'A triumph - a Game of Thronesin the Dark Ages' TOM HOLLAND. The magisterial biography of Oswald Whiteblade, exiled prince of Northumbria, who returned in blood and glory to reclaim his birthright. A charismatic leader, a warrior whose prowess in battle earned him the epithet Whiteblade, an exiled prince who returned to claim his birthright, the inspiration for Tolkein's Aragorn. Oswald of Northumbria was the first great English monarch, yet today this legendary figure is all but forgotten. In this panoramic protrait of Dark Age Britain, archaeologist and biographer Max Adams returns the king in the North to his rightful place in history.
In some ways, this book bought the so called ‘Dark Ages’ to life, and shed light on a number of details I was not aware of (who knew that Oswald had Irish relations or an ancestor with the decidedly Gothic sounding name of Theodoric?) In a sense, the book does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’- and provides and wonderful guide to the dynamics of Oswald’s family ‘The Idings’- named after an ancestor in the era before surnames), and their relations to the other tribes and peoples of the region.
However, those looking for a traditional biography of Oswald will be disappointed. The actual account of his reign is short, and although he crops up regularly, many subjects that are not directly related to him are covered. I suppose that is to be expected of any good history book that tries to recreate the ‘world’ of a historical figure.
However, I did feel that the author had a tendency of going off on tangents- devoting many pages- sometimes more- on various subjects that the reader might not care much for- such as buildings and evidence or use of land. Typical for an archaeologist- but not everyone is necessarily interested by such content or will see its relevance. Also, the references to some kind of ancient pagan connection to this or that account in the life of Oswald or some saint may be fascinating initially, but the continual reference to ‘pre-Christian head cults’ etc may become grating in the end.
I also found myself distinctly disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions. He is very much of the ‘no mass Saxon invasion and replacement of the population’ theory, which I have never been especially convinced by. I don't mean to disparage Mr Adams in any way, as he clearly knows his stuff very well (and don't we all have certain ideas and interpreations about historical figures or events?)
Yet what I found the most frustrating was what seemed like an effort to make the evidence fit the theory, even when it seemed to suggest something to the contrary.
Something like- this or that building and burial suggests these people were from the Germanic tribes who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth century- oh but DNA evidence says that most of us are Britons- so it must be wrong, and they must really have been Britons who adopted Germanic culture wholesale. After all people eat MacDonald’s in China, but that doesn’t make them American.
I’m sorry to sound overly sceptical- but as said above- not only am I not convinced about the ‘Germanic enculturation’ theory- I have also heard of other Genetic studies which suggest the populations of various areas of England have a very high percentage of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic DNA. In other words the genetic evidence is not clear cut- and there may have been more of a Saxon influence then some in the historical community would care to admit.
I also dislike this tendency to assume that ancient writers who witnessed, or were closer to events than us must have been wrong or lying , because some ‘smart’ modern technology doesn’t turn up a ‘smoking gun’ as evidence of X, Y and Z. Like ‘oh look- people were farming! That means there was not mass annihilation of the indigenous population like the sources say- oh but there was a plague and a famine- but its effects were gradual and life went on much as before’. Maybe because I’m a historian instead of an archaeologist, I don’t have such a great understanding of these things- but I also tend to think that those who were actually ‘there’ knew more about what happened then we do. Not a fashionable notion, but one I still hold to.
Nevertheless, The King in the North is a useful and fascinating book, with a lot of helpful resources for those who might otherwise get lost and confused, like maps, family trees and a handy pronunciation guide. For those like me already interested in this period, and those who want to learn more it’s an indispensable guide, even if you don’t agree with every point.