02 October 2012

Vikings just want to have fun

I'm willing to bet that every time you read about the Vikings in school, they were always the "other guys" or the "bad guys."  Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom, the first in his (thus far) six-book Saxon Stories, turns that on its head.

It's 866. Bebbanburg Castle is taken by the Danes. The Earl is killed, and ten-year-old Uhtred of Bebbanburg (fictional character based on an historical person) becomes a captive.

But here's the thing.  Uhtred doesn't really seem to like much about Saxon (aka English) life anyway.  With some arm-twisting, he learns to read & write. He spends more time than he'd like at Mass or other prayer.  He finds most of the priest/teachers/tutors in his Saxon life pretty insipid.  He is a second son, and during his first ten years, he seems on the (unhappy) path to priesthood.  But when his father and his older brother are killed by the Danes, things change.

Dane Earl Ragnar takes a shine to Uhtred and adopts him.  Uhtred relishes Dane life.   Vikings really know how to party.  There's plenty of sacking, pillaging, but also a lot of feasting, storytelling and mystery.  Sexual mores are much more relaxed; Uhtred and his childhood friend Brida become sexual partners in their teens, scandal-free.  He connects more easily to Thor and Odin than the Christian god, preferring the tangibility and power of Thor (the lightning god) rather than the meekness of Christ.  It's a lifestyle well-suited to a "man's man," someone who would rather be a chieftain and warrior than a scholar. Possessing an excellent sword, and knowing how to use it properly, is essential. Fierceness and bravery rule the day.  

Don't we have these people in our lives too?  I think about my son, who is a bright boy, and he does just fine in school, but would MUCH rather be moving.  He doesn't want to sit and read; he wants to ride his bike, climbs trees, play contact sports, wrestle and rough-house.

None of this excuses the vicious attacks by Danes against civilians (notably Lindesfarne), especially unarmed nuns and monks.  But brutality was not uncommon among any population at this time (the Christian rulers weren't peace-loving non-combatants!).

Dane life is active; Saxon life is "civilized."  But not everyone wants to be civilized.  Uhtred certainly doesn't.  It's dull.  History is written by the victors, in this case, the Saxons/English.  Whatever redeeming qualities the Danes may have - a laissez-faire attitude toward teen sexuality, a culture that honors combat and adventure above nearly all other things - these have been filtered out of our history.

Uhtred identifies with both the Saxons AND the Danes.  It makes him a distinct and believable character.  He has reasons for loyalty on BOTH sides of the conflict.  An interesting balancing act indeed.

Refreshing to read historical fiction that is sympathetic to "the other side."  Makes me want to hang out in a mead hall!

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