Richard Lee explores Viking themed fiction, on the eve of the British Museum’s gargantuan new exhibition…
The history of the Vikings might be in a constant state of revision, but their role in fiction remains static: they are a blood-thirsty, fame-hungry, ale-swilling, coarse-mannered bunch.
Bernard Cornwell is the colossus of the genre. His Uhtred series tells the struggle of the English against the Danes – a battle for our nation’s soul. It is epic and melancholy, driven by the poetry of the Wanderer and the Seafarer, and a fine achievement. The latest novel, The Pagan Lord (available in hardback, due in paperback on 22nd May), is wonderful: full of sly wit, philosophy, boasting, cunning and battle – and unobtrusive history that you realize, in retrospect, everyone in our country should know. If you haven’t read them yet, start with The Last Kingdom. And keep an eye out for news of the TV series: I understand that a deal has been signed with the makers of Downton Abbey. Who on earth will they find to play Uhtred?
For anyone slaked on Bernard, my recommendation would be Giles Kristian. Norse poetry seems to run in his veins. His debut trilogy, the Raven saga, (Raven, Sons of Thunder, Odin’s Wolves) is filled with fast and furious, full-tilt action within a well-realised world. It is “pure” Viking compared with Cornwell – tales woven at the fringes of history. His newest, God of Vengeance, due on 10th April, is his best book yet: brimful with treachery and myth-making.
Other notable sagas to look out for are Margaret Elphinstone’s The Sea Road (Vikings and North America), Robert Low’s Oathsworn series (adventures along the Vikings’ eastern trade routes), and Tim Severin’s Viking and Saxon series (set at the time of Knut).
Also, don’t forget the many tales of 1066. Harald Hardrada, often called the last of the Vikings, invades the North before William gets his chance in the South. Harold Godwinson himself was half Dane. Elizabeth Chadwick, James Aitcheson, Justin Hill, Stewart Binns, Sarah Bower, Helen Hollick, James Wilde, Pat Bracewell and Carol McGrath have all written novels in this area. Berwick Coates’ epic The Last Conquest (about Hastings) is to be followed on 10th April this year by The Last Viking – his rendering of the less well-known battle of 1066: Stamford Bridge.
Or for those of you who like your fiction ancient, rather than modern – why not try Penguin’s edition of the Sagas of the Icelanders? Or their slim editions of the Elder Edda or the Saga of the Volsungsa? Or, for that matter, Seamus Heaney’s fabulously vibrant translation of Beowulf.
Other highlights in historical fiction
Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess (sequel to The White Queen) and Rory Clements’ mystery, The Heretics, demonstrate the continuing draw of the Tudors. Last month Waterstone’s Book Club helped give prominence to two intriguing historical debuts; Hannah Kent’s claustrophobic Iceland-set Burial Rites, and Suzanne Rindell’s Jazz Age thriller The Other Typist .
If you only read one paperback this month… Make it Longbourn, Jo Baker’s imagining of the below-stairs story to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is brilliantly conceived and very well executed: one of the rare companion novels to classics that offers something new while taking nothing away from the original.
A fully-realised medieval London impresses in Bruce Holsinger’s debut A Burnable Book, while two differing literary lives are explored in Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway and Christopher Nicholson’s Winter, about Thomas Hardy. Ben Kane and Anthony Riches tackle different eras of Ancient Rome with characteristic verve, Rosie Thomas conjures up the mystery of the 19th Century stage, and S. J. Parris serves up a classy historical mystery.
If you only read one hardback this month… Make it The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Valerie Martin also tangling with literary forebears, in this case Arthur Conan Doyle, with a spooky tale of Victorian spiritualism.
Watch out for…
I’m looking forward to reading Suzannah Dunn’s The May Bride (13th March) – a different Jane Seymour, I suspect, to Hilary Mantel’s manipulatrix – and Sharon Penman’s King’s Ransom (14th March), the sequel to Lionheart.
Also, keep an eye out for Diana Gabaldon. Her Outlander series is being filmed in Scotland, with a 14 part first series due in the summer. As George RR Martin put it, they only committed to 10 episodes of Game of Thrones to begin with…
Image credit: Sword, late 8th-early 9th century. Kalundborg or Holbæk, Zealand, Denmark. Photo: Arnold Mikkelsen. © The National Museum of Denmark