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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 3

Episode 3 of Season 4 of The Last Kingdom is permeated with threat, devastation and loss. There is no place in the dialogue for ribald humor or even wry jests among Uhtred’s companions. The father/son theme continues, and the contrast between Uhtred and his cousin Wihtgar could not be greater.  

It begins at Bebbanburg. The cliff hanger we were clinging to, wide-eyed, at the end of Episode 2 is almost immediately resolved when both Uhtred and Beocca try to defuse the tense situation between Uhtred and his cousin, who apparently has never learned to play nicely with others. We do not know why the father he’s just murdered had expelled him from Bebbanburg in the first place, but perhaps it was because of an overarching ego, ambition, cruelty, and a total lack of compassion and reason. We’ve been getting those vibes from Wihtgar, and now they’re confirmed. Uhtred’s response when Beocca throws himself in front of Wihtgar’s arrow aimed at young Uhtred is one of maddened outrage and despair, and as his men make their desperate escape, with Finan dragging Uhtred from the slaughter yard, it starts to rain. Or maybe I was just getting all teary-eyed.

Shipwrecked, sick, and wounded, the men finally make landfall. Uhtred is heartsick and devastated. Even Finan can’t comfort him, at least not right away. I was impressed with the dialogue here, especially Uhtred’s despair that he could not retrieve Beocca’s body, that the priest would lie among strangers. Burial rites were important to all peoples in this age, and we are reminded of Uhtred’s rage when his pagan wife Gisela was given a Christian burial, and how he exhumed her body to place it on a pyre as she would have wished. (Historical aside: 100 years later King Swein Forkbeard’s body, buried in England, would be exhumed and borne to Denmark for fear the English would find his English grave and desecrate his corpse.)

We don’t know where in England Uhtred and his companions are, and neither do they. Uhtred is lost—physically and emotionally. He has lost Bebbanburg, and he has lost Beocca, who was the one constant in his life. Over the course of the episode, as he and his men appear to wander aimlessly, Uhtred grapples with his loss, with his role as a leader of men that he believes he can no longer fill, and with his strained relationship with his son. Finan is now the one constant in his life from the days when they were slaves together, and it’s Finan who holds the team together and seeks to ease the antipathy between young Uhtred and his father.

Finan (Mark Rowley) with young Uhtred (Finn Elliot)

Finan finally gets through to Uhtred, too, as he buries the cross Hild gave him because he cannot bury Beocca. “If Beocca were here he would tell you this is not the end,” Finan insists. “We’ll get more men and return to Bebbanburg. We’ll batter down the gates!” The insertion of scenes of Beocca with Uhtred from earlier episodes was quite moving. Ian Hart, we will miss you!

In Winchester the father/son theme is playing out in an altogether different way as family politics continue to roil. King Edward is attempting to out-think Cnut, and he’s spot-on, actually. Cnut is trying to lure him into a battle that Edward knows he can’t win, not without Aethelred’s Mercians who are in East Anglia where Aethelred is pretending to be a king. (Have you noticed how Aethelred is almost always wearing that pointy crown, yet he’s not a king?) Wessex, though, not Mercia, is Edward’s first concern. His mother, a Mercian, insists that his father Alfred would go to Mercia’s aid, and that only puts Edward’s back up. The most he’ll do is send a messenger to demand that Aethelred hightail it back to Mercia, which doesn’t please the Mercians in the family one bit.

Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Millie Brady as Aethelflaed, James Northcote as Aldhelm. The Mercian contingent.

Aethelflaed, remembered historically as a Mercian leader whose close and constant cooperation with her brother Edward against the Danes was a brilliant coordinated strategy, at this point in our story decides that she has to force Edward’s hand. She sets out for Mercia to raise the fyrd against Cnut. When Edward finds out what she’s doing he’s angrier than ever because she’s forcing him to send troops to help her. Father-in-law Aethelhelm, though, counsels that there’s an advantage to just sitting back and allowing Mercia to lose to the Danes and letting Aethelflaed meet whatever fate awaits her, thus revealing himself to be the snake that Beocca said he was.

Concerned for her daughter and frustrated by her son’s refusal to lead his army against Cnut, Aelswith sends Fr. Pyrlig to the Welsh king to enlist his aid against the Danes. She perceives this as a battle for the soul of England—Christians against pagans. And if Fr. Pyrlig gets in trouble with King Edward for bringing the Welsh into the mix, well, it’s God’s will. Oh Aelswith! You are so hard to love!

Edward’s messenger to Aethelred runs into that handsome weasel Eardwulf first and is murdered before he can tell the ealdorman that Mercia is in trouble and that Eardwulf was an idiot for trusting Haesten’s information about Cnut’s departure for Ireland. Speaking of Haesten, we’ve known for some time that he had to spill the beans to someone about Cnut’s involvement in Ragnar’s murder, and it’s no surprise that when Haesten and Uhtred meet on a trail in a forest somewhere in England (what are the chances of that?) he fills Uhtred in on all that’s been happening in Mercia and Wessex, he gleefully vilifies Aethelflaed, then slyly reveals Cnut’s crime to prevent Uhtred from gutting him.

Haesten’s news that Aethelflaed is in trouble sends Uhtred toward Aylesbury, with Cnut’s sons in tow as hostages. On the way he has a heart to heart with his own son, and they come to an understanding.

 

In Aylesbury Uhtred finds that Aethelflaed is desperately short of defenders. She doesn’t know if Edward is coming. She doesn’t know if Aethelred is coming. She doesn’t have a clue about Pyrlig’s mission to the Welsh.

And on a ridge outside of Aylesbury, a gang of Cnut’s men are preparing to attack, with orders to capture the Lady of Mercia.

All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 2

Episode 2 of this season’s The Last Kingdom picks up right where the first episode left off, following the two story lines of 1) Uhtred’s effort to re-take Bebbanburg and 2) Cnut and Brida’s effort to conquer Mercia and Wessex. But there is a third storyline that lies beneath both of these: family politics that impact royal succession and decision-making. And while much of what we are watching here is fiction, the family politics regarding succession were very real, although greatly simplified here and woven through with fictional interactions.

Historically, because King Edward’s first marriage, to Ecgwynn, brought him little dynastic advantage, she was sent from court, and no doubt placed in an abbey, so he could marry Aelflaed who had a royal bloodline. (An historical aside: remember that murdering little weasel Aethelwold? Well, Aelflaed was the real Aethelwold’s niece.) Anyway, when Edward’s new wife gave him a son, his firstborn son Aethelstan had to leave court. Edward’s second wife was indeed anointed queen of Wessex—an honor and title that Edward’s mother was never given, and The Last Kingdom plays on that by portraying Aelswith’s resentment and her vain efforts to stop the coronation. Aelswith has always been a complicated character, and Eliza Butterworth does a marvelous job of showing us every facet of her personality.

Oh, Aelswith. What are you plotting?

In this episode her frustration at seeing her young grandson’s preference for his maternal grandpa over her sends her in search of her other grandson; and anyone watching who has never heard of King Aethelstan now knows who he was. I loved that moment of revelation.

There is, too, an excellent scene in which King Edward is pummeled with conflicting advice from his father-in-law, his mother, his sister and a couple of advisors all at the same time. It’s a veritable cacophony that highlights how family politics impacted royal decision-making. Edward is not amused, and seems almost frozen with indecision.  

An unhappy, indecisive King Edward

Now let’s consider the Cnut and Brida ‘Let’s Kill Aethelred to draw King Edward into a trap’ story line. The mindless slaughter—of Saxon families by Cnut’s Danes and of Danish families by Aethelred’s Saxons—is making Season 4 horrifyingly violent. Mind you, Bernard Cornwell can write a battle scene that covers five or six pages, but they are battles between armed forces, not the mindless slaughter of unarmed townsfolk. I get it that this is an effort to portray the cruelty of both Cnut (Magnus Brun) and Aethelred—and of Brida, who becomes more bloodthirsty with every scene—but I hope that we don’t have to watch much more of this kind of bloodshed.

Brida reminds me of Lady Macbeth: Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, topfull of direst cruelty. She and Cnut are getting on famously right now, so much so that there appears to be a baby on the way. But if she finds out that Cnut was behind the murder of her beloved Ragnar, Cnut had better watch out, and that seems to be where this plot line is heading.

Aethelred’s determination to conquer East Anglia, which takes him all the way to England’s eastern coast when he should have been protecting Mercia is adding to Edward’s woes. It saves Aethelred, though, from the butchery the Danes are wreaking at Aylesbury. He doesn’t know how fortunate he is, though. He’s busy trying to seduce Eadith while she’s busy trying to avoid his bed. And she’s really worried that Aethelred is going to order her brother to kill Aethelflad which, give Eadith credit, she does not want.

While the Danes are rampaging in Mercia, while Aethelred is rampaging in East Anglia, and while King Edward is trying to figure out what to do about them, our hero Uhtred is on his way home to Bebbanburg.

Fr. Beocca and Uhtred, heading home

He only has about 20 men to attack this impregnable fortress, but Uncle Aelfric only has 40 men within the walls to defend it, right? Umm, no. Two ships have arrived in the very nick of time, filled with warriors led by a surprise guest named Wihtgar (Ossian Perret), and we can tell that they are going to throw a monkey wrench into Uhtred’s homecoming.

The well-dressed mystery guest arrives at Bebbanburg

As Uhtred’s ship approaches Bebbanburg he worries that he is taking his men toward defeat, that it is not the right time to attempt this. Fr. Beocca, though, assures him that he will succeed, and Uhtred has already set in motion his plan for getting into the fortress. Young Uhtred is integral to that plan’s success, and he does what his father has told him to do (he’s been raised by monks, and he knows about obedience).

Young Uhtred flatters his way into Bebbanburg fortress

He lies through his teeth to get himself and his monkish companions into Bebbanburg, and he displays courage, defiance and determination when his father’s plan goes all to hell.

The scenes at Bebbanburg are full of plot twists and the slow build-up of tension, with a final, stunning, cliffhanger of a reversal. When the credits rolled I was still holding my breath.

Plot twist, soon followed by another plot twist. Yikes!

 

All photos: NETFLIX, The Last Kingdom

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The Last Kingdom 4, Episode 1

The first episode of the long-awaited Season 4 of The Last Kingdom covers a lot of ground—re-connecting us with on-going characters and introducing some new faces. It appears to be following the two major story lines from Cornwell’s 7th novel, The Pagan Lord. The first plot involves Uhtred’s return to Bebbanburg and his attempt to retake it. The second focuses on the Danish armies under Cnut and their efforts to conquer Mercia. How the story lines play out on the show, though, differs greatly from what happens in the novel.

The episode opens with a desperate, bloody battle in Northumbria between our hero’s nasty uncle Aelfric, (Joseph Millson), who stole the fortress and its lands from Uhtred, and a Scottish horde that is eager to dislodge him. Aelfric escapes with his life, but his repellent nature is on full display as he vilifies his men.

Meantime, miles away in southern Mercia, the very opposite of a battle is taking place in Uhtred’s bedchamber. Anyone who is not familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant novels which are the basis for this series might be surprised to see Uhtred making passionate love to the Lady Aethelflaed, but this scene pretty much mimics Cornwell’s first reference to their coupling back in The Burning Land (Book 5) when one morning we discover that she is with him in his bedchamber, her feet bare as she joins him to gaze out the window. There were plenty of hints that this romantic liaison was coming, of course, but nothing explicit, not even a kiss, until now. Nevertheless, in the space of a single scene we learn that Uhtred (Alexander Draemon) and Aethelflaed (Millie Brady) are now lovers, and we are reminded, when they’re interrupted by her supporter Aldhelm (James Northcote), that she is married to Ealdorman Aethelred who hates her and who has not just one lover, but many.

Speaking of Aethelred (Toby Regbo), his newest near-conquest is a beauty named Eadith (Stefanie Martini) who is playing a ‘come hither’ game that is frustrating the ealdorman. She appears to be out for whatever she can get from him without giving anything in return.

Eadith and Aethelred. Does he ever take off that crown?

We hope she wins, but her brother, Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) is worried that Aethelred will slip from the hook if she’s not a little more forthcoming. As the commander of Aethelred’s household guards, Eardwulf has been talking with the Dane Haesten who’s been feeding him information about the movements of Cnut’s Danish army.

Eardwulf, ambitious and a bit clueless.

At this point longtime TLK fans are shouting at the screen “Haesten is a spavined weasel. Don’t trust him!” But Eardwulf can’t hear us.

Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen), of course, is in cahoots with Cnut (Magnus Brun) and Brida who are hungry for conquest and are happily misleading the Saxons about their plans. The character of Brida—the spunky girl who was Uhtred’s love in Season 1 and later Ragnar’s woman—has been slowly evolving into a bitter creature who hates all Christians. It’s an accurate reflection of her character development in the books, and Emily Cox’s portrayal of Brida is spot on.

Down in Winchester there is unrest within the royal family. King Edward’s mother, Lady Not-A-Queen Aelswith (Eliza Butterworth), resents her son’s dependence on his father-in-law, Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller) while she’s been demoted to a new position as the king’s annoying and ignored mother.

Aelswith and Edward. Mother is NOT HAPPY.

It’s true that she was annoying when Alfred was alive, but at least he listened to her counsel. Her son merely sends her to her room (near the kitchens) and when she complains to Fr. Beocca about Aethelhelm’s ambition he tells her, “You cannot invite a serpent into the garden and be surprised when it slithers on the ground.”

Good old Fr. Beocca (Ian Hart). We’re so glad he’s still around, along with Hild (Eva Birthistle), Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin), Steapa (Adrian Bouchet), and Uhtred’s merry gang of loyal followers Finan (Mark Rowley), Sihtric (Arnas Fedaravicius) and Osferth (Ewan Mitchell).

Uhtred’s son, Uhtred, makes his appearance near the episode’s end. There were two sons in the novels, and the show runners have decided to combine them into one figure. He and dad do not get along, which is not surprising, given that the boy was raised by monks to be a fervent Christian per Alfred’s command. I loved Uhtred’s grumbling aside that Alfred still torments him. Uhtred the elder really tries to reach out to the boy, but Uhtred the younger is a typical teenager—resentful, surly, defiant, and mouthy for a monk—to the great amusement of Uhtred’s merry band. His personality is very different from either of the sons in the novels. He’s actually a lot like his father, and adorable. Played by actorFinn Elliot.

Uhtred, son of Uhtred

There seems to be a father/son theme running through the episode. In a lovely moment Uhtred calls Beocca ‘father’, and he doesn’t appear to be using it as a title but as a relationship. Edward seems to have accepted Aethelhelm as a father figure, despite trying to be his own man. Edward’s rejected son, Athelstan, is mentioned, and as he is important I think we’ll be seeing him soon. Cnut’s two sons have joined him from Ireland. Aelfric is in trouble because his only son is dead, another digression from the novels. And Uhtred reclaims his own son from the abbey, although the jury is still out about how that relationship is going to go.

It’s a wonderful beginning to a new season. And now, on to Bebbanburg!

Uhtred and company, setting sail for Northumbria

All photos: Netflix, THE LAST KINGDOM

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Æthelred the King

King Æthelred II, from The Life of King Edward the Confssor. 13th c. Cambridge University Library

On 23 April 1016, Æthelred, king of England, died in London. He was about 50 years old, and he’d ruled England for 38 years. At his death he’d not yet been given the byname, Unræd, (ill-counseled, a play on the Old English meaning of his name, æthel ræd – noble counsel). That would come some years later. Eventually Unræd would be corrupted into Unready, and he would be known as Æthelred the Unready for centuries. As the bynames suggest, his reputation has been anything but enviable:

“His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending.” William of Malmesbury, History of the English Kings, 12th century;

“He is the only ruler of the male line of Ecbert whom we can unhesitatingly set down as a bad man and a bad king.” Edward Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 1867.

According to historian Simon Keynes’ entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he was “unequal to the challenge that confronted him, and unfortunate in the circumstances that engulfed him…”

But what do we really know about the man himself?

Biographer Ann Williams, in Æthelred the Unready, the Ill-counselled King, cautions: “We do not and cannot know what kind of a man Æthelred was, only what he did and what happened to him.”

Nevertheless, the things that Æthelred did would seem to indicate that he could be in turns ruthless or diplomatic, vindictive or forgiving, energetic or irresolute. One historian refers to his reign as bi-polar. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries for this period are as puzzling as they are gripping (and depressing).

Æthelred took the throne under a cloud of suspicion and foreboding. His half-brother, King Edward, had been attacked and murdered, and that crime paved the way for Æthelred’s coronation.

As the queen greets her stepson, his murderers creep up behind him

That no one was punished for King Edward’s murder hints at a cover-up, if not collusion, by someone in power; if not the  young Æthelred, aged ten, then others quite close to him–perhaps even standing right behind him as he was anointed king.

Coronation of the young AEthelred, watched over by his mother, the queen. From a 19th century popular history.

William of Malmesbury wrote that Æthelred was “haunted by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood.” He seems to imply that the troubles that Æthelred faced were brought on by that unpunished murder of King Edward, and that the English suffered because of it. But what happened over the next 30-odd years was far more complicated than that.

When Æthelred attained the throne, England had been a united kingdom for a mere forty years, and allegiances to kin were still far stronger than any oaths made to a distant king. The murder of Æthelred’s half-brother King Edward by men who had sworn loyalty to him is a sign of unrest that didn’t end with the new king’s coronation. When he came of age, Æthelred resorted to steel-gloved efforts to rein in his nobles. These included confiscation of property, exile, blinding, execution, and outright murder. 

Duties of Kingship from the Old English Hexateuch. BBC.co.uk

It wasn’t easy being king.

Æthelred’s sullied reputation rests mostly, though, on his failure to protect his people from the ravages of the northmen. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of the 38 years of his monarchy, only 14 were free from devastation inflicted by ever larger viking armies. Æthelred’s efforts to protect England failed utterly. The armies he raised were vanquished. His attempts to bribe the vikings bought England only brief respites. His alliance with Normandy in 1002 brought him a new queen who gave him three children to add to his tally of six sons and 4 daughters by his first wife, but it did not rid him of his ship-borne enemies, one of whom would drive him from his kingdom. Only Swein Forkbeard’s sudden death would allow Æthelred to re-take his throne. 

King Swein Forkbeard, conqueror of AEthelred’s England

Was Æthelred any more ruthless or cruel than other rulers of his time? Probably not. His was a world that was governed by the sword despite the laws that he enacted and presumably sought to enforce. In the final, dark years of his reign, with a Viking army ravaging the land, all loyalties were strained to the breaking point, and English unity was fractured more than ever. “…there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire, moreover, would stand by another.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Nevertheless, Æthelred’s success at holding his kingdom together for nearly 40 years–except for his 4-month exile in Normandy–meant that art and culture could flourish despite the unrest that plagued the land. Benedictine abbeys patronized by wealthy nobles produced metalwork, sculptures, and gloriously illuminated manuscripts.

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. Winchester. 10th c. British Library

Many of the greatest works of Old English literature were written at this time including lives of saints and the homilies of Ælfric and of scholar/statesman Archbishop Wulfstan. The only copy of Beowulf in existence was produced, it’s believed, while Æthelred was king.

Such accomplishments as these, though, must be weighed against murders, executions, misplaced trust, bad decisions and desperation that characterized his reign. Æthelred died a reinstated king, but he was a king who had been ill-equipped to cope with the enormous challenges he faced. Even if he was not literally haunted by his brother’s ghost, he must have been, in his final days, haunted by his failures as a ruler.

“He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 11th century

 

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Swords, Wyrms & Vikings

 

One of the treasures on display at Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure Exhibit is an impressive 13th century sword, the Conyers Falchion.

According to a legend, this falchion was used by Sir John Conyers to slay the Sockburn Wyrm. The wyrm had very bad breath (fire breathing perhaps?) and had been ravaging the countryside for seven years before Sir John came along and used the falchion to kill the beast.

Book by Paul Telfer & Linda Edwards

Scholars believe that Lewis Carroll, who grew up near the River Tees where the wyrm once roamed, may have been inspired by this legend to write the poem Jabberwocky.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky is one of the few poems I actually know by heart, and I imagine that a lot of people know at least its first two words even if they might not know what one of them means:

“‘Twas brillig!”

Note: “bryllyg is derived from the verb to bryl or broil, so ‘the time of broiling dinner, i.e. the close of the afternoon.”

Now you know.

The Sockburn Wyrm is not the only ancient wyrm story that has been flying around Northumbria for centuries. A study by the University of Durham indicates that there are at least 20 separate folk tales about wyrms recorded in Northumbria, County Durham and Yorkshire.

Wikimedia Commons: The Lambton Wyrm from C. E. Brock, English & Other Folk Tales

The best known of these tales are The Sockburn Wyrm, The Lambton Wyrm, and The Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh. I’m happy to report that when I was at Bamburgh last fall I did not see the Laidly Wyrm, although I DID hear about her. Wyrm, by the way, is Old English, meaning dragon or serpent. Laidly means loathsome.

Wikimedia Commons: The Laidly Wyrm by John Batten

The various versions of these tales have the dragon eating cattle and carrying off small children. Sometimes the villagers appease the monster by offering it a daily dose of gallons and gallons of milk.

All the stories feature a young warrior who returns home from a journey to vanquish the creature who has been wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. These medieval stories were apparently based on even older tales, some of them dating to pre-Conquest times, and they were expropriated by the families to promote their chivalric past.

But why are there so many of these dragon tales in Northumbria? One theory is that they are an ancient memory of viking armies that once ravaged Anglo-Saxon England. Viking longboats (dragon ships, or drekar in Old Norse) with their carved dragon figureheads could easily be imagined as actual beasts threatening the land. Imagine that it’s the middle of the night, and you are suddenly wakened from sleep. You peer groggily out the door and see a line of fire moving towards you. Is it a fire-breathing wyrm or a viking army? Either way, small children, cattle, sheep and crops are in great danger. If it’s a viking army, though, you can be pretty sure that it won’t be appeased with a big bowl of milk.

Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Sources:
Durhamcathedral.co.uk
englandnortheast.co.uk
The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner

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Reflections on the Dark

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space…
………from DARKNESS, by Lord Byron

I live in California where massive fires fanned by high winds have recently been raging all over the state. There are fires burning even as I type this. Some residents have been forced to evacuate because of the flames, some tragically have lost their homes. During this period of strong winds and hot, dry weather hundreds of thousands of Californians have had their power cut off in an effort to prevent power cables from starting fires (a vain effort, it seems). The power outages have been a severe hardship for many residents and for businesses.

At our house the lack of power, light, internet was an inconvenience, but nothing remotely resembling the hardship that others suffered. We had enough warning to make preparations: phones and laptops topped up; ice purchased to keep food cold; the medievalist in the house setting out candles, and the engineer placing batteries in an assortment of flashlights.

Nevertheless, we were in the dark for a couple of nights, and it gave me the tiniest glimpse into what life was like for the average person in earlier centuries. For example, there was a reason that the main meal was prepared and eaten at mid-day or late afternoon. Try cooking with only the light from the hearth, or try chopping vegetables or washing dishes with only a single candle or rush light.

Because in the modern West we have all but banished darkness, one of the books I used in researching my historical novels was At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch.

I was trying to understand what it was like to live in a dark world. Right from the start Ekirch emphasized humanity’s fear of the dark. “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Moving forward in time, though, straight into the Early Medieval Period, he suggested that not every culture might have suffered from that fear. “The Vikings appear to have relished nocturnal assaults…Rather than access to lighting, perhaps habitual exposure every winter to Scandinavian darkness steeled Norsemen to its terrors.”

Yes, it stands to reason that men who were unafraid of crossing vast expanses of water in small wooden ships would hardly be afraid of the dark!

On the other side of the equation, light, in particular firelight, was also a threat to our ancestors. In Anglo-Saxon England fire would have been a constant danger to villages of wooden, thatch-roofed houses. Cities were not immune, of course. London was a veritable tinder box. It was destroyed by fire seven times (1st, 2nd 7th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 13th centuries) before the Great London Fire of 1666. Driven by strong winds, that fire burned for five days, destroyed 13,200 homes and 87 churches, and left 100,000 people homeless.

By comparison, the Camp Fire that razed the California town of Paradise last November burned for 17 days, destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people. It began before sunrise, in the dark.

It seems that even with all our technological advances we are at the mercy of the same hazards that threatened our forebears.  Fire. Wind. Even the darkness that we have tried so hard to banish.

Dedicated with gratitude to the firefighters who risk their lives to protect the rest of us from terrible harm.

Photo Credits:
Moon: The Press Democrat
Viking Raid: History.com
Great fire of London, painted 1670: Museum of London
Firefighter: SFGate.com

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Winterfell: The Story Behind the Name

In George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the Stark family—descended from the ancient Kings of Winter—rules from its northern fastness of Winterfell. That name, WINTERFELL, conjures up images of both WINTER and SNOWFALL, appropriate for a place that is the farthest north in the Seven Kingdoms until one hits a vast, sheer wall magically conjured out of ice.

But Martin didn’t make up the name WINTERFELL out of whole cloth. He shaped it out of a similar name found in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien invented a Shire Calendar for the hobbits of Middle Earth, and the name of the month that ran from 22 September to 21 October was WINTERFILTH. But Tolkien, too, borrowed that word, as well as his entire hobbit calendar. He modeled it on the Anglo-Saxon calendar recorded by Bede, a Benedictine monk and revered historian who lived in Northumbria in the 8th century.

The tomb of St. Bede at Durham Cathedral

Bede’s De Temporeum Rationem, (The Reckoning of Time), lists the lunar months of the Anglo-Saxon year, and the tenth month of that year was Winterfylleð. The name combines two words, the first meaning winter and the second meaning full moon because, for the Anglo-Saxons, winter began on the first full moon of the tenth month.

This year the first full moon of the tenth month rises on October 13 or, as the Anglo-Saxons would say, Winterfylleð, and it remind us that winter is coming.

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THE LIFE OF EDMUND IRONSIDE at The Road to Hastings Website

Novelist Paula Lofting very kindly asked me to write something recently for The Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series on her Road to Hastings Website, and I posted a brief bio there of Edmund Ironside. That’s Edmund up there on the left facing the Danish Cnut in battle. Although Edmund is something of a dark horse in my novels SHADOW ON THE CROWN and THE PRICE OF BLOOD, I have rather a soft spot for this remarkably heroic figure who ruled England for 222 days after the death of his father, Æthelred the Unready. You can find the post on Paula’s website HERE.

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Game of Thrones & The Sense of an Ending

There have been a number of complaints posted on the internet over the past few days about the final episode of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t watched it, don’t read this. If you’ve watched it and were disappointed, read on, because I’m going to try to make you feel better.

The most frequent complaint that I’ve run across has to do with Daenerys’ transformation from Breaker of Chains to Mass Murderer. It seemed, according to many, that it happened in the blink of an eye. Viewers weren’t prepared for it. My response: viewers weren’t paying close enough attention. She’s been doing this for some time.

In episode after episode, Dany assumes the role of sole judge against those she sees as enemies, and the line drawn between justice and vengeance is incredibly thin. By the time she arrives in Westeros she is expecting to be welcomed as Deliverer, just like she was in Mereen. Even when she realizes that she is perceived as an outside conqueror, mistrusted because of her lineage and her history, her conviction that she is the rightful queen of Westeros and that all must submit to her never changes. She roasts the Tarlys. Why? Because they refused to break the oaths they had made to another queen. That’s only two men, you may object. But she would have killed anyone else who stood with the Tarlys, she made that clear. There were no half-measures for Daenerys by this time. Again and again she rejected mercy, choosing fear and fire instead. Drogon was a smoking gun and she was determined to use him.

Viewers were lulled into trusting her decisions, just as Tyrion and Jon were lulled into trusting her. “Love is more powerful than reason,” Tyrion tells Jon. And I think we were meant to be lulled into loving her, into trusting her—into submission. But by Episode 5 the line between justice and vengeance has grown yet thinner. She did not have to kill Varys, but she never considered any other options. (Exile? Imprisonment?) She did not have to destroy King’s Landing. The city was already hers. It had rung the bells of surrender. She gained nothing from its destruction except personal satisfaction. Daenerys was listening to no one, and the line between justice and vengeance had disappeared completely. There is no regret, no compassion, no self-doubt reflected in her expression; there is only determination and satisfaction.

It was Dany’s destruction of King’s Landing that sparked the emotional, moral and political conflict that had to take place in the final episode. Her transformation from Mother of Dragons into The Dragon Queen was made perfectly clear with a visual symbol early in Episode 6. (And that, really, was one of the most striking images in this entire series.)

At this point Dany gets the adulation she craves while Jon, Tyrion and Arya look on in horror. The scene that follows between Jon and Tyrion was masterfully written. Tyrion lists the steps that Daenerys has taken into tyranny and Jon listens in anguish, still trying to convince himself that Dany will see reason, still trying to defend her. “She saw her friend die. Her dragons die.”

Tyrion responds, “You are the shield that guards the realms of men. You’ve tried to protect people. Who is the greatest threat to the people now?”

Tyrion has the last word in that argument, and we see Jon walking past the Unsullied through the falling snow. A bit of symbolism right there: Winter has come to this devastated city, and this is Jon Snow, making his way to Daenerys. He approaches the sleeping dragon that wakens, inspects him, and lets him pass because he is not only Jon Snow, he is also a Targaryen.

In the throne room Dany is gazing hungrily at the Iron Throne, eyes wide, like a lover.

In speaking to Jon about her girlhood and what her brother told her of the Iron Throne, grinning as she talks of fallen enemies, Dany convinces Jon that she has to be stopped somehow. And of course, the only one who can get close enough to her to do this is Jon himself.

And that is another complaint that I have read over the past few days. Why must Jon be the one to kill Dany, the woman he loves? The answer is simple: Because they love each other. This is A Song of Ice and Fire; he is Ice and she is Fire. Martin, Benioff and Weiss long ago rejected any melding of those two elements. Jon and Dany were meant, from the beginning, to be pitted against each other. Therein lies the tragedy that raises this finale above any easy resolution.

When Jon kills Dany in utter despair he expects retribution. He is ready for Drogon’s fire. Instead, Drogon destroys the Iron Throne.  Jon has to live with his grief and with endless questioning about whether he has done the right thing. He carries that with him when he goes beyond the wall, into the winterlands where he belongs, where he has always belonged; outside of the world that is Westeros. An exile.

Do I think this final episode was perfect? Of course not! (I’m only human.) I think that the rise of King’s Landing’s from the ashes was far too swift, even though the show tried to indicate the passage of time. When Jon departs, the port looks absolutely fine. Tyrion and his council meet in comfort in the same old place. All has returned to normal. Somehow, this trivializes the destruction of the city and Daenerys’s death. I wanted to see more indications of the city struggling to revive. The discussions about repairing ports and lack of food and safe water didn’t convey it well enough. this is a visual medium. We need to see it.

I would have liked to hear Bran say something other than “You were where you needed to be,” and “I’ll go see if I can find Drogon.” I know that he has been portrayed as silent, passive, and above-it-all, but he has agreed to lead the six kingdoms. A few sentences from him showing that he is more than just a figurehead would have been appreciated. Bran, though, is a character who cannot be adequately conveyed visually or even through dialogue. It will be up to Martin to reveal what he truly is in the final novel.

Now, about those novels. Anyone who has read them must have noted that each chapter is titled with the name of the character that will be the focal point of that chapter. In Book 1 they are: Bran. Catelyn. Daenerys. Eddard. Jon. Arya. Tyrion. Sansa. In Book 2 Eddard, of course, has disappeared, and Davos and Theon have been added, but no others. The point I am making here is that no one character stands out as THE CENTRAL FIGURE in this epic fantasy. No one character is THE HERO in these books. There are only characters whose stories we follow, who we come to either love or despise.

However, watchers of the series Game of Thrones have had an expectation that there must be a hero. Someone must win the game of thrones. That’s just not the case here. There is no hero. Every character is human, sometimes making grave mistakes that lead to tragedy. Indeed, this is a fantasy world where the characters are all too human, and even the good guys have feet of clay.

That being said, look closely at the names above, and you will note that all but 2 of them are Starks. Whatever else Martin may be doing in his books, he is investing his readers in the welfare of the Starks. So the series ends, fittingly, with a montage that reveals the outcome of this story for the remaining members of the Stark family; the ending refers back to the beginning.

And that is exactly how every good story should end. I’m going to miss this one.

All Photos: HBO

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“Game of Thrones” & the Anglo-Saxons

A quick internet search for ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘History’ will offer theories about what historical events and figures inspired author George R.R.Martin, some of them suggested by Martin himself. For example, the resemblance of the houses of Stark and Lannister to the high medieval houses of York and Lancaster; or the elements of the Red Wedding inspired by the Black Dinner of 1440 Scotland. Search a little further and you’ll find Brienne of Tarth compared to Joan of Arc, (both woman warriors); Tyrion Lannister to Richard III (both successful despite physical handicaps);  even Cersei Lannister as perhaps resembling Russia’s Catherine the Great (women rulers who rid themselves of burdensome husbands and swiftly snatched the reins of power.)

I’d like to point out some elements from Anglo-Saxon England that may have seeped into Martin’s mind as he wove his tale.

ONE:  Let me begin with this final season’s penultimate episode, “The Bells”, when Daenerys Targaryan gave new meaning to the phrase “scorched earth policy” with the addition of a dragon. I am presuming, of course, that Martin had some say in what happened in this episode, and there is certainly a nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Smaug’s devastation of Lake Town. But look into English history and we find William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the Anglo-Saxon North in the winter of 1069-70 when, in retaliation for an uprising the previous year, William ordered his army to destroy the north of England and kill everything that lived. This has all the hallmarks of a powerful king’s act of vengeance. It was the calculated destruction of a vast area of Anglo-Saxon England, first by fire and then by famine. Those who survived the burning of villages and farms, the slaughter of livestock and the destruction of winter food supply and seed corn would be faced with starvation through the winter and into the spring. And in case you didn’t notice, that looked to me like snow drifting down on the ruins of King’s Landing at the end of ‘The Bells’.

TWO: Westeros physically resembles the Island of Britain. Not Ireland, or Iceland or Australia or any other large land mass surrounded by water. It looks like Britain.

THREE: Westeros has Seven Kingdoms: the North, The Iron Islands, The Vale, The Westerlands, The Reach, The Stormlands, and Dorne.  Like Westeros, Anglo-Saxon England had Seven Kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Kent, and Sussex.

FOUR: In the North, Martin has placed the wall—a massive, ancient edifice, the largest structure ever built by the hands of men. It is seven hundred feet high, and visible from miles away—“a pale blue line across the northern horizon.” In Game of Thrones Jon looks up at it, “…blazing  blue and crystalline in the sunlight..Centuries of windblown dirt had pocked and scoured it, covering it like a film, and it often seemed a pale grey, the color of an overcast sky; but when the sun caught it fair on a bright day, it shone, alive with light, a colossal blue-white cliff that filled up half the sky.” The wall was erected to keep the wildlings and the almost-mythic Others out of the Seven Kingdoms.

The men of the Night’s Watch keep guard at the wall, and they’ve fortified it with 19 great strongholds strung along the southern side of the wall. Most of the strongholds are empty, though, when the story begins, and the Night’s Watch itself severely depleted.

Martin has claimed that the inspiration for his great northern wall was Hadrian’s Wall. It was built by the Romans in 122 A.D. to mark the limits of Rome’s empire and defend the southern lands against the wild Pictish men of the north who successfully resisted Rome’s iron fist. Hadrian’s Wall spans the width of England for 73 miles, from the River Tyne in the west to the Solway Firth in the East. Historians believe that it was covered in plaster and white-washed, so that its shining surface would have been visible for miles.

Built of stone, it is ten feet wide and anywhere from 16 to 20 feet high, which seems a far cry from the massive edifice in Game of Thrones. But portions of the middle section of the wall lie atop a high, rocky cliff of basalt known as the Whin Sill, and it is an impressive sight.

Hadrian’s wall, too, had strongholds: 80 mile-castles strung along its length that were garrisoned by Roman troops. And, like the strongholds in Game of Thrones, each mile-castle guarded a gateway through the wall.

By the time the Anglo-Saxons settled in England, the wall would have been long deserted by its builders, not unlike Martin’s wall; but it would still appear threatening – perhaps the work of giants. It would certainly have made a strong impression on the Anglo-Saxons.

FIVE: The northern tribes beyond the wall, as noted above, were the Picts; their name possibly meaning ‘painted ones’ – referring to tattooing on their skins. In the 6th century the Irish colonized some of the Pictish lands, and after that the Angles and Britons settled the area—tribes at times united against their southern neighbors  – not unlike the wildings of Martin’s tale. It strikes me as no accident that Tormund Giants Bane looks like a Celtic Scot.

Tormond. Game of Thrones. Facebook.

SIX: Martin’s Iron Born, who are consummate seamen and raiders, resemble the Viking raiders who ravaged Anglo-Saxon England from the 8th to the 11th century.

SEVEN: Petyr Baelish, royal counselor and master manipulator, bears some resemblance to the 11th century Eadric Streona. He, too, was a royal counselor and manipulator, notorious for his complicity in various political crimes involving acts of subterfuge, treachery and murder. Ambitious for power and presumably smooth-tongued and persuasive, Eadric wed the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon king and amassed enormous wealth– his by-name means The Grasper. In the end, he fared no better than Little Finger when one of those he betrayed commanded that he be rewarded with the business end of an ax.

EIGHT: The whole concept of Game of Thrones—a battle for control of the Seven Kingdoms—is a reflection of centuries of conflict among the seven kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England for ascendancy over each other, culminating eventually in the supremacy of the royal house of Wessex in the south. However, the Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled England from the Channel to the Scottish border in the 10th and 11th centuries never had to sit on an iron throne.

Anglo-Saxon king of England, Aethelred, carries a big sword but sits on a pillow.

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