30 October, 2015

Better Than Gold, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

A & C Black 2014. ISBN 978-1-4729-0782-0. 124 pages.

Better Than Gold is set around 655 AD in Northumbria (in what is now north-east England) and Mercia (in what is now the Midlands). The main character, Egfrid, is a historical figure, and his time as a hostage at the royal court of Mercia is a historical event, although the details are not known. Other historical figures who feature as important characters in the novel include King Penda and Queen Cynewise of Mercia and their children, Egfrid’s father King Oswy of Bernicia and his queen Eanflaeda, Egfrid’s cousin Ethelwold and the Christian monk Chad (later St Chad, if I have identified him correctly).

Egfrid, son of the King of Bernicia, is aged ten when he is taken hostage by Penda, King of Mercia, in a raid. Mercia and Bernicia are bitter enemies; Penda has previously slaughtered Egfrid’s paternal uncle and his maternal grandfather and uncle. Egfrid’s father Oswy has so far escaped a similar fate by avoiding battle, which leads Penda to despise him as a coward. Unlike the Christian kings of Bernicia, Penda is a pagan and his religion practices human sacrifice, so when Egfrid is captured he fears the worst. But his courage and loyalty to his nursemaid and tutor, both captured with him, earns him Penda’s respect. He finds himself treated with honour and even kindness, particularly by Penda’s queen Cynewise, who is working to weave a peace treaty between the kingdoms. But when the old feud breaks out into war once more, Egfrid is faced with a dilemma – whose side should he be on?

I enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl for young adult readers (review here) and A Swarming of Bees for adults (review here), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby in the seventh century, and her novel about Acha of Deira set in the late sixth century, The Tribute Bride (review here). Better Than Gold is a children’s book set a few years earlier than Wolf Girl or A Swarming of Bees.

Part of the inspiration for Better Than Gold was the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard near Hammerwich in the territory of the old kingdom of Mercia in 2009. This is the largest collection of early English (Anglo-Saxon) precious metalwork ever found, and consists almost entirely of gold and silver objects associated with military equipment, for example the decorative fittings from sword hilts and fragments of at least one helmet. For details of the Staffordshire Hoard, see the official website. This overwhelming focus on martial items is extremely unusual, as most Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork consists of dress fittings such as strap-ends, buckles and brooches, or luxury tableware such as plates or cups, and immediately suggests that there ought to be a dramatic story behind the Staffordshire Hoard. How might it have been assembled, who owned it, what did it signify, why are the items almost all military, who might have buried it, and why might it have been buried and never recovered?  (For a discussion, see my blog post at the time and the associated comments thread). We will probably never know the answers for sure. In Better Than Gold, Theresa Tomlinson has drawn on an episode recorded in Bede’s History and the rather enigmatic Restoration of Iudeu mentioned in Historia Brittonum to imagine a scenario that might lie behind the hoard.

Better Than Gold also imagines how life might have been for a ten-year-old noble boy in the society that produced the Staffordshire Hoard. What would a boy at a royal court eat and wear, what would he be expected to learn, how would he spend his time? This focus on the details of daily life was one of the features I liked about The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees, and it was pleasant to see it again here.

Better Than Gold has the same gentle tone as The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees. Most of the people, most of the time, treat each other decently. There is violence – human sacrifice and battles with many casualties – but because of Egfrid’s age he is rarely directly involved and most of the violence happens in the background. Like the author’s other books, the women are very much to the fore. Queen Cynewise has much authority at the Mercian court, ruling the kingdom while Penda is away on campaign and exercising considerable influence when he is back. Their rule of Mercia seems to be very much a joint enterprise. Like Acha in The Tribute Bride, the royal women in Better Than Gold play a crucial role as peaceweavers, both by formal marriage alliance and in the day-to-day management of court life, ever alert to the need to head off situations where drink and ego threaten to spark conflict and even war.

Better Than Gold is a much simpler and shorter story than the young adult mystery Wolf Girl. I’d estimate its length at around 20,000–25,000 words, roughly a quarter of the length of a ‘standard’ adult novel. I would guess it is aimed at a younger audience, perhaps about the same age as the ten-year-old protagonist. The complex political rivalries and feuds between the various kingdoms are seen mainly in family terms – appropriately, since the conventions of blood-feud and vengeance for a kinsman meant that early English warfare could have a personal as well as a political dimension. It’s clearly written in straightforward modern English, with some archaic terms to add a period flavour, such as the Old English names for the months (Blood-month, Offerings-month, etc. More information on the Old English calendar and the month-names can be found in my article here). I was pleased to see that the original Old English personal names have been kept, e.g. Egfrid, Cynewise. Some names have been replaced by nicknames to avoid potential confusion between similar names within a family, e.g. Egfrid’s dead uncle Oswald is referred to by his (historically documented) nickname of Whiteblade to avoid confusion with his brother Oswy.

A short Author’s Note at the end briefly outlines some of the underlying history and provides a link to learn more about the Staffordshire Hoard. Unfortunately there’s no map on which a reader could follow Egfrid’s travels, although as most of the place names are given in their modern forms (Bamburgh rather than Bebbanburgh, Tamworth rather than Tameworthig) they could be identified on a modern map.

Charming tale about life at the royal courts of seventh-century England and the sort of events that might lie behind the burial of the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Is that the Ecgfrith who fell at Nechtansmere?

Carla said...

It is indeed (at a rather earlier stage of his career!).

Gabriele Campbell said...

I got a Nechtansmere plotbunny lurking in my files. :-)

Carla said...

Lots of scope for storytelling around Nechtansmere :-) Good luck!