27 November, 2006

Flight of the Sparrow, by Fay Sampson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Robert Hale, 1999, ISBN 0-7090-6402-0

First, a disclaimer. I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind

Flight of the Sparrow is set in Northumbria, Mercia and Gwynedd and spans most of the life of King Edwin of Deira (also known as Edwin of Northumbria). It begins around 588 AD* when Edwin’s homeland of Deira is annexed by Aethelfrith the Ferocious of Bernicia and Edwin is sent into exile as a small child. It ends with his death in 633 AD. The central character is Edwin himself, who narrates the novel in first person. Most of the other main characters are also historical figures, including Cadfan and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Bishop Rhun of Rheged, Raedwald of East Anglia and his queen, Hild (later to be the Abbess Hild of Whitby who featured in the novel Wolf Girl), Bishop Paulinus of York and Edwin’s faithful friend and thane Lilla.

Edwin grows up as a political refugee at the court of the Christian British King Cadfan in Gwynedd (modern North Wales), always overshadowed and mocked by Cadfan’s son Cadwallon and always in fear of Aethelfrith the Ferocious. Aethelfrith’s pursuit drives him to the English kingdoms of Mercia and then East Anglia, until with help from Raedwald (spelled Redwald in the novel) he regains his kingdom. A new wife and a missionary from Kent pressure him to accept Roman Christianity, but Edwin has a guilty secret in his past that he cannot confess to either wife or priest.

This is an elegantly written psychological study of religious guilt, self-doubt and the corrosive miseries of exile. It is narrated in first person throughout by the central character, Edwin. Readers who are captivated by the character of Edwin will find the book compelling; those who don’t warm to him may find the close focus on a single individual claustrophobic. I would have liked to get out of Edwin’s unhappy head once in a while and see the world through other eyes. Other characters experience sharp conflicts - for example, the thane torn between loyalty to his king and religious belief - but only Edwin’s dilemmas and uncertainties are fully explored. The narrative is in past tense for the first half of the novel and then shifts to present tense for the second half. This change in tense must be profoundly significant but I have to admit I still haven’t figured out why, and I found it distracting.

Flight of the Sparrow is closely focused on Edwin’s self-doubt and religious guilt. Other aspects of life receive less attention, so the world of the novel can feel rather earnest. I missed the epic heroism of Beowulf and Y Gododdin, the dry wit of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion and the earthy humour of the Oxford Book Riddles. The novel gives the impression that it might be part of a larger work, as characters such as Rhun of Rheged and his granddaughter Rhiainmelt are introduced in some detail as though they were going to be important, and then disappear. Hild’s story too is clearly unfinished at the close of the novel. I wonder if there may be more to come?

For some reason, the Battle of Chester has been moved from its conventional date of 613-616 to some considerably earlier period, since in the novel it takes place when Edwin is still an adolescent (he would have been 28-31 if the battle had been given its conventional date). The conventional date is not secure (few dates in this period are), being derived from a single source (the Annales Cambriae) and not specifically dated by Bede**, but specific events are so rare in this period that I would have preferred to see its traditional date retained, or a reason for the move given in an author’s note.

Flight of the Sparrow has a strong ethnic/national consciousness, almost a ‘clash of civilisations’ theme. The English characters talk of “the English conquest ” and “since our longships landed we’ve dreamed of taking the whole island of Britain” and of the English “pushing west all the time and driving your British cavalry back to the sea”. The British characters talk of “There’s only us in the west left free” and “your English warhost strides across our island” and “we will do our part for Britain”. This concept of ethnic struggle is expounded in the tenth-century poem Armes Prydein, but other sources such as Y Gododdin or the Canu Heledd or the Taliesin poetry or most of Bede seem to be concerned more with the doings of individual kings and kingdoms. I find it particularly hard to imagine that the English settlements were driven by some organised strategic battle plan for the conquest of Britain that extended over two hundred years or more (the far more centralised Roman state invaded Britain in a piecemeal and patchy way, taking a bit here and a bit there as opportunity arose, so why should the English settlements be any different?). The settlement pattern seems to me to be equally consistent with the simpler explanation of opportunistic land grabs by small groups at the expense of their neighbours.

The central character, Edwin, is portrayed as irresolute and fearful, racked by self-doubt and a crippling inferiority complex. Things happen to him and he reacts to circumstances, rather than driving events, and he is always afraid of what other people might think of him. This may well reflect the realities of growing up as a political refugee, a cross between a beggar, a hostage and a pawn, always dependent on his host’s charity or political whim. Such an existence might well do lasting psychological damage, and this novel provides an unflinching portrayal of the bitter hopelessness of exile. One key thing that seems to me to be missing, however, is a convincing demonstration of how this insecure, uncharismatic individual, prone to daydreaming in battle and apparently not physically strong (he is always having to be rescued or supported by his faithful bodyguards), managed to become a successful warrior-king. Seventh-century Britain was not a society known for fixed institutions, political stability and bloodless transitions of power. Kingship might be inherited by blood but it also had to be earned and maintained by the sword. Edwin’s own kingdom of Deira might have rallied to him on the strength of blood alone, but why would the warriors of his enemy Aethelfrith swear allegiance to him, and why would the other English kings acknowledge him as overlord? The novel says they did, but it does not show a convincing reason. I found this apparent mismatch between the weak, indecisive character of the narrator and the successful warlord hard to accept. I suppose the reader just has to take it on trust that he must look more sure of himself than he is.

The novel is elegantly written in literary prose, with lyrical descriptions of landscape and religious rites and a strong spiritual component, particularly for Christianity.

A psychological study of exile and religious guilt set in a fascinating and neglected period of British history.

Has anyone else read it?

*The date of Aethelferth’s annexation of Deira is not known and an alternative date of 605 AD is also argued (there may be others, but 588 and 605 are the two main contenders). I personally think the case for 605 is more convincing but the evidence, such as it is, can bear multiple interpretations.
**Bede puts it in a chapter headed ‘AD 603’, but says only that it occurred ‘long after the death’ of St Augustine. He doesn’t give the year of Augustine’s death, but it is possible to deduce that Augustine was still alive in 604 and was dead by 609, so either of these would be consistent with the Annales Cambraie date.

21 November, 2006

In Our Time: The Peasants' Revolt

If you have the slightest interest in medieval England, you may like to know that Radio 4's In Our Time programme did the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 last week. You can listen to it from the In Our Time page on the BBC's Listen Again service. Programmes stay available for Listen Again more or less indefinitely. If you want to download it as an MP3 file so you can play it on your iPod, you need to collect the file on or before Thursday 23 November, as the MP3 file is usually only available for the current programme, so on Thursday it will be replaced with the file for the new episode.

As ever, Melvyn Bragg and his guests pack more information and ideas into a 45-minute radio programme than your average blockbuster TV docudrama gets into a whole series. For example:

  • although it’s called the Peasants’ Revolt, it actually included artisans, churchwardens, reeves, bailiffs and similar people of substance. “Middle England on the march”, as one of the contributors said.

  • the rebels displayed remarkable organisation and ease of communication. Letters travelled across East Anglia in a day. The attack on the privileged monastery at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, was instigated on receipt of written instructions from the men of Kent. The rebels converged on London from multiple directions on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day everyone knew and could recognise. This rebellion was sophisticated and organised, run by people with considerable administrative ability, and that in itself seems to have terrified the top brass, who had never imagined that the lower orders could be so effective

  • the mayor of London didn’t want his city sacked and was staunchly anti-rebel. He and the aldermen raised what amounted to an army, which was effectively the only armed force on the government side as the king had almost no troops of his own

  • the rebels burned but did not loot - declaring, “we are not thieves” - and in some cases they selectively destroyed administrative and tax records but left academic and monastic libraries untouched.

  • the rebels showed a remarkable ability to get into supposedly impregnable fortresses - the Tower of London, Rochester Castle, numerous others. Either there were a lot of sympathisers who were ready to betray castles to the rebels, or they were remarkable bluffers and/or negotiators, or there were ways and means of getting into medieval castles that meant they weren’t as tough as they look. This reminded me of Alianore's recent post about the rescue of Edward II from Berkeley Castle in 1327. I wonder if the rebels used similar techniques for gaining access to castles, whatever they were.

  • serfdom was already in terminal decline and continued in terminal decline after the rebellion. One reason for this was that it served neither the peasants nor the aristocracy well, as both sides needed and benefited from increased flexibility of labour. Richard II himself flouted all the legislation intended to prevent labour mobility when he was building Windsor Castle, because he needed the labourers. In which case one wonders why the government tried to legislate to prevent labour mobility in the first place? Presumably following the Way of the Ostrich and trying to avoid change by pretending it wasn’t happening.

I could go on, but I won't, as the programme covers it better than I could paraphrase. If you're at all interested in the era, do go and listen. You'll find it’s 45 minutes very well spent.

Did anyone else hear it?

15 November, 2006

November recipe: Christmas mincemeat

Yes, I know, it's only November, and Christmas comes earlier every year, but mincemeat has to mature for a few weeks before you can use it. So if you fancy making your own mince pies this year, November is the ideal time to start.

Why bother, when you can buy ready-made mincemeat in jars? Well, same reason as for any other food, I suppose: you know what's in it, and you can vary the recipe to suit your own tastes. Want more rum in it? Go right ahead (but leave some in the bottle to drink). Want it more or less sweet? Alter the amount of sugar. Someone in the family with a pathological hatred of cut mixed peel? No problem, miss it out. Fancy adding some glace cherries, dried apricots, chopped dates, almonds, nuts? Substitute some of the dried fruit with the equivalent weight of your preferred ingredient. (Yes, cherries in mincemeat is probably as heretical as potatoes in a Cornish pasty, but so what?) Prefer other spices? The choice is yours.

This recipe uses cooking apples, because the trees in my garden and my neighbour's garden produce cooking apples. If you prefer dessert apples, cut the amount of sugar by half and adjust to taste.


1 lb (approx 500 g) cooking apples, when peeled and cored
8 oz (approx 250 g) currants
8 oz (approx 250 g) sultanas
8 oz (approx 250 g) raisins
3 oz (approx 80 g) cut mixed peel
8 oz (approx 250 g) demerara sugar
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
0.5 tsp (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
1 orange
1 lemon
5 Tblsp (approx 75 ml) dark rum

Grate or finely chop the apples.
Mix with the dried fruit, sugar and spices in a large bowl.
Add the grated rind and juice of the orange and lemon.
Add the rum.
Mix well.
Pack into large jars and press well down. The less air there is in the jars, the better the mixture will keep.
Cover the jars.
Store in a dark cupboard. After about a week, open the jars, press the contents down thoroughly and reseal. By this time the sugar will have drawn some of the water out of the apples and the mincemeat will have started to form its characteristic sticky juices. Try to press all the fruit down so that the juices just cover the fruit, as it seems to keep better this way (I think because the sugary liquid acts as a preservative in the same way as in jam, but don't quote me on that).
Leave in a dark cupboard for 3-4 weeks to mature, then use in mince pies or whatever other dish of your choice.

The first time I made this I got the quantities wildly wrong and we were still eating mince pies after Valentine's Day. So I know it keeps at least that long.

09 November, 2006

Charles le Temeraire and Jeanne Hachette

A friend reading my review of Temeraire observed that the name for him always conjures up images of a contemporary naval thriller, The Deep Silence by Douglas Reeman, which features a nuclear submarine called HMS Temeraire.

This led me to wonder about the origin of the name Temeraire. In the novel Temeraire, Laurence names the newly-hatched dragon Temeraire after a ship that was captured from the French and taken into the British Royal Navy. Sure enough, the name does indeed have a long and distinguished tradition in the Royal Navy, perhaps most famously immortalised in Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire. Presumably Reeman was drawing on this naval tradition for the name of his fictional submarine.

The French, you will remember, got there first with the name, since the original HMS Temeraire was a captured French ship. French naval history takes the name back to at least 1671.

Temeraire means ‘bold’ or ‘daring’ in French, an auspicious meaning for a fighting ship. It’s derived from the same Latin root as the English word ‘temerity’, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘rashness’ (from Latin temere, rashly). Not, perhaps, quite so auspicious.

This meaning takes us back another two centuries, to Charles le Temeraire, fourth and last Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477). His nickname can be translated as either Charles the Bold or Charles the Reckless, both of which seem to have suited him. Wikipedia gives a summary of his career, with more information in the French-language version, if you read French.

Charles le Temeraire was married to Margaret of York, sister of Richard III and Edward IV of England, which is where I first heard of him. He gave his two brothers-in-law shelter in his territory when Warwick the Kingmaker temporarily threw them out of England in 1470 during the Wars of the Roses, and then lent them ships and men to sail back in 1471 and turn the tables. Without Charles le Temeraire, English history might have worked out rather differently. (Those of you who have read Sharon Penman’s novel of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour, may remember that Charles gets a walk-on part in it about a third of the way through). Charles was killed in 1477 fighting the Swiss and the Duke of Lorraine, and his only daughter Marie of Burgundy was one of the great heiresses of her generation. She married Maximilian I of the Hapsburg dynasty, which is how the Hapsburgs came into possession of the Low Countries and fought over them for the next couple of centuries. Charles’ widow Margaret, as Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, made life as awkward as possible for Henry VII after he defeated and killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, by funding assorted Yorkist rebellions, including those of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

A lesser-known fact about Charles le Temeraire, and one that he might not care to have remembered, is that he shares with England the dubious honour of having his troops soundly defeated in battle by a young Frenchwoman of humble origins called Joan. Charles’ Joan was Jeanne Laisne of Beauvais, nicknamed Jeanne Hachette. I first came across her story in a French cafe, reading an advert for a commemorative beer, ‘Rebelle’, made in her honour by the local brewery.

Charles was always trying to conquer bits of northern France to connect his territories in Burgundy with his territories in the Low Countries, and in 1472 his soldiers assaulted the town of Beauvais. The assault was going well, and a Burgundian soldier had gained the town walls and planted the Burgundian flag there. Jeanne, aged about 16 at the time, is reputed to have seized an axe, thrown the luckless soldier and his flag off the walls, and led the men of the town’s garrison in a charge that repelled the attack. Yes, ‘hachette’ means what you think it does, and it’s an even more graphic image when you reflect that ‘steak hachee’ means, approximately, mincemeat. Which is presumably what Jeanne and the rest of the rebels made of Charles’ soldiers. Apparently Jeanne’s reward was to be married to the husband of her choosing. I should imagine he was careful to behave himself.

From a fictional dragon and a fictional nuclear submarine, through the British and French navies, to a 15th-century reckless duke and a local heroine called Joan the Hatchet. How’s that for a meander down historical byways?

02 November, 2006

Temeraire, by Naomi Novik. Book review

Edition reviewed, Voyager (HarperCollins), 2006, ISBN 0-00-721909-1

Temeraire is a historical fantasy, with the premise that flying dragons were used as an aerial strike force during the Napoleonic Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Will Laurence, captain of a Royal Navy ship, captures a French frigate and finds that it is carrying a dragon’s egg that is just about to hatch. A dragon has to be harnessed immediately after hatching, or it will turn feral and be useless for military service. The person who harnesses the dragon will be its handler for life, as dragons are reluctant to accept a change of handler once the initial bond has been formed, and will have to join the Aerial Corps as an aviator. Aviators are held in honour, since dragons are a key weapon, but they live apart from the rest of society and are not considered respectable. So Will Laurence is initially horrified when the newly hatched dragon spurns the man chosen to be its handler and takes a fancy to him instead. His strong sense of duty compels him to harness the baby dragon and give it a name - Temeraire - even though this means he has to give up his beloved ship, his family’s approval and his prospective wife. Fortunately, Temeraire proves to be more than adequate compensation. The excitement of training in aerial combat and finding their place among the other dragons and aviators proves a rewarding and fascinating experience for them both. And finally they are called upon in a desperate attempt to foil an airborne invasion, where Temeraire’s extraordinary powers are revealed for this first time.

Temeraire is a rattling good yarn with a fair amount of action and some very appealing characters. Indeed, almost all the main characters are remarkably nice people; I can only think of one really unsympathetic character (an aviator who neglects his dragon). Although the aviators are initially suspicious of Laurence, as an outsider entering their closed society, they mostly accept him and get on very well together with almost no petty infighting or backbiting. Perhaps this is due to the beneficial influence of the dragons, who are universally kind, courteous and well-mannered. One wonders why the dragons aren’t running the world, as they’d probably make a better job of it than the humans. Temeraire in particular is a very attractive character, intelligent, affectionate, willing, considerate, eager to please and utterly without guile. No wonder Laurence gets so fond of him. His first word, minutes after hatching is “Why...?”, and he retains this curiosity about the world throughout the novel. I find this appealing in itself, and it also provides an excellent world-building device, as Temeraire has to learn everything about the world and Laurence has to learn to adapt to the strange society of the aviators and the techniques of dragon combat. The reader therefore painlessly learns along with them as they explore their new environment.

The plot has many separate strands: Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another; Laurence has to adapt to his new life and social position; they both have to learn about aerial combat; there is a minor espionage sub-plot; a splendid illustration of an abusive relationship; a mystery over Temeraire’s breed and why his egg was aboard the French frigate in the first place; the military build-up to the climactic battle scene; and a tangential romantic encounter for Laurence. This makes the book feel very much like the first in a series, as there is clearly huge scope for further exploration.

There are some nice flashes of humour, mostly of the understated variety - for example, the scene where Laurence finds himself delicately explaining about whores to Temeraire, or the scene in which dragons turn out to be a more appreciative audience for music than London high society. And the scholarly Appendix on the different breeds of dragon, written in the style of an 18th-century paper to the Royal Society, is great.

I found the historical setting distracting and annoying, a problem I often have with historical fantasy (more on this in another post). I can’t suspend my disbelief sufficiently to accept that dragons fought at the Battle of the Nile or that Nelson survived Trafalgar, and so every time a historical event or person was mentioned it detracted from the story. This was further compounded by the repeated references to the aerial invasion force setting off from Cherbourg and requiring an easterly wind to carry it to Dover. Sorry, but the last time I looked at a map Cherbourg was a long way west of Dover. An easterly wind might be handy for invading America from Cherbourg, but for invading Britain a southerly would be more useful and would take you to the Isle of Wight. An invasion force arriving at Dover on an easterly might have started from Calais or Dunker or Ostend, but not from Cherbourg. Once I decided to read Temeraire as pure fantasy, set in an invented world that just happens to share some names with ours, these annoyances disappeared and I could get on with enjoying the story.

One difficulty I had was in fitting the social structure of the novel into the world as described. Longwings are the most important strike dragon, since they can spit poison. They can only be handled by women. Now, this implies to me that every battle since the time of Henry VII (when the Longwing breed was first developed, according to the Appendix) would have had at least one female war hero. For example, Longwings (and presumably also their female captains) are said to have played an important role in defeating the Armada. Is it really credible that the presence of female aviators would have stayed such a secret for 300 years that Laurence had not even suspected their existence until he joined the Aerial Corps? And surely the presence of women in a key military role would have had some effect on the evolution of the role women expected to play in the rest of society? Yet the social norms outside the Aerial Corps are those of Jane Austen’s world, with women who appear to have little career choice other than finding a husband. I also found it puzzling that the dragons, who are clearly at least as intelligent as the human characters and enormously stronger, routinely obey humans. Why do they take orders from people? Why do they let humans dictate their breeding? Perhaps this will be picked up on in later books in the series, as Temeraire shows attractive signs of independent thought.

Many thanks to Marg, Nessili and Joy Calderwood, whose enthusiastic reviews convinced me to give Temeraire a try!

Has anyone else read it?