericism. Hanegraaff is one of a number of scholars now working in this previously little studied field and he is a fervent advocate of studying it in a historical manner, tracing influences, lineages, and developments in its history. What he is adamant scholars should not do is engage in any evaluation of the truth of what the esotericists claim. This, Hanegraaff claims, goes outside the purview of scholarship in this field. However, by deliberately laying aside questions of truth, when Western Esotericism is fundamentally a search for truth, is like trying to study music without listening to any music. Yes, you might learn something about music, from its development to biographies of its practioners to some simple musical theory perhaps, but you will miss the heart, the key, the life; you will miss the music itself. Hanegraaff’s approach misses the music.

So, overall, the book provides a good overview of Western esotericism, clarifies some of the people and schools involved in its various traditions, while remaining little more than an exercise in classification. On a completely separate note, the book has one of the ugliest covers I have ever seen, and one that has really no connection to the subject. The paper the front cover is made from also feels peculiarly unpleasant to the touch. Overall, an interesting but limited approach to the subject.

Adventures in Bookland: Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

The many readers who have accompanied Matthew Harffy’s seventh-century warrior hero, Beobrand, through his adventures in the previous six books in the series will be expecting taut adventure, bloody and brutal battle scenes, and further heartbreak for our hero when it comes to women. They will not be disappointed! The action kicks in with yet another attempt to assassinate Beobrand – a man who attracts enemies the way buried Anglo-Saxon hoards attract metal detectorists – and the only let up after that is when the focus shifts to, yes, Beobrand’s continuing ability to make all the wrong romantic choices. However, his mistake in Fortress of Fury really is a dozy: falling in love with the king’s wife, Queen Eanflæd. It’s only with difficulty that this reviewer prevented himself from, in a literary manner, reaching into the book, grabbing Beobrand’s Welsh follower, Cynan, and telling him to urgently recount the story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot to his lord. But then, the Arthurian cycle only reached its courtly form five centuries later although that does allow a metafiction thought: Cynan could become the future source of these legends by telling the tale of Beobrand, Queen Eanflæd and King Oswiu to his people. An idea, perhaps, but a better one that has already occurred to Harffy is the use of archaeological evidence to illuminate and drive his plot. Bede tells us that King Penda of Mercia laid siege to the Bernician stronghold atop the great up thrust of the Whin Sill at Bamburgh but says that the attackers were defeated when a prayer-wrought change of wind direction drove the flames they had raised outside the fortress back on themselves. Harffy uses this, but adds to it the archaeological evidence uncovered by the Bamburgh Research Project of extensive burning around St Oswald’s Gate, the original entrance to the castle, to come up with both a great storyline and a thoroughly plausible explanation of what actually happened. This is one of the great strengths of good historical fiction: it enables the writer to play with ideas of the past and Harffy makes full use of this here.

Readers who have followed Beobrand through all his adventures will thoroughly enjoy this latest instalment but this reviewer would like to add his voice to theirs and address the author: please, Matthew, please, please, please, give Beobrand some luck with women by the end of the series. May he find a woman to love, who loves him in return and who doesn’t then die horribly at the hands of his enemies. It’s not too much to ask for a hero who has served you, and the readers, so well.

Adventures in Bookland: Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

Cathedral, Forge & Waterwheel by Frances & Joseph Gies

The received wisdom, derived largely from Renaissance propagandists and their amplifiers during the Enlightenment, was that Europe, after the end of the Western Roman Empire, entered a period of savagery and civilisational decline arrested only by the Renaissance that enabled Europe to cast off the superstitious shackles of the Church and emerge into a new world.

The truth is almost exactly the opposite. In fact, the period labelled the ‘Dark Ages’ saw some of the most profound and enduring developments in culture and civilisation since the Agricultural Revolution enabled the first sedentary civilisations. The ‘Dark Ages’ saw the end of slavery, the development of political and economic structures that have endured for two thousand years and a host of technological achievements that improved the lot of ordinary people in unimaginable ways. All slave-based empires have no incentive to find more efficient ways of doing things for, among the small number of hyper rich that dominate slave empires, the ability to employ slaves is a marker of their status. When Christianity made it impossible for Christians to keep slaves, there became a real incentive to find other ways of doing things. Among these innovations, the waterwheel, the forge, a new, heavier plough, all enabled ordinary people to lead significantly better lives than the poor of the Roman Empire: something confirmed by the analysis of remains from comparable cemeteries in Roman and Early Medieval times. It turns out, for all the bread and circuses, you would have been far better off, far better nourished, and significantly better protected under law, as a serf in medieval Europe than as a plebeian under Rome.

The husband and wife writing team do an excellent job of tracing the main technological innovations in Europe during this time, looking at where the inventions came from and the evidence of how they spread. There’s not so much about the social and cultural transformation but a good grasp of the the technological innovations will give the inquiring reader a grounding in the reasons why the Dark Ages were not so dark after all but the foundations for everything that followed: achievements and understandings that would always have been impossible for the Romans.

Adventures in Bookland: The Psychology of Belonging by Kelly-Ann Allen

The Psychology of Belonging by Kelly-Ann Allen

Belonging is fundamental to being human. It has deep, deep roots in human history and prehistory. It makes the difference between a life fulfilled and a life of misery. And psychologists are now trying to understand it at the level of their discipline. Within the limits of psychology, Kelly-Anne Allen does a good job of giving an overview of belonging, from the viewpoints of theoretical and experimental psychology and their applications for psychological treatment. The book’s main limitation, outside its brevity, is the rather desperate efforts made by the author to make it seem that the shift onto social media and the concomitatn decline in real-world interactions has not been absolutely terrible for personal relationships and a major driver for the steep rise in loneliness in the 21st century.