“The Burning Land” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2010)

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In this fifth installment of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, as he reveals the incredible life of Alfred the Great and the world of Viking England, he doesn’t hold back, putting his hero, Uhtred, through every trial and tribulation possible.  Uhtred finds himself tested by Alfred, by the priest because of his pagan beliefs, by his Viking friends, and by his Saxon friends.  Compared to the last four books in the series, The Burning Land has a lot more going on, as the end appears to be in sight for Alfred, for Uhtred, and for Cornwell.

England is still in a shambles, as hoards of Vikings march across the land, taking towns and slaughtering people, while Alfred defends his small domain in the south.  Alfred has become pious in his old age, turning to priests for advice and suggestions, which just infuriates Uhtred.  Each time he turns to the man for the final advice on what battle to choose and where to fight, and each time Uhtred leads him to victories, but he never makes it into the tales and stories recorded by the priests.  Cornwell is making a point here that we shouldn’t believe everything of the sources we read, that often reality is very different to what is recorded.  But Uhtred finds himself torn: owing allegiance to Alfred, but also wishing to join the Vikings up north in an effort to take back his land, Bebbanburg, taken by his uncle.  For some time he does fight with the Vikings, putting fear in the heart of the Saxons to the south, as Alfred is rumored to be very ill and possibly dead.  In the new year the rumors are proved otherwise and Uhtred returns to his lord and fights for him once more.

But time is passing; Arthur grows older and sicker, while Uhtred draws closer to fighting for his homeland.  There can’t be too many books left in the Saxon Tales, as Cornwell brings the series to a close in the n ext book or two.  One wonders how it will end for Alfred, and how Uhtred will fair.

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Originally written on March 11th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson (Viking, 2009)

The Vikingsstarstarstarstar

There have been many books written on the Vikings, and everyone has their own stereotypical – and in most cases, inaccurate – idea of who the Vikings were and what they were like; media has done much to reaffirm these clichés.  Thankfully, there is The Vikings: A History by a “leading authority in the field of Scandinavian studies,” Robert Ferguson.  Ferguson puts all the misconceived and incorrect notions of Vikings to rest, launching into a comprehensive history of these northern peoples and what affect they had on Europe from the eighth centuries on through the first millennium.  Ferguson pulls from many sources, and presents not just the viewpoint of the Vikings and their achievements, but also short histories on the northern British Isles, Charlemagne, and the various kingdoms of the European continent, showing how greatly affected they were by the Viking attacks and takeovers.  The Vikings: A History will clear away the image of a horn-helmeted brute and replace it with a developed, complex culture that was intelligent and creative, and had reasons for the attacks against the various peoples of Europe.

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Originally written on January 15th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered” by Peter S. Wells (Norton, 2008)

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Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called “Dark Ages” really weren’t that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximately 410 to the takeover of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 is actually not correct.

Wells begins with Late Antiquity and the fall of the Roman Empire explaining how this all came about and what state Europe was left in once Rome was gone.  But instead of painting the invading tribes as desecrating the relics of the once great empire, he creates a whole new canvas in revealing that the migration of foreign tribes and peoples in the former Roman Empire was a gradual one that took place while the Empire was still thriving.  There was not necessarily a “hostile takeover,” but a replacing of government with people who were not indigenous to the region and had lived there for some time.

Wells creates the same setting for the mass migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Western Europe to Britain as not an event that occurred within a hundred years, but something that took place over centuries.  The author attempts to prove all these findings which are quite contrary to common thought on the subject with photos and evidence of the regions apparently revealing that the migrating people had been there for a lot longer than thought, or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, that the populations were never that large to begin with.

The other part to Barbarians to Angels, according to Wells, is that the “Dark Ages” were not a return to an ignorant and primitive way of life for many, with the power lying in the hands of the church, but a time of life similar to that experienced during the Roman Empire, with extensive trading throughout the continent of Europe.  With this trading there would’ve been an exchange of cultural knowledge and education leading to better developed societies.

Peter Wells does an impressive job in revealing perhaps a different world and way of life for the people of the Early Middle Ages.  His failing lies in the amount of evidence presented, which may be partially due to the limitations in the length of the book, but may also lie with there simply not being enough evidence to help prove his point.  As a medieval historian, I’m not thoroughly convinced with the case he presents in Barbarians to Angels, however there are some very interesting ideas, with evidence that cannot be ignored.  The most sobering and perhaps convincing item is that of a bronze figure of Buddha that was crafted in northern India in the sixth century and was recovered in Helgö, Sweden, which leaves one at least contemplating the ideas expressed in Barbarians to Angels.

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Originally written on October 7th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Beowulf: A New Verse Translation” by Seamus Heaney (Norton, 2000)

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Earlier this year a new version of Beowulf was published, translated by the Irish Nobel Prize Winner (for 1995) Seamus Heaney. Heaney has spent many years trying to get this translation just right, and I believe he hit the nail on the head in this case. This book presents a different insight into reading Beowulf, adopting a more archaic viewpoint in both language and imagery. Heaney does not bother much with fancy words to make the poem seem more fantastic, but sticks to the original terms, translating them as closely as he possibly can. The book is set up so that on the left is the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon or Old English text and on the right is Heaney’s translation.

For this translation, Heaney had to return to his long misused Irish tongue of Gaelic. He had learned the language when he was a boy, but has since spent more time using English. His main source was his grandmother, who is still fluent in the archaic language. In talking to her, he would hear strange words and terms that simply do not exist in modern English. Heaney would then turn to the original text of Beowulf. There he would notice similarities between these strange expressions uttered by his grandmother and the poem. In one case he found an exact match with the word “Þolian” which means to suffer and his grandmother’s expression, “They’ll just have to learn to thole”; here the thorn symbol, Þ, is pronounced with a “th” sound. Heaney considered these unique insights “loopholes” through which he was able to translate this magnificent piece of literature.

It remains unknown as to when Beowulf was written and by whom. Quite likely a monk wrote it, since monks were really the only people of the time who were able to write; also the poem was written by a Christian, since there are numerous points throughout the codex where the “Almighty” and “God” are thanked and respected.

The poem was composed first orally some time during the middle of the seventh century, and then written down in the eleventh century. It is a tale about a great hero of the Geats know as Beowulf, who travels to Denmark, where the king, Hrothgar, is being attacked by a monster in the night known as Grendel. Beowulf fights with the beat and rips off its arm, whereupon the creature flees into the darkness from whence it came. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son; she takes a life and flees back to her lair beneath the mere (a lake). Beowulf pursues, tracks her down and with a magic sword decapitates her.

After being greatly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf and his army return to their homeland in the south of Sweden. There, after years of attacks by enemies, he inherits the throne and rules for fifty years. In his fiftieth year, a dragon is disturbed from its lair, where it has been guarding a mound of ancient treasure, left by a long-dead warrior. Beowulf confronts the dragon but is gravely injured. Wiglaf, one of his soldiers, comes to his rescue and stabs the dragon in the stomach, killing its ability to make fire. Beowulf draws his dagger and stabs the dragon a lethal blow. But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon’s bite and dies shortly after.

A great funeral pyre is built and set ablaze, while his many followers watch. His cremated remains are added to a special mound that is created on a hilltop overlooking the sea, where any ship passing will see the mound and know that Beowulf lies beneath. Thus, the poem ends with the forever-lasting memory of a great hero.

Heaney’s new twist on this translation of Beowulf is through using the most exact word possible; the result are terms like “ring-hoard,” “lake-birth,” “shield-clash,” and “sky-roamer.” What makes this so magical is how the words fit so well, and flow like the soft voice that once spoke them. These specific terms help to create an image in the reader’s mind of just what the original composer was intending: a story of gallantry, gold, fighting, Christianity, and the triumph of good over evil. As one begins reading, one can not help but get caught up in the thrashing current that pulls you along with the weight of the past, taking you step-by-step along Beowulf’s paths, his victories, and his eventual loss. And at the poem’s climax and conclusion one is left with a deep-set feeling of remorse for this mighty warrior, Beowulf, who most likely never existed, or at least has not lived for over a thousand years.

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Originally published on November 6 2000 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Northlanders Volume 2: The Cross + The Hammer” by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice (Vertigo, 2009)

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Wood continues his powerful Northlanders series in this second volume, after Sven the Returned, with a look at two cultures fighting over one piece of land.  The year is 1014, the place is Ireland.  The Vikings have invaded, quickly taking over and subjugating most of the people, claiming what they consider to be rightfully theirs.  But there are some who disagree, including one hero, Magnus, who seeks to wipe out any Vikings he sees, while doing what he must to protect his precious daughter.  Magnus is a powerful warrior, who seems unstoppable, yet his one failing may be that he has lost his mind.  But Lord Ragnar Ragnarsson thinks little of this, stopping at nothing to end Magnus and clear the way for a full Viking conquest.

In The Cross + The Hammer, Wood takes a brief break from his main character, Sven, to address another part of the world where the Vikings are making themselves known.  Even with a different artist, the work is fresh and interesting,  maintaining an acuteness to detail and accuracy, while Wood does his work in telling a story that may well have happened at some time in the eleventh century.

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Originally written on August 22nd, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Northlanders Volume 1: Sven the Returned” by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice (Vertigo, 2008)

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In a new graphic novel series from Brian Wood, author of DMZ and Demo, and illustrated by Davide Gianfelice, comes Northlanders Volume 1: Sven the Returned. Northlanders offers up a fresh historical graphic novel, like that of Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze and Warren Ellis’ Crecy, as Wood brings the world of the Vikings to light with the detailed and gory art style of Gianfelice.

Sven is a disowned Viking.  After his father is killed when he is a boy, and, as the heir apparent, he dishonors his mother by not protecting and defending her from his uncle Gorm who rapes her and takes control of the people and holdings, Sven flees from the north lands.  He is captured and made a slave for most of his childhood until he is set free and refers to himself as a Varangian: a Norseman who has left his home.  He spends his years in the great city of Constantinople as a member of the Royal Guard, until he is ready and returns to the north for revenge.  The year is 980.

His old home is in the Orkney Islands, and he finds it not much changed from when he left, but having lived in Constantinople for so long, he must learn to live in the harsh climes once again.  He also must gain the respect of his people.  Sven begins fighting back against Gorm, employing all the skill and knowledge he has gained.  The question is when he finally defeats Gorm and restores his family’s honor, will he still want to be king and rule?

Northlanders is a fresh historical graphic novel that is a little shaky at first with this new storyline, but there is good character development and potential for the future volumes.  With a fresh art style that captures the tone of the period, as well as being accurately detailed through the art, Northlanders is a series I look forward to reading in volume 2: The Cross + The Hammer.

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Originally written on November 11th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Road to Jersualem” by Jan Guillou (Harpercollins, 2009)

Road to Jersualemstarstarstar

As a medieval historian and a big fan of historical fiction, family members from Sweden have been telling me for years to learn some Swedish so I can enjoy the fabulous bestselling Crusades Trilogy from Swedish author Jan Guillou.  I still have yet to improve my language beyond basic Swedish, fortunately this isn’t a problem anymore.  The first book in the trilogy, The Road to Jerusalem, which has done very well in Europe also, is now available in English to American readers.

The title may be somewhat of a misnomer, with an emphasis on “road to,” as the main characters never even make it near to the Holy Land.  However as this is a trilogy, readers know they’ll get there eventually.  In this first book, the year is 1150, and readers are introduced to Arn Magnusson, a boy of noble birth who is sent to a cloister where he learns the ways of the church, as well as some expert training in weaponry and horse riding from a master.  Eventually leaving the cloister, Arn is reunited with his family who, expecting a humble monk, find a powerful but pious warrior.  After committing and being charged with a grave sin, he is forced to become a member of the Knights Templar at the end of the book.

On the surface this seems a simple story, and readers may have a little trouble with the many Swedish names and words (a pronunciation guide would’ve been helpful; fortunately I at least know how to sound those foreign letters: å sounds like “awe,” ä with a soft “e” sound like “egg,” ö and ø [ø is the equivalent in the Norwegian and Danish alphabets] have an “er” sound), but Guillou does an incredible job of analyzing and revealing medieval twelfth-century life in Scandinavia.  In the style of Ken Follett’s  Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, Guillou isn’t obvious and overbearing with the history, but reveals it through plot and story, allowing readers to make deductions for themselves.  And for those who’ve seen the Swedish tre kronor or three crown flag and symbol prevalent throughout Sweden, will have their questions answered in The Road to Jerusalem.

Guillou probably could’ve combined the trilogy into once massive book à la Ken Follett, but instead you have a fun trilogy that begins with a strong foundation and background for those not too familiar with the period and area, continuing in the second book, The Templar Knight, due out May 2010.

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Originally written on June 30th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.