The Norse Sagas start in legend and end in history, with diversions into tales of adventure and chivalry throughout. But the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrók neatly straddles the transition from the purely legendary to the definitely historical: it begins by anchoring the future wife of Ragnar in the greatest of Germanic/Norse legend cycles, the story of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and Brynhild (ignoring the difficulty of Sigurd and Brynhild belonging to a time four centuries earlier), and ends with the sons of Ragnar, men such as Ivar the Boneless and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye, who are undoubtedly historical characters.
Whether Ragnar himself was a historical character remains an open question. While a group of Viking war chiefs were known as sons of Loðbrók, this could refer to a tribal founder rather than their actual paternal father. But if Ragnar was real, then he probably first appears in the historical record in 845, when a Viking chieftain named ‘Reginheri’ in Frankish sources led 120 longships up the River Seine to attack Paris. According to the French chroniclers, this Ragnar succumbed to the plague that devastated the Vikings besieging Paris.
But ‘Ragnar’ would prove as difficult to kill as a Hollywood villain. He pops up again in the following decades, raiding Scotland and the Isles, settling in Dublin, attacking Anglesey and, finally, dying in a snake-filled pit in York, England. Totting it all up, Ragnar appears to have died at least five times during his career.
So the suspicion must be that a series of different Viking chieftains who shared similar names had their stories conflated into one semi-legendary character: Ragnar Loðbrók. Once this process began, the gravitational pull of a good hero with name recognition would ensure that other tales would be ascribed to him, in the same way that Arthur, at most a war leader of the Britons against the invading Anglo-Saxons, became the exemplar of medieval chivalry and the ideal of kingship for the very people who had defeated his forebears.
With the modern lionization of Vikings, it was only a matter of time before Ragnar Loðbrók would be reimagined for the screen. Vikings makes for great television but, even more than the sagas, it conflates different times and characters, making the historical Rollo, the first ruler of Normandy, Ragnar’s brother and contemporary when in reality Ragnar came two generations before Rollo. But such tale making is in keeping with the writers of the sagas: they would have enjoyed Vikings as much as we do.
Writing, as I do, about the seventh century AD, you’d think there would be precious little left in the way of physical connections to this time. After all, the Romans built in stone and stone endures, but the Angl0-Saxons were master carpenters, rejecting stone and brick-built dwellings for great halls made of wood – and wood decays, or burns.
So, yes, there is on one level much less left from the seventh century than from the four centuries of Roman rule. However, in writing the Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve been surprised at what there is to be found: places, buildings, structures and artefacts that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries to bring into the present the witness of the past.
Of these, the Bamburgh Sword (which I wrote about for History Today here) is possibly the most evocative. Excavated by Brian Hope-Taylor from the castle grounds in the 1960s, it was forgotten and, after Hope-Taylor’s death, was put into a skip when his home was emptied – it was only the quick thinking of some pHD students that saved it. The Bamburgh Sword was forged in the seventh century of six strands of pattern-welded iron, making it possibly the finest weapon ever made, well, anywhere. It was wielded, in battle and rite, for three centuries before, finally, it broke and the shards were interred in the grounds of the stronghold it had helped to protect. Such an extraordinary weapon was fit for a king – given where it was buried and when it was forged, the extraordinary possibility arises that the Bamburgh Sword was the very weapon wielded by Oswald, the Lamnguin, the White Hand, the king who returned from over the sea.
After centuries under ground, the blade itself is a corroded shadow of its once self but it is on display in the Archaeology Room in the castle. This is what it looks like now (in the hands of Graeme Young, co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project):
And this is a newly forged reconstruction of what the sword would have looked like when it was wielded in defence of the kingdom of Northumbria:
Far away from Bamburgh, on the isle of Anglesey, is another, much-less known, connection with the seventh century. Back then, the kingdom of Gwynedd was the proudest and strongest of the kingdoms of the Britons that continued to resist the slow conquest of Britain by the Angles and the Saxons. The kings of Gwynedd had their fortresses and strongholds in the mountains of Snowdonia, but the ancient island over the Menai Strait served both as the breadbasket for the kingdom and its political centre, with the royal court based in what is now the small village of Aberffraw. Just two miles east of Aberffraw is an even smaller village, Llangadwaladr, and set into the wall of the parish church is a gravestone. But not just any gravestone. This stone marked the grave of Cadfan ap Iago, king of Gwynedd and father of Cadwallon, the nemesis of Edwin of Northumbria.
Go to the quiet, serene church of St Cadwaladr and there, embedded in the far wall, is the stone. It reads, ‘Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum’, which means, ‘King Cadfan, most wise and renowned of all kings’. This is what it looks like:
And here I am, touching this direct link to the world of seventh-century Britain, when we visited Anglesey last summer.
It is extraordinary to think that these, the sword and the gravestone, have managed to survive when so little else has. If people are interested, I’ll write about other places and things that bring the past into the present in further articles for this new series.
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.
Edwin’s epic blog tour has finally come to an end, closing as summer draws down to autumn and the nights get longer than the days. I’m going to collect all the reviews here, with links. In the end, I’m delighted to say most of the reviews were very good – and since these are hard-core historical fiction readers, they suggest I must be doing something write.
So, here goes.
How could any author not purr with pleasure when reading A Book Drunkard’s review: What a wonderful debut novel this is. Edoardo Albert is a stunning new voice in Historical Fiction. The details in the story make you feel you’re there, living a life in the 7th century and I absolutely applaud the obvious amount of research that must have gone into it.
Layered Pages said: I am absolutely thrilled with this story! Outstanding read beyond any expectations I had for historical fiction. And that says a lot right there for just how good this book is. For a long time I have wanted to read about the rise of Christianity in certain parts of Britain and how it was brought about to the pagan people of its time. And in this story it is really interesting how paganism and Christianity mixed among the people, how the people who are pagan convert and their thought process in doing so.
Words and Peace said: VERDICT: England’s history did not wait for the Tudors to be full of intrigues and conflicts. This book is a wonderful entry to 7th century England, where pagan and Christian values clashed as small kingdoms fought to take prominence. Highly recommended to all lovers of history and historical fiction.
A Bibliotaph’s Reviews gave Edwin 4/5 stars, saying: If it hasn’t become abundantly clear, I have a particular love of Historical Fiction novels that focus on the medieval period and before. Edwin: High King of Britain definitely fits the bill of that love; set in a time around 625 A.D. (or C.E. if you wish to be politically correct) this book follows the story of a long-exiled king.
Mason Canyon (that really is her name!) at Thoughts in Progress interviewed me about writing Edwin and historical fiction in general.
100 Pages a Day… Stephanie’s Book Reviews said: I love reading historical fiction in order to learn about history I would have never otherwise be exposed to. This first installment of The Northumbrian Thrones did just that.
Book Nerd gave Edwin 4 stars: Edwin, High King of Britain was a fantastic read! The first line is a perfect indication of what’s to come ” The king is going to kill you.”
Svetlana’s Reads & Views didn’t like Edwin very much, giving him 3/5 stars. Ah well, can’t please everyone: Okay, good news and bad news when it comes to this book: the good news is that the writing is enjoyable and for me it feels very accessible. Also, before accepting this book for the tour, I recall reading a review on Goodreads where the person complains that too much time is spent on Christianity. Much to my relief, while time is spent with Christianity, it’s not the whole book.
A Book Geek said: The historical period covered in Edwin: High King of Britain isn’t written about very much, or at least, I haven’t encountered it much in my reading so far. I have to wonder why, since I was captivated with the period as described by Albert in Edwin.
The Mad Reviewer is not mad at all: she gave Edwin 5/5 stars, and my favourite two review sentences: Edwin is not your typical hero in modern tales. He’s dark and broody and occasionally prone to wartime atrocities.
Book Lovers’ Paradise said: Edwin and his family are characters a reader can enjoy. The characters are interesting without being over the top. You want battles? This book has battles. You want gore? Well, there’s a little of that, too. This book has everything a historical fiction lover could want.
Dab of Darkness said: What I Liked: Plenty of history with accuracy; conflict due to culture clashes; very interesting characters. What I Disliked: Could use more women.
Unshelfish gave Edwin 4/5 stars: Albert’s writing style and thrilling narrative consume the reader. I found myself lost in this book from the beginning. I am looking forward to this series, if this is a prelude of what’s to come, I will be ecstatic. Great snapshot into history and the brutal times of the 7th century.
Just One More Chapter said: This is Edoardo Albert’s debut and the start of a new series, The Northumbrian Thrones. From the very first chapter, when the secret messenger makes his appearance and has his say, I was captivated.
2 Book Lovers Reviews gave Edwin 3.5 stars, saying: Edwin is a good debut novel for author Edoardo Albert. I enjoyed this in depth look into a less well known part of English history; and even though I fully realize more history has been made in kings’ courts and through councils than in bloody battles, it is still the battles that I want to read about.
We’ve been away in the garden of England – Kent – for the last week, hence my blogging silence. Not that Kent is beyond the reach of the information superhighway, but I left my computer at home and my mobile – an ancient beast in itself – switched off; digital silence…
Kent was surprisingly lovely, and I’ll long remember the clattering roar of the waves on the pebble beaches at Hythe and Deal, so different from the sound of water on sand. And Dover Castle is magnificent – William may have been a Bastard (the other standard appellation for the Conqueror was ‘the Bastard’) but he certainly knew how to build castles.
While we were away, Edwin started on his blog tour and so far it is going well, with excellent reviews, giveaways and even an interview with me (containing the most interesting set of questions I’ve yet been posed). Here’s Edwin’s schedule:
Edwin is going on tour! From 25 August to 19 September, Edwin: High King of Britain is touring some of the best book blogs around, being reviewed, interviewed and given away. So join him (and me) on the tour.
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!
Another Monday, another blog tour. In this case, I was tagged by Matthew Harffy, another writer inspired by the history of Northumbria. The first volume of his Bernicia chronicles is with an agent and hopefully should soon find a publisher, and he is hard at work on the sequel – I trust the wait will not be too long, because I want to read it! Read what he had to say about Beobrand, the hero of The Serpent’s Sword, here.
Next week I pass the baton on to A.H. Gray, yet another author in love with the history and rolling sea mists of Northumbria. See below for more on her work.
Now, on with the tour.
1) What is the name of your character? Is he fictional or a historical figure/person?
Edwin. He is a historical character – in fact, one of the best attested in a period where there is very little history.
2) When and where is the story set?
The story is set in Britain in the early seventh century, specifically in the kingdom of Northumbria although it also visits some of the other kingdoms into which Britain was split at the time.
3) What should we know about him?
The story begins with Edwin in exile, and pursued by the man who usurped his throne. Exile, or death, were the common fates of kings at this time – long life was not a facet of rule.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?
The initial conflict is between Edwin and Æthelfrith, the man who took his kingdom. When this is resolved, the rest of the book follows Edwin as he attempts to unify his kingdom and the country under his rule. In this, he is opposed by the last great king of the Britons, Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Welsh sources indicate that Edwin took refuge in Gwynedd during his exile, staying with Cadwallon’s father, Cadfan. Later events suggest an unusual enmity between the two men, the sort of enmity born of a particular personal grudge. I try to explain this in the book.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
Initially it is to regain his kingdom, and then to secure it for his sons. But, above everything else, Edwin is trying to understand his life and its meaning amid the violence and brutality of the world he has been born into.
6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
A H Gray lives in sunny Perth, Western Australia. She has a double degree in History and Archaeology from the University of Western Australia, yet due to the lack of Anglo-Saxon hoards or Viking boat burials down under, she has had to content herself with writing about them instead. Her debut historical fiction novel is The Northumbrian Saga and she writes weekly posts on her favourite historical period http://ahgray.wordpress.com/.
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.
There I was at the London Book Fair on Tuesday, wandering along, taking in the bustle and the deal making, enjoying the atmosphere and slowly heading over towards the Lion Hudson stand, where I had a 10.30 meeting with my publisher, when I stopped (creating something a people jam behind me). There, ahead of me, were the swirling lines of an Anglo-Saxon design, and ‘Edwin: High King of Britain’ in letters considerably bigger than my head, and ‘Edoardo Albert’ (about the size of my head), on a series of display boards. Unknown to me, Lion Hudson was featuring Edwin as one of its major new titles for the year. So, here’s a picture of me standing in front of the display.
And here are a couple more photos, with Tony Collins, publisher of Lion Fiction, and Jessica Tinker, my editor at Lion.