Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Tales From the Elder Days

I finally got around to reading Justin Hill's Shieldwall, as previously reported. I can't say it has converted me to historical novels set in the Early Middle Ages (but that's my problem and not the author's, since there is clearly a huge market for this sort of thing). Hill loves writing about battles and politics, and that's pretty much what the book boils down to. He also has the Anglo-Saxon(ist)'s somewhat stereotypical but also ambivalent view of the Vikings:
Someone - a red-haired Dane with three fingers missing on his sword hand - thrust a beer at Godwin and Godwin took it and found himself rather enjoying this Danish way of doing things (p. 390, the occasion is a hanging...).
This doesn't of course prevent Hill from frequently using Old Norse names and stories derived from Old Norse texts in purely Anglo-Saxon contexts, not unlike the ways in which many academic Anglo-Saxonists appropriate Old Norse material when it suits them, without ever really having a broader understanding of the subject. So in many ways it is the usual early medieval mishmosh. But I can forgive Hill a lot for his exciting use of the English language. Without descending into pastiche, Hill manages a plain but highly effective style that successfully evokes the past without parodying it. You can open the book at random and find gems like
His eyes gleamed as he lifted the blade and laughed. That laughter came from long ago and it brought back a lightness and a joy that he had not felt for many winters (p. 153).
 He also has a bit of a skaldic go with this 'quick poem' by Ottar the Black (though I don't think King Knut would have paid very much for just half a stanza):
Great king you grappled
On the green Sorestone fields
Bloodshedder of Swedes,
You laid waste the English (p. 293).
You can read more about the book, and about Justin Hill's recent book tour in England (including his visit to Nottingham) on his blog.


  1. I seem to recall that kittens were a common engagement present in medieval Iceland, serving both as something for the woman to cuddle upon leaving home and as a helper in eradicating vermin in the new home the bride-to-be was expected to head up. Of course, I don't recall just WHERE I read that.

  2. Hmmmm. Well, I won't believe that until you can come up with chapter and verse, and probably not even then! Sounds a bit made up to me...

  3. Odd, I thought I left this comment on the post about cats. And you are likely right, as I have no idea where I heard it before.

  4. Delighted to come under an expert's keen eye and get some positive feedback, esp on the language. On Old Norse names in an Anglo Saxon context, I was trying to show that Anglo-Saxon society at the time was more nuanced and complex than a simple norse vs saxon divide. A positive mishmosh perhaps?

  5. Hi Justin,
    Great to see the author himself dropping by this little blog... Yes, a positive mishmosh! Keep up the good work.