S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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Warrior Lore

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Something a bit different for you tonight. Something a little removed from the usual historical fiction. Scandinavian history is one of my more peripheral hobbies, rather than something I focus on. I have a basic grasp of the history and the lore, and I love the 13th warrior and The Vikings. I enjoyed the novels by Giles Kristian and Rob Low. And I loved running my fingers over the carvings of Viking names in the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. But really, all that is VIKING stuff. Scandinavian, yes, but thoroughly Odin-based ship sailing, axe-wielding, treasure-hunting, monastery-sacking rape-and-pillage merchants.

So this short collection is different in two very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a novel. So remember that before you rush out expecting it to be one. This is a collection of Scandinavian folk tales translated in verse from old forms. It is, in essence, a book of translated poetry of Scandinavian epic style. Secondly, it is not about Vikings. In fact, despite a few famous names turning up in it and the obligatory appearance of trolls, it actually bears much more resemblance to the medieval tales of King Arthur. This is more a collection of tales about unfortunate knights, swooning ladies, evil tricksters and some disastrous misunderstandings that end in very Hamlet-esque scenes of utter carnage.

These tales are, in short, tales of Christian medieval Scandinavia, twisted here and there with the addition of more ancient lore. Even the famous Harald Hardrada turns up here more resembling a medieval baron than the last of the great vikings.

Clearly Cumpstey knows his subject and the language, and the translations are therefore pretty much spot on, easy for the reader and seemingly close to the original feel. Here and there, it feels as though the translation has hit a pebble and detoured, but that is the problem with translating something as personal as poetry. It is not straightforward and what sits well with one reader might not appeal to the next.

Each of the tales in this book is introduced by the author with a little background and explanation, though about halfway through, I decided to skip the intros and read the poems first, since I had realised I was going into every tale already knowing what to expect. And when I did this I had more fun, picking the story from the poetry and then reading the intro afterwards to confirm things and find out what I’d not noticed.

So to sum up, this is a lovely little collection that covers a subject I doubt many of us are particularly familiar with and does it with grace and panache, and a great deal of academic knowledge pressed into it. It won’t necessarily suit those of you who read your historical works to watch Romans cleave barbarians into pastrami, but for those of you with an interest in the skaldic lore of medieval Scandinavia, or just those who feel intrigued, it is a nice collection to read.

It now sits on my kindle next to my collection of Imādu d-Dīn Nasīmī’s works. Boy, am I starting to look clever!

Written by SJAT

February 9, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Hereward: End of Days

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I have to say, of course, that I review this – even after three books on Hereward – as something of a layman. It’s not an era I am familiar with, and I know little of Hereward other than vague connections between the name and rebellions in the days of the early English. By the time I got to the 3rd book, though, I have to admit it was pretty obvious that the series could not have a happy ending. Though I don’t know the history of Hereward, I do know that William the Conqueror founded a dynasty of Kings and his rule passed from his hands into other legitimate successors, not the bloodied ones of East Anglian rebels. So to some extent the ending was a foregone conclusion.

That doesn’t necessarily matter, of course. Gladiator is a great story. We all knew it had a doomed ending, but that made it no less poignant or exciting. Braveheart was a foregone conclusion, but still stirred the blood. The story of Spartacus can hardly have a happy ending, but that didn’t stop Ben Kane writing a damn good tale about him. Because sometimes the doomed hero is the best tale.

Hereward book 1 was a strong story, and only dropped a star on my review due to the almost superhero-powerful nature of the protagonist. However, it was still a storming tale, and book 2 only improved matters, deepening the character and the plot together. Book 3 concludes the tale of Hereward’s resistance to the Normans in great power, style and character. Indeed, by this time, the hero is such an excellent character and so absorbing for the reader that we truly care about him, which makes the doom of the ending we know is to come all the more powerful.

Despite going into the book with a sense of gloom as I thought I knew what must happen, I was constantly surprised by the fact that the English actually were winning! Hereward and his chums were bloodying the nose of the Conqueror and winning the fight. I had one of those moments where I wondered whether Wilde had diverged from clear history and done a Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds thing, having Hereward somehow win! And then everything went piriform as I expected it to from the start, but only due to unforeseen (and also unreported due to spoilers) circumstances. And even though towards the end of the book, it was once more obvious things could not end all hunky dorey, still Wilde had a number of surprises for me. Indeed, the ending really came at me out of the blue. Unexpected. And fab.

Basically, by this book, Wilde’s writing style has really hit the perfect stride and his characters are now well rounded and believable, even the new creations. And that leads me to Deda. ‘Nuff said. Deda should have a book of his own, James, as should Kraki. Bear that in mind, when thinking of your next project.

End of Days is full of action and bloodshed, subterfuge and trickery, murder and flight, treason and negotiation. Grit your teeth at the action in the swamps (as superb as it was in book 2). Wonder at the power of the Conqueror, who is every bit the match for Hereward. And love the book for what it is: a superb conclusion of a tale that should have been told long ago. It is, in short, a bloody marvel.