From my blog...

Vikings Recap Episode 7: THE PROFIT AND THE LOSS

vikings_usurper5seriable

Ragnar to Rollo: When everyone wanted you dead, I kept you alive! This is how you repay my love?

The main theme of this episode is Ragnar’s conflict: with his brother, with the French, with his wife, and especially with his addiction. This episode is all Ragnar, and Travis Fimmel portrays him brilliantly as haunted, despairing and ravaged.

vikings4.7d

Ragnar with his drug supplier, Yidu (Dianne Doan). Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Clive Standen as Rollo merely has to stand on a tower looking mournful and occasionally raising his finger to direct his men.

Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

Rollo oversees the defense. Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

Over in England, Linus Roche as Ecbert, wearing 14th century mail and a gorgeous cloak, has merely to listen attentively as he is offered the crown of Mercia on a platter. In Kattegat Aslaug watches benignly as Halbard comforts the women that the Viking warriors have left behind. They are place holders this week, because this episode belongs to Ragnar, and actor Fimmel is at the top of his game.

As for the historicity of this attack on Paris, you can find tidbits if you look really hard. Details seem to be drawn from an account of the vikings’ 885-86 siege of the city. The French had erected a tower on the Seine, and they used it, along with a bridge, to keep the attackers at bay for months. So here we see two towers, although in my imagination the tower at Paris was much larger and higher, and it was very close to the city itself. You can see them in the image below.

19th c depiction of the Siege of Paris.

19th c depiction of the Siege of Paris. You can just make out stone towers on the far left and far right.

In 885 the Parisians used trebuchets to fling stones and flammables at the vikings, and Rollo does the same here, flinging sacks of oil at Ragnar’s ships and setting them aflame.

Historically, the Norsemen would have fortified their camps in case of enemy attack, but Ragnar has not done this – a sign, perhaps, of his deteriorating mental skills brought about by his addiction. Nor did he send out scouts to explore the area around the tower before his land force attacked and found themselves in a marsh, another error that attests to his failing mental powers.

Lagertha's force in the swamp. Photo: Jonathan Hession

Lagertha’s force about to be swamped. Photo: Jonathan Hession

At the end of the show Ragnar is talking to a severed head, but hey, we’ve seen him do that before. (Has he shellacked this thing, so he can carry it around with him?)

It is clear from the previews that Ragnar will be blamed for this defeat, but the title of next week’s show, PORTAGE, implies that he might pull a rabbit out of a hat. When the vikings were frustrated at Paris in 885, some of them pulled their boats out of the Seine, dragged them around Paris (portage), and plundered further up river. That may be what Ragnar does next or, as happened in 886, the fleet may split up and leaders take their ships in different directions with some remaining at Paris to carry on the attack.

Post battle, Floki’s bizarre in-body experience as Halbard is difficult to read. Is this Halbard-as-Odin channeling comfort to Floki? Or is it Floki’s nascent power as a spamaðr connecting him to Halbard-Odin? Or is it a little of both? As usual, we are left with hints and questions that will keep us tuning in to get the answers.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar. Photo: History Channel

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar. Photo: History Channel

 

 

 

Posted in History, Normandy, Review, Uncategorized, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vikings Season 4 Episode 6: What Might Have Been

vikings_usurper5seriableIn watching this episode, I was particularly struck by the way children are used to bolster conflict and to convey the theme of betrayal that runs all the way through.

It begins right away with Lagertha who gives this advice to young Guthrum, son of Torvi and Erlandur.

Photo Credit: Youtube.com

Photo Credit: Youtube.com

Keep your friends very close because some will die too soon… And the others, the others will betray you.

She could have added, Some friends will betray you and because of that they will die too soon, since she was standing on the grave of the lover who betrayed her and paid the price.

In the next scene Ragnar bestows arm rings on two of his sons, boys who look to be about 9 and 10. The rings are a sign of the boys’ allegiance to their king and father, Ragnar. If you swear an oath on this ring, Ragnar tells them, you must keep your word, or you will sacrifice your honor and your place in Valhalla.

These words add import to something we saw in an earlier episode, when Rollo gave his arm ring to Gisla. It was a pledge of his fidelity to her and to Frankia; yet at the same time he was breaking his oath to his king and brother (and by the way, this would not be the first time that Rollo has betrayed Ragnar.) By the end of this episode the stakes for Rollo are enormous as, with Ragnar’s fleet en route and Paris at stake, the emperor tells him You are the difference between failure and triumph. Rollo will once again be put to the test, forced to choose between betraying his new family or his old one. No pressure, Rollo.

Photo Credit: www.notey.com

I’m starting to get used to the haircut. Photo Credit: www.notey.com

But, back to Kattegat and the sons of Ragnar. They are an endless source of conflict between Ragnar and Aslaug. He dismisses her objections that they are too young to go with him to Paris, and gets in a dig about her affair last season with Halbard. This was a betrayal that Ragnar cannot seem to forgive or forget, but for Aslaug that liaison was all bound up with her love for her damaged son Ivar – still suckling, by the way, at age 5.

Photo Credit: History Channel

Aslaug with sons Sigurd and Ivar. Photo Credit: History Channel

And when, after Ragnar leaves, Halbard shows up again and is greeted happily by Aslaug,  Ragnar would certainly see this as another betrayal. (Bear in mind that Halbard is the name that Odin uses when in disguise, so there is an element of the mystical about him, and Aslaug certainly believes that he has healing powers.) Ivar greets Halbard with giggles that are creepily reminiscent of Floki’s and that just adds to Ivar’s strangeness.

Over in Wessex, Ecbert the Awesome has decided to send 6 year old Alfred on a pilgrimage to Rome, and says that Æthelwulf will go along to protect the child.

Alfred. Photo Credit: ar.fanpop.com

Alfred. Photo Credit: ar.fanpop.com

Alfred’s response is to run and hide in a corner and no wonder, since this character has been wrenched from his own historical timeline. Of course he’s freaked out. Yes, Alfred made that journey to Rome with his father Æthelwulf, but by that time Ecbert was long dead and Alfred’s grown brothers were already ruling territories in England. And on their way home the company stopped in Paris where Æthelwulf, probably in his sixties, met and married a 12-year-old Judith who was NOT Alfred’s mum, although in this show she is his mum while Æthelwulf who was his father isn’t, so no wonder the poor kid is weirded out. But yes, Ecbert did in fact attack Mercia, and in this VIKINGS’version of history, by sending Æthelwulf with Alfred on an 1100 mile walk, the wily Ecbert has cleverly deprived Queen Kwenthrith of her lover and defender (although Kwenthrith was never really a queen and is just as lost in time as Alfred), and thus Ecbert has paved the way for his betrayal of Kwenthrith and his conquest of Mercia.

There will be 20 episodes of Vikings this season (10 + 10) and there will be an 8-year time jump, presumably in between; the younger characters that have been introduced will step into larger roles. So, ignore the wibbly-wobbly convoluted historical timeline and get ready for more betrayals and more conflict set in a time when war never ends.

Photo Credit: e.irishexaminer.com

The sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Photo Credit: e.irishexaminer.com

 

Posted in History, Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vikings 4, Episode 5: PROMISED

Vikings4mThis episode opens with Lagertha’s all-girl war band practicing their sword strokes and chanting:

Freyr, we summon you. With the blood of this sacrifice, now is the time.

History Channel

History Channel

That chant will have enormous significance by the end of the episode. But first: I love the title this week! PROMISED plays out in so many relationships.

In Wessex, Kwenthrith is singing the same old song that we’ve heard before.
“You kings must invade Mercia,” she tells Ecbert, Æthelwulf and Ælla. She certainly has delusions of grandeur in a world where women rulers were completely unacceptable. The role of an Anglo-Saxon queen was to counsel, not rule. Yet Kwenthrith declares herself “the only legitimate ruler of that poor, ravaged, raped land” of Mercia. And…no. That is never going to happen.

vikings4.5d

Look at that face! Ecbert is so done with Kwenthrith.

Although the men agree to an alliance and promise to place her back on the throne, there are meaningful glances exchanged between Ecbert and Æthelwulf that do not bode well for Kwenthrith, Ælla or the promises that Ecbert has made to them.

Judith, having asserted, at least to herself, that she is a free woman, is in fact not free at all. She may think she is free of her husband. But their scene together, in which she refuses to service him in bed, sheds light on royal marriages throughout the medieval period. They were political alliances, not love matches, with a distinct double standard that Judith does not seem to recognize although she should, having already lost an ear because of her extramarital activities. (Do these people not remember ANYTHING that happened last season???) A king needed to be certain that his wife’s child was, in fact, his. So although the husband in a royal marriage might do as he wished when it came to sleeping around, the wife could not. Because Judith’s lover is the king himself (her husband’s father) she has a kind of advantage there. She’s chosen to sleep with the current ruler, not the ruler-to-be.

Photo: wellntruly.tumblr.com

Photo: wellntruly.tumblr.com

King Ecbert, who has made a promise never to marry again, now offers Judith his dead wife’s ring. Is this a promise of something? Can we believe anything that Ecbert says or does? Well, yes, we can. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

In Kattegat Lagertha promises Kalf that she will marry him. And anyway, she is carrying his child. But she made another promise to Kalf last season in Paris, and that is the one that she will keep and the one that will refer back to that opening chant to Freyr. Freyr was the god of fertility, well-being and prosperity, and sacrifices were made to him at weddings and harvest celebrations.The opening chant is a foreshadowing of a wedding and a sacrifice, with Lagertha as bride and high priestess. In this show, Lagertha is the only woman with real power, and she uses it to add an item other than ‘something borrowed’ and ‘something blue’ to her wedding gown accessories.

Sorry VIKINGS. I love you, but this is a way too modern gown. Photo: History Channel

Sorry VIKINGS. I love you, but this is a way too modern gown. Photo: History Channel

Moving on to Ragnar, he promises Yidu that he will tell her his secrets when she tells him the truth about her parentage. Their relationship is a strange one, sexy and threatening at the same time, but it seems clear to me that despite Yidu’s efforts to control Ragnar through his growing dependence on her drugs, nobody can really control Ragnar. Not even Ragnar.

Lots of tension, sexual & otherwise, between Ragnar and Yidu. Photo: History Channel

Lots of tension, sexual & otherwise, between Ragnar and Yidu. Photo: History Channel

Among the youngsters, Bjorn is looking promising as a leader. He has secrets – a map that nobody else sees (although we’ve seen it a couple of times now) that I find utterly intriguing. I want to know more about that map. Bjorn is emulating Ragnar more and more – in his silences and in his facial expressions. He seems to be mastering that inscrutable, threatening, not-quite-smiling, creeps-me-out gaze as he listens to Harald Finehair natter. At the same time, Ragnar seems to be looking for a way to go his son one better, so he has adopted bloody-looking teeth and chin (reminiscent of Skorpa in The Last Kingdom), and a manic intensity at knife-throwing that I would find mildly off-putting if I were trying to converse with him.

Another promising young ‘un is darling little Ivar who gives us a glimpse of what he will become in the future: the fearsome viking Ivar the Boneless. And as a mother I could not help wondering why there was an axe in Ivar’s little wagon. Aslaug was right, what happened was not Ivar’s fault. It was hers. The scene, I’ve learned, was drawn from one of the sagas about a Viking hero other than Ivar.

Over in Frankia Rollo promises Odo that he will defend Paris. How he will do this without any Viking warriors – having slaughtered them all – remains to be seen. Historically, Rollo and his shipmen added to their Norman power base between Paris and the Channel through force of arms. Here, Rollo appears to be without armed followers to fight beside him, and I’m wondering how Hirst is going to backfill that plot hole.

Rollo, the viking with a sexy princess & nice duds, but no warriors. Photo: History Channel

Rollo, the viking with a sexy princess & nice duds, but no warriors. Photo: History Channel

The subplot of Emperor Charles vs. Odo vs. Roland continues. It strikes me that Charles is as cunning as Ecbert. He stutters with fear, he quakes, he pleads with Roland to promise to spy on Odo for him. And then, when he is alone, he smiles a wicked smile. It was all an act. But to what end?

And now, back to Ecbert the Awesome. Alone in the church Ecbert speaks to his God. The king knows that he is going to suffer in purgatory or hell, and he admits that he would like to return to God’s good grace. But his first concern is his kingdom.

“I would sup with the Devil if he would show me how to achieve my earthly goals.”

Photo credit: Recapguide.com

Photo credit: Recapguide.com

Ecbert reveals his true nature, and for once, I believe his every word.

Posted in History, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Tale of St. Patrick

St. Patrick, Salisbury Cathedral. Note the snake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

St. Patrick, Salisbury Cathedral. Note the snake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As you may imagine, given my first name, I have a vested interest in St. Patrick’s Day.  Indeed, one set of great grandparents was Irish – Bridget and Patrick Curtin. They arrived in New York in the 1860’s, most likely from County Cork, although my sister, the family genealogist, has yet to find any verification of that. But whether Cork, Galway or Sligo – they were Irish.

No doubt you are aware that St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland; he is the bishop who drove snakes from the island; and he is the saint in whose honor cities in the U.S. pour green dye into their rivers in mid-March.

Chicago River. Photo credit Andrew Bracewell

Chicago River. Photo credit Andrew Bracewell

In honor of Ireland’s favorite saint, then, here is a story about Patrick that you may not have heard.

Patrick was sent to Ireland in A.D. 431 to be the island’s first bishop and to convert the pagan Celts who lived there. He seems to have had a rough time of it. The Celts were stubborn and wanted him to prove that what he told them about the joys of heaven and the punishments of hell were true.

Perturbed by their stiff-necked resistance to his message, Patrick set out to pray on the matter. He went to a lake, Lough Derg – today it’s the largest lake in County Donegal.

Lough Derg. By Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12963693

Lough Derg. By Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12963693

Unfortunately, a massive water serpent lived in the lake, and the thing swallowed him whole. It took him two days and nights to cut his way free. The serpent’s body turned to stone, creating two islands in the lake – Saints Island and Station Island. (Sure, and the Irish are great story tellers, are they not? Do you see a snake theme here anywhere?)

To continue: Patrick went into a cave on one of those islands to ask God to show him how to go about converting the stubborn Celts. God responded by taking him on a nocturnal trip to Heaven and to Hell. Apparently, after this intervention Patrick was so eloquent about what he’d seen that the pagan Celts were convinced. In the years following Patrick’s death, ecclesiastical settlements were established on both islands, and pilgrims flocked to them. By the 12th century Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island had taken precedence over Saints Island because it laid claim to the cave where Patrick had had his visions, and its promoters promised similar visions to the penitent and prayerful. To be admitted, pilgrims had to go through many ecclesiastical hoops, not to mention the difficulty of getting to Ireland and Leogh Derg in the first place.

Pilgrims Approaching St. Patrick's Purgatory. By William Frederick Wakeman (1822-1900) - Scanned from D. Canon O'Connor: St. Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg, James Duffy and Co., Dublin 1903, plate facing p. 208., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4729694

Pilgrims Approaching St. Patrick’s Purgatory. By William Frederick Wakeman (1822-1900) – Scanned from D. Canon O’Connor: St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, James Duffy and Co., Dublin 1903, plate facing p. 208., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4729694

As for Patrick, given the number of stories that have attached to him he is as much myth as real. Did he ever really go to Lough Derg? Possibly. Possibly it was a pagan holy place like so many of Ireland’s caves, wells and streams, and Patrick may have gone there to appropriate it for Christian use. In any case, Patrick’s Purgatory is still on Station Island, although the cave was long ago replaced by a basilica. You can visit if you like – not as a tourist (no cameras allowed) – but as a pilgrim in search of renewal and peace.

Station Island Basilica, Lough Derg. By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8738209

Station Island Basilica, Lough Derg. By Andreas F. Borchert, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8738209

As for the story about the giant serpent, I would not put too much credence into that. And to my knowledge, the blue water of the lake has never yet been dyed green on March 17. The Irish leave that sort of thing to the Yanks.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

 

Posted in History, Ireland | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Vikings 4, Episode 4: Jol

vikings4.3iIn which:
Ragnar swallows a snake
Bjorn fights a troll
Floki gets his palm licked
King Ælla berates Judith
Rollo consummates his marriage
And Ubba defeats Harald Fairhair

That pretty much says it all, but here are a few details.

It’s Yuletide. Yule. Jul. Jol.
The residents of Kattegat celebrate the mid-winter festival by painting their faces and parading with torches.

vikings4.4a

Photo: History Channel

They reminded me of a group of players I saw in London two years’ ago doing that exact same thing.

VikingsEpisodesmallSome things never change.

Photo Credit: History Channel

Photo Credit: History Channel

But Floki is not in a party mood.
Instead he goes to see the spamaðr, who speaks to him in his usual riddling fashion; but the tete-a-tete ends with the spamaðr licking Floki’s palm. This is interesting. Usually, it’s the spamaðr who gets his palm licked by those who consult him, so I’m guessing that his words and this action indicate that Floki will step into the spamaðr role. Later, Aslaug brings Ivar to Floki and asks him to teach the boy about the gods, and this too seems to underscore Floki’s latest career move.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Ragnar receives two Jol presents. Aslaug gives him her pretty slave Yidu, and Yidu gives him a hallucinogenic drug to ease the emotional pain she senses exuding from him. It leads to the bout with the snake, as well as some other weird behavior. But there’s an underlying theme here, similar to something going on in Wessex.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Yidu resents being a slave; Ragnar sets her free. In Wessex Judith has bargained with King Ecbert for her freedom so that when her father rebukes her as a bad wife and a bad mother, she defies him. I am free, she says.

But we have to wonder if either woman is really free. Ragnar tells Yidu that she is free to stay or to go. But, go where? She doesn’t even know where she is. Judith claims she is free, but she is only as free as the men whom she answers to will allow. There’s no telling where this particular thematic thread will lead. It may go no further than to equate the daughter of a king with a captured slave. The medieval woman’s lot.

Bjorn, being smarter than the average bear (sorry), outwits the troll sent to kill him.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

When he asks the troll who sent him the fellow does not answer, and since we have never heard him speak, we have to wonder if he is capable of speech. This confrontation appears to have been Bjorn’s ultimate challenge, so he returns to Hedeby and then to Kattegat, looking more Ragnar-like than we’ve ever seen him.

Over in Paris Rollo confounds Gisela and the entire Frankish court by speaking to them in their own tongue. He gives Gisela an arm ring and convinces her that he is not a beast. She softens toward him and, well, you know. Later she dolls herself up and they celebrate the Yule together in the buttery beneath the hams. Did anyone else think that she looked frighteningly 21st century, as if she’d just stepped off the cover of Vogue? It was a stunning transformation and looked like it belonged in some other show.

Photo: notey.com

Photo: notey.com

About Gisela: Writer Hirst, I think, has decided to give Rollo just the one wife. Historically Rollo had two, and it was the second wife, Poppa, who was the mother of his son, William. But just as Judith over in Wessex is a combination of Æthelwulf’s two wives, (and really, you know, she is NOTHING AT ALL LIKE EITHER OF THEM) Gisela is a combo-wife as well.

We’ve pretty much left historical accuracy behind, and Hirst is just manipulating characters and events to suit himself. Enjoy it for the entertainment factor, but don’t give it much historical credence.

Finally, in Kattegat we have a new antagonist. King Harald Finehair arrives to challenge Ragnar.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Historically, Harald united southern Norway under his rule as a result of the battle of Hafrsfjord, so we may be heading in that direction this season. But Harald hasn’t made a good beginning. Aslaug’s suspicion radar is on high alert, young Ubba beats him at Hnefatafl, Bjorn bristles at just the sight of him, and in the final moments of the episode Ragnar, spotting him, says “And you are?” with his menacing not-quite-a-smile that always sends chills down my spine.

Posted in History, Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Emma, England’s Forgotten Queen

Mortuary Chest, Emma of Normandy, Winchester Cathedral

Mortuary Chest, Emma of Normandy, Winchester Cathedral

Emma,
a gem more splendid through the splendors of her merits…

So begins the epigram written late in the 11th century by Godfrey, prior of Winchester, in honor of Emma, Queen of England.

Queen Emma died on 6 March, 1052, at age – well, actually, we don’t know how old she was. Although her death was mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was commemorated annually by prayers at Winchester’s New Minster, at Ely Abbey and at Christ Church Canterbury, her birth date was never noted. We can be certain, though, that she lived to be at least 60 years old, perhaps into her 70’s, and that for 32 of those years she was a queen of England.

Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Although most people today will look at you blankly when you mention her name, Emma of Normandy would have been familiar to the people of England, Normandy, and Scandinavia during her lifetime and for many decades after that. How do we know? Well, to begin with, we have two contemporary drawings of Emma – and that in itself is remarkable.

Frontispiece of Encomium Emmae Reginae. 11th c. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece of Encomium Emmae Reginae. 11th c. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, she may be one of the few female figures stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. (Not certain about that, but it could be Emma. Rabid medievalists have been known to argue passionately about it.)

Aelfgyva (Emma?) on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Aelfgyva (Emma?) on the Bayeux Tapestry.

 

 
And in the 12th century an unknown artist illustrated a manuscript of a Life of Edward the Confessor with beautiful color images of Emma.

Emma with her sons Edward & Alfred from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c.

Emma with her sons Edward & Alfred from The Life of Edward the Confessor, 12th c.

 

 

 

 

There are textual references to Emma, too. She appears in one of the Norse sagas (Liðsmannaflokkr), and is mentioned in German, Norman and Anglo-Saxon chronicles. During Emma’s lifetime she commissioned a book to be written about events she witnessed or which impacted her in some way. It is known today as the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and it was certainly read and discussed at the Anglo-Danish-Norman court where she reigned as queen mother. More than 500 years later a copy of that book was owned by William Cecil, chief advisor to Elizabeth I, so it’s quite possible that the great Tudor queen, too, was familiar with Emma’s name and reputation.

And then there’s the play. Emma appears as a character in an Elizabethan drama titled Edmund Ironside. I’ve read it. It’s not a very good play, although at least one scholar thinks it may have been written by Shakespeare. If he’s right, it would have been a very early work. But Emma is in there, so someone in the 16th century knew her story well enough to imagine her as a real woman, a mother and a queen.

QueenEmmaVikingsScholars of medieval history, of course, have always known about Queen Emma. Many eminent historians – Alistair Campbell, Helen Damico, Simon Keynes, Eleanor Searle, and Pauline Stafford – have looked closely at Emma’s career. Their in-depth studies have informed recent popular biographies by Isabella Strachan and Harriet O’Brien. They’ve also inspired novelists such as Helen Hollick (I am the Chosen King), Dorothy Dunnett (King Hereafter) Anya Seton (Avalon), Justin Hill (Shieldwall) who cast Emma in supporting roles.

But when it came to popular recognition, Emma could not hold a candle to Eleanor of Aquitaine or Anne Boleyn – a situation, I am happy to note, that appears to be changing.

FQueenIn 2005 British historical novelist Helen Hollick made Emma the central figure of her book A Hollow Crown, which appeared in the U.S. in 2010 as The Forever Queen. Readers loved it, and awareness of who Emma was began to spread.

My own novel about Emma, Shadow on the Crown, was published in 2013 in North America, Britain and the British Territories. It has since been translated into four languages, which means that readers in Russia, Germany, Italy and even Brazil are becoming acquainted with Queen Emma. The sequel The Price of Blood, was released in 2015. It continues Emma’s story and will be followed by a third book to complete the series.

So, through the efforts of scholars, of historians, of novelists who love history, and of readers who love historical fiction, this remarkable woman is once more being recognized as a significant figure in English history. On this day, 964 years ago, she left this middle earth. I am thinking of her today – as I do every day, actually – with admiration; and I salute all those who are helping to spread the word about Emma of Normandy, the all-but-forgotten, twice-crowned queen of England.

RussianShadow1

Shadow on the Crown, Russian edition

 

Posted in Books, History | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Vikings 4, Episode 3: MERCY

vikings4.3i

There was a lot of howling in this episode. Did you notice?
Floki howls in pain, despair and grief.
Lagertha howls in ecstasy.
Bjorn gets howling drunk, but he also howls with triumph, with pain, and with cold.
Rollo howls – more of a roar, really – in frustration and fury.
It was a noisy episode.

We begin with Floki, still suffering the torment inflicted upon him by Ragnar as punishment for Athelstan’s murder. We’re wondering if the poor guy will ever get out of that wretched cave.

Photo Credit: timeslipsblog.wordpress.com

Photo Credit: timeslipsblog.wordpress.com

Photo Credit: ohsogray.com

Photo Credit: ohsogray.com

We see another side of Ragnar when his young family is gathered around him listening to his story about Thor’s meeting with the Ferryman, Harbard. Very charming; but wait. Things turn grim when he flings the name Harbard at Aslaug with that twisted, sinister smile of his. In case you’ve forgotten, last season Harbard was the name of the Wanderer who seduced Aslaug. There were strange, mystical events that took place while he was in Kattegat, suggesting that he was Odin, as in the tale that Ragnar tells. But Ragnar perceives Aslaug’s brief fling as betrayal, and we know how he feels about betrayal. (See Floki.)

In Hedeby Lagertha and Kalf are still making nice, but when he leaves her bed (okay, they were making VERY NICE), she looks thoughtful. Good thing, because outside Kalf is intriguing with the slimy Erlendur against all Lothbroks.

Gimli - small berserker

Gimli – small berserker

Enter the quintessential Viking berserker who is given a ring and an assignment. The ring appears to be significant. Well, rings were meaningful to Anglo-Saxons and Danes alike. In an age when writing and reading were rare, a ring was a seal, a sign of authority, an identification, a promise, a reward. They may even have been imbued with magical qualities. So we’ll see where this goes. The berserker is big, bearded, scary, and the only noise he makes is a growl. He reminds me of a giant Gimli on steroids.

Bjorn. Bear.

Bjorn. Bear.

Up in the far north Bjorn is going after a bear – a challenge he has set for himself. His name means ‘bear’ in every Scandinavian tongue, so this has totemic significance. The rigorous training that Bjorn has undertaken is certain to serve him well in a future episode. But I’ll tell you what: I saw this episode the day after I saw THE REVENANT, and I am so done with bears.

Ragnar’s link to Bjorn is underlined when, at the pivotal moment of the bear scene, we are back with Ragnar who looks up, suddenly alert. He sees a raven winging the sky, then sees a young Bjorn coming toward him. I thought it was a lovely touch.

In Paris – well, we know we’re in Paris because servants are setting out a magnificent feast. I guess even in the 10th century, Paris was the capital of haute cuisine. Rollo’s wife continues to goad him, and it is painful to watch his blundering efforts to emulate Frankish manners. I hate Rollo’s new hairdo, and I think that’s the intention. Writer Hirst underscores the differences in culture with setting and costume. Consider King Ragnar and Emperor Charles on their thrones.

Ragnar's decor is early Scandinavian minimalist

Ragnar’s decor is early Scandinavian minimalist

Charles' decor is high medieval over-the-top

Charles’ decor is high medieval over-the-top

On to Wessex where Ecbert’s army is still in training. We see them at this several times. They are going to be a really well-trained army. Historically, Ecbert and his sons must have spent a lot of time training as well. They were warrior kings, and right up through

Kwenthrith the Creepy

Kwenthrith the Creepy

Henry VIII English kings were expected to be big, strong, battle-hardened, and victorious in war. I think Ecbert should be out there with his troops. Instead he is lolling about with Judith. And his son is lolling about with Kwenthrith who, I’m sorry, is really creepy. When she first appeared in this series I described her as smarmy, deceitful and dangerous. Now she’s coming across as maternal and needy, but I still think she’s deceitful and dangerous. And creepy.

Meantime, Judith wants to be considered the king’s equal, and I have to state here that this was a concept that would probably never even have occurred to Judith. In the 10th century women were the weaker vessels, subservient to men. That being said, the real Judith was quite a gal, and she wanted to do more than paint. Maybe I’ll tell you about her some day. (Note: there were some very powerful women at that time. It’s the notion of ‘equality’ that is the problem here.)

And then, ATHELSTAN RETURNS.

Athelstan. Photo Credit: inquisitr.com

Athelstan. Photo Credit: inquisitr.com

There is symbolism: the washing of the feet evokes Christ’s action before his death; the repetition of the word MERCY, three times – 3 was a mystical number in all religions; the opening of doors signals the arrival of a visitor from the spirit world. The quick cuts back and forth between Kattegat and Winchester during this segment built suspense, and the music was instrumental (sorry) in adding to the rising tension. I enjoyed that segment enormously.

The episode concludes back in the cave with Floki, where it has been leading all along.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Vikings 4, Episode 2: Kill the Queen

Vikings4mAs I’ve stated before, VIKINGS is not history. It is fiction studded with historical elements, and for me part of the fun is nosing out the history on which this fiction is based.

vikings4.2bIn Ragnar-land this week, near the fictional village of Kattegat, Bjorn is wandering an icy tundra to prove that he’s tough; Floki has escaped his confinement and is running for his life; and things between Ragnar and Aslaug are dicey. These story lines are born from screenwriter Michael Hirst’s imagination. Fair enough.

Photo credit: Atlasofwonders.com

VIKINGS’ Paris. Photo credit: Atlasofwonders.com

In Paris, Rollo and Odo meet over a cool 3-D layout of the Seine, and Rollo shows Odo how to defend Paris: 1. build two towers facing each other across the Seine; 2. run a chain across the river; 3. build more ships. In fact, the towers definitely existed, although long before Rollo appeared on the scene. And those towers spelled trouble for the vikings in the 9th century. As for the chain, there was a great chain across Constantinople’s Golden Horn in the 10th century, and it could have been there earlier. Whether there was ever one across the Seine, we’ll never know. But it was possible. As for the ships, you can never have too many ships.

15th c illustration of Rollo marrying Gisla

15th c illustration of Rollo marrying Gisla

Meantime, Rollo tries to emulate Frankish looks, and although I don’t care for the way it’s handled here, Vikings who settled in northern Frankia eventually embraced Frankish culture: language, religion and, yes, probably clothing and hair styles. They would become distinctly Norman, though; not French. As for Rollo’s relationship with Gisla, there is a tradition that she spoke disparagingly of her Viking husband, and screenwriter Michael Hirst seems to be following that tradition. Nevertheless, the Rollo who looks abashed in the presence of his haughty bride does not seem consistent with the Viking warrior that we have seen in previous episodes.

Vikings4.2dAnd now, to Wessex and Ecbert the Awesome. His ally Queen Kwentrith of Mercia has been overthrown by her nobles and is being held in ‘a tower somewhere’. Really. Those are the words that Ecbert’s son Æthelwulf uses. So, let’s find her, he says, and rescue her, and this may mean we have to go to war with Mercia, so prepare your men for battle.

What’s interesting about this scene is that one of Ecbert’s nobles complains, But we may not have to go to battle, and keeping an army in the field is expensive. He’s right. The army has to be fed and trained, and while it’s doing that, it is not plowing fields or raising sheep. And this was a problem that the Anglo-Saxons faced when dealing with Viking raiders for decades. By the time the English had gathered to fight, the raiders had looted and left. Nevertheless, Ecbert seems to have been able to raise armies and use them against Vikings, Britons, Mercians and East Saxons so that Wessex became the dominant power in southern England.

Vikings4.2aSo we see Ecbert’s army practicing their moves. Apparently someone has ridden  500 years into the future and brought back 14th century helmets for them to wear. Mind you, only the very wealthy had helmets at all, and they would not have looked like this in 829. (Note: the only wealthy man in the group is actually NOT wearing a helmet. Go figure.) The point that’s being made, though, is that Ecbert is preparing for conquest.

But there is a personal side to this storyline, because Ecbert’s daughter-in-law Judith doesn’t want to be his bed-mate anymore (a liaison that is totally fictional, of course). Ecbert asks her what she wants, what she really wants. What will make her free? (A very non-9th century concept). Her reply: I want to paint.

Illuminated manuscript: Barberini Gospels. 8th c

Illuminated manuscript: Barberini Gospels. 8th c

Oh! Well, I didn’t see that one coming. She wants to illuminate sacred books, like the monk Athelstan did, only we’re told that it was considered immoral for women to do such a thing. Ecbert paves the way for her to get what she wants, but wait a minute. Consider the history. As early as 735, Boniface wrote to the abbess of Minster in Thanet asking her to “write for me in gold the epistles of my lord, St. Peter the Apostle”. Educated nuns were making fine copies of books as well as church textiles and garments. A woman didn’t need permission from a bishop and a king to create something beautiful.

Now, prepare yourselves for next week because, judging from the previews, ATHELSTAN RETURNS.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, Art, History, Normandy, Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vikings 4, Episode 1

Vikings4m
The Vikings are back, with a first episode bearing the somewhat puzzling title of A Good Treason. A better title perhaps would be: Don’t Mess With the Lothbroks. Only Uhtred can do that and succeed, but that’s another show. (See earlier reviews of The Last Kingdom.)

Vikings4lWhen last we saw Ragnar he was sick unto death, but in the Prologue of this episode he is looking great as he rides through some gorgeous scenery that has been enhanced with CGI because green hills don’t fade into soaring snow-covered mountains quite like that in real life. So we suspect that we’re in a dream world. And then magnificent golden doors appear, and now we KNOW we’re in a dream world, and through those doors we can see Valhalla where the gods are feasting, and Ragnar is desperate to enter, but the doors close before he can reach them, poor guy. And we don’t know if he’s been shut out because he’s been baptized a Christian, or because he’s dying without a sword in his hand, or if it’s just not his time to die. But we’re glad he isn’t dead yet because old blue eyes has some unfinished business, and we want to see how he deals with it.

Photo credit: lipstickalley.com

Photo credit: lipstickalley.com

For starters, there’s Bjorn. He’s trying to step into his father’s shoes in a good son kind of way, but Ragnar is more than a little irked by some of his decisions. Their father-son conference does not go well, especially when Ragnar asks, “Whose stupid idea was it to leave Rollo in Paris?” And we’re reminded that the relationship between Rollo and Ragnar, too, has had its ups and downs, and we’re betting our crossbows that this season it’s on the downslide big time.

But over in Paris Rollo has problems of his own, married as he is to a weepy Princess Gisla. Her sniveling seems totally out of character compared to last season when she was tough as nails and giving Rollo haughty looks that promised future fireworks. Here, though, she is reduced to weeping at the sight of a half-naked, tattooed Rollo, and we’re thinking, “Oh, honey! Just be glad it’s not that smarmy Odo.”
vikings4iAnd she’s stripped to her shift, but still pulls a knife and Yikes! Where did she even have a place to hide that thing? Rollo, though, takes it in stride. He’s a Viking!

Photo credit: ign.com

Photo credit: ign.com

Over in Hedeby Lagertha has allied with Kalf. They’re co-jarls now, although she’s not wearing his arm ring or anything. Some folks in the village are not too happy about their alliance and they make the mistake of protesting. There are protests in France, as well, where Rollo’s gang of Vikings are irritated by his new uppity lifestyle. Like the Hedeby villagers they make the mistake of complaining about it. The upshot? Oh, people. Don’t mess with the Lothbroks.

Photo: History Channel

Photo: History Channel

Posted in Review, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Favorite Childhood Reads

January is when many bloggers write about their favorite books of the previous year. I’m going to be a little perverse and look back a little farther than that – all the way to…

Grammar School

When I was a kid I could usually be found curled up somewhere with a book. Look at that picture below. See? I looked JUST LIKE THAT.

Photo: artistsandart.org

Photo: artistsandart.org

I had favorites, of course – books that I read and loved. Every reader has such a list, and mine is a long one, but here are the three books at the very top.

little-womenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
How many girls have been inspired by Louisa Alcott, I wonder. The number must be in the millions. She gave us a loving family, a supportive mother and four sisters to choose from as role models. All the elements that we look for in a moving story are here: conflict, tragedy, romance, noble heroines and heroes, disappointments and, eventually, a happy ending. I owe Ms. Alcott a great debt for creating the character of Jo March and inspiring me to be a teacher and a writer. Keen-eyed readers of my novel The Price of Blood will find a nod to Ms. Alcott in one of its scenes.

AnneGreenGablesAnne of Green Gables by Lucy M. Montgomery (1908)
Montgomery’s redheaded Anne Shirley appealed to me because although she was clever and good-hearted, she managed to get into one scrape after another. Clinging to a bridge support, stranded, in the middle of a river and getting her best friend Diana Barry drunk on elderberry wine are just two examples. For a ten-year-old me who didn’t always make the right decisions, Anne was not so much a role model as a kindred spirit. (How many times did my father say to me, “I don’t know how someone so smart could be so dumb”?) For years I wished that my hair was red and that my middle name, Ann, was spelled with an E.

SecretGardenAThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgsen Burnett (1911)
At first glance Mary Lennox appears to be an unlikely heroine. Orphaned, unlovely and sullen, she is self-absorbed and even a little mean – until she meets her cousin Colin and sees herself reflected there. Of all my favorite heroines, Mary had the most to learn – about herself and about the world. Like the slumbering garden that she nurtured into wakefulness, Mary’s personality blossomed under the gentle guidance of the people who befriended her. Did I recognize myself in sullen little Mary when I was a child? Probably not, although I see my young self in her now; I could pout with the best of them. No, I was enraptured instead by the huge, mysterious house in which she found herself, by the Yorkshire moors that struck me as no less strange and mysterious, and by the garden that, growing up in suburban Los Angeles, I could only imagine.

Does anyone read these classic novels today? There is a whole new crop of adventurous heroines now to inspire girls, and I have a feeling that Jo, Anne, and Mary have been replaced by newer heroines like Hermione and Katniss. But where did Hermione and Katniss come from? No writer works in a vacuum. The writer’s mind – and the readers’ minds! – carry the memories of earlier stories and earlier characters, embedded so deeply that often we don’t realize they are there. They color our expectations of what a heroine should be or what a villain should be. Sometimes the influence is conscious. Katniss Everdeen’s last name, for example, is pulled from a character in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd; and J.K.Rowling’s literary allusions are legion. Without her wide reading, surely begun in childhood, there would be no Hermione or Harry.

So while I applaud the new heroines, I also hope that the moving stories that inspired so many readers once upon a time will continue to be read and treasured by little girls for years and years to come.

On Pilgrimage:

Concord3

Orchard House, Concord, Mass. Where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Where L.M.Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Where L.M.Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables

On the moors, Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire moors, that figure so prominently in The Secret Garden. Burnett wrote the book, though, at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, where the gardens can still be seen.

 

Posted in Books, Inspiration | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments