30 October, 2015

Better Than Gold, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

A & C Black 2014. ISBN 978-1-4729-0782-0. 124 pages.

Better Than Gold is set around 655 AD in Northumbria (in what is now north-east England) and Mercia (in what is now the Midlands). The main character, Egfrid, is a historical figure, and his time as a hostage at the royal court of Mercia is a historical event, although the details are not known. Other historical figures who feature as important characters in the novel include King Penda and Queen Cynewise of Mercia and their children, Egfrid’s father King Oswy of Bernicia and his queen Eanflaeda, Egfrid’s cousin Ethelwold and the Christian monk Chad (later St Chad, if I have identified him correctly).

Egfrid, son of the King of Bernicia, is aged ten when he is taken hostage by Penda, King of Mercia, in a raid. Mercia and Bernicia are bitter enemies; Penda has previously slaughtered Egfrid’s paternal uncle and his maternal grandfather and uncle. Egfrid’s father Oswy has so far escaped a similar fate by avoiding battle, which leads Penda to despise him as a coward. Unlike the Christian kings of Bernicia, Penda is a pagan and his religion practices human sacrifice, so when Egfrid is captured he fears the worst. But his courage and loyalty to his nursemaid and tutor, both captured with him, earns him Penda’s respect. He finds himself treated with honour and even kindness, particularly by Penda’s queen Cynewise, who is working to weave a peace treaty between the kingdoms. But when the old feud breaks out into war once more, Egfrid is faced with a dilemma – whose side should he be on?

I enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl for young adult readers (review here) and A Swarming of Bees for adults (review here), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby in the seventh century, and her novel about Acha of Deira set in the late sixth century, The Tribute Bride (review here). Better Than Gold is a children’s book set a few years earlier than Wolf Girl or A Swarming of Bees.

Part of the inspiration for Better Than Gold was the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard near Hammerwich in the territory of the old kingdom of Mercia in 2009. This is the largest collection of early English (Anglo-Saxon) precious metalwork ever found, and consists almost entirely of gold and silver objects associated with military equipment, for example the decorative fittings from sword hilts and fragments of at least one helmet. For details of the Staffordshire Hoard, see the official website. This overwhelming focus on martial items is extremely unusual, as most Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork consists of dress fittings such as strap-ends, buckles and brooches, or luxury tableware such as plates or cups, and immediately suggests that there ought to be a dramatic story behind the Staffordshire Hoard. How might it have been assembled, who owned it, what did it signify, why are the items almost all military, who might have buried it, and why might it have been buried and never recovered?  (For a discussion, see my blog post at the time and the associated comments thread). We will probably never know the answers for sure. In Better Than Gold, Theresa Tomlinson has drawn on an episode recorded in Bede’s History and the rather enigmatic Restoration of Iudeu mentioned in Historia Brittonum to imagine a scenario that might lie behind the hoard.

Better Than Gold also imagines how life might have been for a ten-year-old noble boy in the society that produced the Staffordshire Hoard. What would a boy at a royal court eat and wear, what would he be expected to learn, how would he spend his time? This focus on the details of daily life was one of the features I liked about The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees, and it was pleasant to see it again here.

Better Than Gold has the same gentle tone as The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees. Most of the people, most of the time, treat each other decently. There is violence – human sacrifice and battles with many casualties – but because of Egfrid’s age he is rarely directly involved and most of the violence happens in the background. Like the author’s other books, the women are very much to the fore. Queen Cynewise has much authority at the Mercian court, ruling the kingdom while Penda is away on campaign and exercising considerable influence when he is back. Their rule of Mercia seems to be very much a joint enterprise. Like Acha in The Tribute Bride, the royal women in Better Than Gold play a crucial role as peaceweavers, both by formal marriage alliance and in the day-to-day management of court life, ever alert to the need to head off situations where drink and ego threaten to spark conflict and even war.

Better Than Gold is a much simpler and shorter story than the young adult mystery Wolf Girl. I’d estimate its length at around 20,000–25,000 words, roughly a quarter of the length of a ‘standard’ adult novel. I would guess it is aimed at a younger audience, perhaps about the same age as the ten-year-old protagonist. The complex political rivalries and feuds between the various kingdoms are seen mainly in family terms – appropriately, since the conventions of blood-feud and vengeance for a kinsman meant that early English warfare could have a personal as well as a political dimension. It’s clearly written in straightforward modern English, with some archaic terms to add a period flavour, such as the Old English names for the months (Blood-month, Offerings-month, etc. More information on the Old English calendar and the month-names can be found in my article here). I was pleased to see that the original Old English personal names have been kept, e.g. Egfrid, Cynewise. Some names have been replaced by nicknames to avoid potential confusion between similar names within a family, e.g. Egfrid’s dead uncle Oswald is referred to by his (historically documented) nickname of Whiteblade to avoid confusion with his brother Oswy.

A short Author’s Note at the end briefly outlines some of the underlying history and provides a link to learn more about the Staffordshire Hoard. Unfortunately there’s no map on which a reader could follow Egfrid’s travels, although as most of the place names are given in their modern forms (Bamburgh rather than Bebbanburgh, Tamworth rather than Tameworthig) they could be identified on a modern map.

Charming tale about life at the royal courts of seventh-century England and the sort of events that might lie behind the burial of the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard.

26 September, 2015

Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Priory is a ruined twelfth-century priory in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales.

Llanthony Priory tower and nave
Llanthony Priory. The remains of the crossing tower with the north arcade of the nave and two arches of the south arcade. The south transept is to the right of the tower. The small pointed arch on the right of the south transept leads to the slype, a covered passageway between the south transept and the chapter house

Llanthony Priory lies in the Vale of Ewyas, a classical glaciated valley with steep sides and a flat valley floor. At the head of the valley, to the north, Gospel Pass leads over to the town of Hay-on-Wye. 

The valley changes direction at Llanthony, so the impression at the priory site is of being surrounded by hills. This gives the site a sense of being enclosed, separated from the rest of the world. Early Christian monastic foundations seem to have liked spaces that were clearly delineated, such as islands and ex-Roman forts, and the Llanthony Priory site has a distinct feeling of an island valley amongst the hills.

Map link: Llanthony Priory 

Llanthony was an Augustinian priory, founded in the early twelfth century by a Norman knight named William de Lacy. Tradition says that one day when out hunting he took shelter in a ruined chapel dedicated to St David, and then founded a priory on the same site. The ruins of the priory church visible today belong to a grandiose rebuilding project conducted by the de Lacy family in the period 1180-1230.

The priory was in decline by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII it was left to decay.  The prior’s house on the west side of the cloister was converted into a private house and is now the Priory Hotel.  The welcoming bar in the undercroft was probably once the prior’s cellar – highly appropriate that it still retains something approximating to its original use – and is a great place to stop for a beer on a long bike ride (sustenance is in order before tackling the climb over Gospel Pass).

The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave
The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave

The north arcade of the nave still has a complete set of standing arches

Looking across the site of the cloisters (which would have occupied the open lawn in the foreground) to the nave, with the ruins of the crossing tower on the right and the Black Mountains in the background

The south and west walls of the crossing tower still stand to some height

The crossing tower from the east end, with the nave beyond

Looking along the nave to the remains of the crossing tower, with the remains of the south transept on the right

The arches of the nave arcade are pointed arches in the Gothic style. But the row of smaller windows above the arch in the tower are round arches in the Norman style.

Close-up of the upper windows in the crossing tower

The south transept also has round arches standing

Round arch in the south transept

Mixed styles are very common in British medieval churches, because architectural fashions could change in the decades that it took to build a large church, and building designs were frequently altered during construction. Presumably the builders of Llanthony Priory church started at the east end with the traditional Norman round arch style, and then decided to adopt the fashionable new pointed Gothic arch as the church building progressed west.

The place name, Llanthony, looks at first sight as though the church should be dedicated to St Anthony, with the Welsh ‘llan’ (church) and the saint’s name.  However, the parish church on the site is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and the priory church was dedicated to St John.  So where does St Anthony come into it?

The answer is that he doesn’t. The Welsh name is Llanddewi Nant Honddu, ‘the church of St David in the valley of the [river] Honddu’, a completely accurate descriptive name describing the dedication of the parish church (and the original chapel) and its location.  The ‘Nant Honddu’ seems to have been transformed into ‘Anthony’, perhaps through being misheard by non-Welsh-speakers who made sense of it as best they could.

31 August, 2015

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Book review

Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0. 477 pages

Life After Life is set in England and Germany between 1910 and 1967, against the background of the First and Second World Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Ursula Todd, born into a prosperous family in rural England in 1910, lives her life over and over again through the traumatic events of the first half of the twentieth century. The first time she is born, she dies before taking her first breath. On the second occasion, the doctor has arrived in time and baby Ursula survives to experience childhood during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1919. On other occasions, she experiences the Second World War as a young woman, both in Germany in the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and in London during the Blitz. Each time, she is disturbed by bewildering flashes of deja vu – glimpses into the past, present and future of alternative lives – but without fully understanding what they are. And in one of her lives she has a chance to change the course of history...

Most people, I imagine, have had occasions when they wonder about ‘the road not travelled’, and speculate on what might have happened if they had done X instead of Y at a particular point. Life After Life explores that concept, by allowing the central character to live her life many times over, each time taking a different path. Each cycle starts with her birth in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910, and each ends with the words ‘Darkness fell’. In one life she experiences a violent marriage; in others she avoids the events that led her to that marriage and develops other relationships. One life takes her to 1930s Germany, where she becomes friendly with Eva Braun and, through Eva, acquainted with a fringe politician called Adolf Hitler. Sometimes the different paths diverge wildly, sometimes many paths all lead to the same or very similar endings (several end at the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic, and several more end during the Blitz).

For me, by far the strongest part of the novel was the central section set in London during the Second World War. Ursula is an adult woman by then and experiences the Blitz in various ways during several of her lives. It is a dramatic and convincing portrayal of life for ordinary people, being bombed out of their homes, working in rescue services, fire-watching, and vividly describes the everyday privations, the many ghastly ways to suffer and die, the numbing effect of witnessing repeated horrors, and the random nature of events, where running after a stray dog can make the difference between living – for another day at least – and dying. These scenes are so convincing that I wonder if they might be based on eyewitness accounts. The novel is well worth reading for this section alone.

The cyclical nature of the narrative can be repetitive or rhythmic. Which it is probably depends on the reader and/or the reader’s mood. Sometimes arriving at the same place yet again borders on the tedious; on one occasion the author writes ‘Darkness, and so on’, instead of the usual ‘Darkness fell’, leading me to wonder if she herself was getting a little weary at that point. Ursula is by far the dominant character, since she is the central figure in every cycle, whereas some of the secondary characters appear in only one of the lives and are never seen again. Those secondary characters who are recurring figures, such as Ursula’s immediate family, are developed into distinct personalities. It would be difficult to confuse Ursula’s brothers Maurice and Teddy, for example.

I have to say that I was not much taken with the central premise of living one’s life over and over again until one ‘gets it right’. What counts as ‘getting it right’? Living as long as possible? As happily as possible? What if the other people involved have a different idea of ‘getting it right’? And so on. On the other hand, ignoring the value judgment implied in ‘getting it right’, it’s interesting to watch events play out in different ways as Ursula encounters different people and situations. In a few cases she consciously influences events by taking a definite action or making a different decision, seemingly based on a hazy recollection of one of her other lives, though for the most part it seems that the changes in her various lives happen without her having to do anything.

Beautifully written tale with an unusual cyclical structure, memorable mainly for the dramatic sequences set in the London Blitz during the Second World War.