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.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I think I'll pass on that one. I don't like whiny MCs (threw the Covenanter book across the room for that), and I'm agnostic and somewhat anti-Christian, so it doesn't sound like fun to read about an insecure MC with religious guilts.

Carla said...

Probably just as well, Gabriele, as it's from an obscure publisher and might be hard to find in Germany.

Bernita said...

Think I would find the espoused nationalism and the public weakness extremely frustrating and difficult to swallow.
One of those book that keeps one saying aloud, "Yeah, but..."?

Robyn said...

The switch from past tense to present tense would throw me for a few chapters. And your comment of wanting to "get out of Edwin's unhappy head" is precisely why I dislike first person. I want to know what others are thinking. And another's viewpoint of Edwin's character might be more helpful in understanding the rigors of exile on the psyche than hearing it all from the subject himself. Still sounds interesting, though.

Carla said...

Bernita - this was a hard review to write, because I'm familiar with the history from Bede and Historia Brittonum and my interpretation doesn't square very well with the portrayal of Edwin's character in the novel. When I first came across his story in Bede, years ago now, what struck me was that he must have been a forceful and charismatic leader to have come back from exile to make himself over-king of Britain north and south of the Humber, arguably the first person recorded as ruler of both halves. There's no saying what his actual character was, of course, but it seemed to me that this political and military aspect got neglected in the focus on religious conversion. But someone else, who finds the religious question the most interesting thing about the period, would likely see this as a strength rather than a weakness.

Robyn - the switch in tense threw me sufficiently that I reread the whole thing two or three times trying to make sense of it! I've heard people argue passionately in favour of first-person narrative because they feel they can identify with the character and almost live the story themselves. Like you, though, I like the wider perspective that comes with multiple viewpoints. Also, if I don't identify with the narrator in a first-person narrative there's nowhere else to go, whereas if there are multiple viewpoints I can usually find at least one character to care about, even if it's not the intended main character.

Alex Bordessa said...

Oh-ho :-) I have too much to say about this in a comment box, so will reply on my own blog, with reference to Carla's. Might be a day or two though. Suffice to say, whether one likes or dislikes this book is very much a judgement call, and reflects personal reading preferences, as Carla says in her comments to Robyn.

Carla said...

Alex - I'll be interested to see what you have to say! I know you're very fond of this novel, but I haven't seen you write a detailed review of it, so it will be most interesting to see your thoughts in detail. I suspect that some of the things that didn't work for me worked much better for you (the reverse of the situation with e.g. Julia, which as I remember I quite liked and you didn't.

Gabriele Campbell said...

When I first came across his story in Bede, years ago now, what struck me was that he must have been a forceful and charismatic leader to have come back from exile to make himself over-king of Britain north and south of the Humber, arguably the first person recorded as ruler of both halves.

Fine, now I'm busy kicking plotbunnies back into their cages. :)

Carla said...

They got to me first, Gabriele, so if you want to, you'll be able to read my take on Edwin's story in a few weeks' time, just as soon as I finish the final copy-edit.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Ah good. I really don't need any more bunnies right now.

Looking forward to reading your take.

Sarah Johnson said...

Nice review. I remember when I reviewed The Land of Angels on my blog, we were talking about how Sampson's Anglo-Saxon novels appeared to have all been part of a larger work, pieces of which were published as separate books. Land of Angels ended with a number of plot points unresolved, too. I wonder if we'll ever see the remaining parts of either one.

Her choice of first person sounds a bit odd. I'm glad that Land of Angels was told in 3rd person, as Augustine wouldn't have been a particularly charismatic narrator, either.

Carla said...

Sarah - Thanks, I hope the review was useful. Be sure to read Alex's when she posts it, for an alternative view. I've only just started Land of Angels (Sarah's review is here), so I haven't got to Augustine yet. The jacket copy refers to an alliance between "feisty Bertha and timorous Augustine", which might make an effective counter-balance and give the reader a choice of characters to identify with according to taste. I wonder if the original large novel might resemble a modern retelling of Bede's ecclesiastical history, explaining how the English came to be Christians? It will be interesting to see if any more of the pieces emerge in the fullness of time.

Bernita said...

Does the title come from the famous conversion incident, referenced by Bede ( I think)?

Carla said...

Yes, it does! And yes, it's in Bede. One of his big set-piece scenes :-) The novel covers the same scene at some length. As someone said, the sparrow is at least as secure of its immortality as King Edwin.
By the way, the sparrow was a plot point in Wolf Girl, where King Edwin is said to have changed his royal symbol to a sparrow after the conversion incident and a sparrow on the mysterious necklace identifies it as royal property. It's not actually known what Edwin's symbol was (Bede says he used a Roman-style standard called a tufa but doesn't describe it). Myself, I think a seventh-century warlord would have picked something more aggressive than a sparrow, but who's to say?

Meghan said...

I've been a fan of Bettany Hughes since I saw her in "The Spartans" by PBS, but I have to agree some of this information is purely speculative. I also read her book on Helen of Troy, and wish she had given more information on the subject. Still, it was a pretty interesting read.

Carla said...

Hello Megumi, and thanks for dropping by. Did you mean to comment on the Sisters of Aphrodite post at the top of the page? I thought Bettany Hughes' programme on the Spartans was excellent, and she did another on Helen of Troy that I haven't managed to see. It probably covers the same ground as the book you mention, so I'll see if I can find the book - thanks for mentioning it!