The Great Heathen Army seizes Northumbria

Often historical fiction inspires me to read history, eager to know more about the age and historical places in which the fictional story is placed. When I read The Northumbrian Saga by A.H. Gray, I immediately wanted to know more about the king brothers Osberht and Ælla who fought among themselves when the Danes invaded York with the Great Heathen Army in 866.

Ivar the Boneless
Some historians mean that Ivar the Boneless suffered from
brittle bones disease and had to be carried by his men.
Others claim that Ivar was the giant Viking leader that was
buried near Repton

For historical persons, places, and maps, Wikipedia usually is a good starting point, but in this particular case A.H. Gray has a very informative blog. Here one can read about York (Jorvik), the forming of Northumbria, and Ivar the Boneless, and his brother Halvdan, who became ruler of London and later King of Jorvik.


Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great
The leaders of Great Heathen Army were Ivar the Boneless, Halvdan, and Ubbe, who were sons of the legendary hero Ragnar Lodbrok. Their story is told in The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, but when I read A.H. Gray’s book, I preferred to study a chapter in the very interesting Norwegian book Vikinger i krig (Vikings at War) in which the Viking invasion of East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia, and the establishment of the Danelaw is described. In a failed attempt to conquer all of England, the Great Heathen Army fought sevel battles against armies from Wessex, lead by Alfred the Great. This is a very exciting period in British history and also the period of Uthred, the hero in Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon series.



REVIEWS:

Vikinger i krigVikinger i krig by Kim Hjardar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vikinger i krig meaning "Vikings at War" is a very good Norwegian book about Viking warfare. It tells about the Vikings as raiders and conquerors, and the book retells how they established long-lasting realms in Ireland, Scotland, England, France and Russia. The book is beautifully illustrated with a wealth of informative photos, drawings, maps and graphics. It describes Viking war strategies at sea and on land, and it contains an especially interesting chapter about Viking weapons: their use and the weapons mythological and religious significance.


The Northumbrian Saga (Book 1)The Northumbrian Saga by A.H. Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Northumbrian Saga by A.H. Gray tells a story of war and power struggles from a woman’s point of view. In the beginning of the book, young Aethelwin is married to the son of a powerful chieftain to assure his allegiance to King Osbert of Northumbria, Aethelwin's uncle. However, her husband changes his allegiance to Aella, the bastard brother of the king and his rival to the throne. Aethelwin experiences a conflict of loyalties and has to choose side in the conflict. Things don’t get easier for Aethelwin when The Great Heathen Army, led by Halvdan and Ivarr the Boneless (two legendary sons of Ragnar Lothbrok), invades York with the intention to conquer the whole of Northumbria and make it a Danish dependency.

Seldom have I experienced the textual instance of an implied author more vividly then when reading this book. The implied author is the mental image of an author a text evokes in the reader based on the book’s language use, perspective, and content. In this particular book, neither the title, nor the author’s name or the cover, gives any indication of the real writer’s sex, but I hadn’t read many pages before a distinct female author's voice formed in my mind.

In the book, the perspective lies firmly with Aethelwin, and almost all dramatic historical events are seen from afar, told her by others, which creates a distance between the events and the reader. The book's inner story circles around the women’s life in the hall or in the house. Here Aethelwin weaves or cooks and talks and ponders; her focus is on feelings and affections and her relations to the male characters in the book. For me there is far too much talking and thinking. I don’t want to be told about fights and battles: I want to be where the action is. But then, I’m probably not the implied reader the author had in mind when writing the book.

I also feel that all the changes of affections that Aethelwin experiences are mostly claimed or asserted; the reasons for the changes are seldom shown or properly motivated. Even female events, like giving birth, are told with a distance. Erotic feelings and sexual desires are apparently absent, also in the men that control the young and beautiful Aethelwin.

This said, the language flows gently (even if anachronistic expressions frequently occur), the author has a sure hand on the use of perspective, and the story is not without suspense. On the contrary, the author’s method is to let rumours seep into the kitchen, the hall, the hovel, or wherever Aethelwin is held captive , and thus arouse hope and fear of what is going to happen in the world of fighting men. Aethelwin’s happiness depends on it, but even when she eventually is relatively free to build her own business, which she does, she continues to talk and ponder and God knows how she actually gaines her wealth. But at least she steps into the real world and tries to influence events by manipulating other people. Some of these are Danes, and in the book the Danes are mostly characterized as barbarians or “rabid dogs” by the Northumbrians, descriptions that are poorly levelled by the author. In the book there is very little understanding of the Viking world view.

The point of view character, Aethelwin, has a silly and self-righteous (and rather modern) way of thinking , but despite of – or because of – her being so irritatingly shallow and supercilious, I read on, anxious to know how the story ends. In the last part of the book, a lot of interesting things happen – in short: the war hardens – and the suspense builds up. My sympathies, however, are not with Aethelwin, but with the men and women affected by her self-absorption. I don't think that was the author's intention.

I hope that The Northumbrian Saga is the first book in a series. A.H Gray obviously knows much about the fate of Northumbria, and I want to read more.



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