on 12 August 2012
I really enjoyed Severin's Viking trilogy a few years ago, so when I saw this the first in a series seemingly about Saxons I jumped in. Only to find it really isn't about the saxons at all. Well it's about one of them, who within the first few pages finds himself in Charlemagne's Frankia! Bothered? No not really because it was a cracking little book!
What I like about Severin is he writes with a warmth and wit, and he is a writer first rather than a historian 'having a bash' so it's a seamless and relaxed read with no jarring, wincing or groaning.
Severin also knows how to steer a clear path around cliche. The story moves smoothley but quickly with constant scene changing so there was no 11.30pm waking up with a jolt to find the book still in front of me and the bedside light still on or reading the same paragraph 20 times. I love the way Severin portrays people and dialogue, it feels real and engages me. He tells a 'romp' rather than an all action war book. So readers buying what they think is a Saxon 'ala Uthred' type story may be disapointed but I wasn't.
Vague non spoiling plot synopsis for those who want one.
Sigwulf, a young Saxon finds himself despatched to the court of Charlemagne with his slave Osric. There he befriends that hero of french poetry Hroudland (Roland), becomes the lover of a princess and interprator of royal dreams. He has enemies too and is stalked by a would be assassin. What follows is adventures on the royal hunt, on the road and in Saracen held Hispania and the encountering of a rich cast of characters.
In summary, exciting, witty, and occasionally moving. Count me in for book 2.
In this first episode of his new Saxon series, Tim Severin treats us with a "realistic" version of the life and death of Count Hroudland (the Rollo of the Chansons de Geste) and King Karl's first expedition against Muslim Spain, at a time when he had not yet got himself crowned Emperor under the name of Charlemagne (or Carolus Magnus). The story is told from the perspective of one Sigwulf, the exiled son of a minor Saxon chieftain whose family was slaughtered by King Offa of Mercia. The way the story is told is hardly original, but the author's brisk and to the point style makes for a lively tale.
Tim Severin has clearly done his research and read the historical sources. In particular, his portrait of King Karl, very tall and strong with a long moustache but a high pitched voice happens to be confirmed both from the sources and from archaeology (the size of The Frankish King's skeleton is 1.92 meters). Other details, such as the fact that he could not read, his restless energy, his fits of bad temper, that he had several wives and multiple daughters from a large number of concubines, that his only living son during the first decade of his reign was a hunchback, are also drawn from the written sources that have survived.
The picture that Tom Severin draws of the Kingdom of the Franks - powerful but vulnerable with far away and troublesome borders (Saxony, Carinthia, Spain and Brittany) - of the King's Court, of Karl's love of hunting, and of his palace at Achen, still under construction at the time when this story takes place, are also excellent. Another nice touch, among many others, is Tom Severin's presentation of the paladins whom he makes into the sons and relatives of powerful lords. Most of these elite household warriors were destined to hold high offices once they had attracted glory, fame, plunder (and perhaps experience!). Most of them were the Frankish King's "guests" (read "hostages") and would vouch for the good behaviour of the powerful vassals of Charlemagne to whom they were related. On a different note, the description of the desolate and haunting moors of Brittany, with a nice hint to the menhirs of Carnac, is also rather exciting.
Another nice touch is the role played by Ganelon, whose name became the equivalent of "traitor" during the Middle Ages. He is alleged in the "Chanson de Roland" to have betrayed Count Hroudland and brought about the death of the Emperor's favourite nephew because he was one of his many rivals at Court. Tom Severin, always eager to "debunk" the "official" version, and bearing in mind that the Franks initially covered up the Ronceveaux events, presents an alternative version to what happened and shows that, if there was such a disaster at Ronceveaux, it may not have been because of the large losses sustained by the Franks.
As the author acknowledges, his story is "very loosely based on the events surrounding Charlemagne's failed military expedition into Moorish Spain in August 778 AD." For the purpose of his story, he has modified some of events and omitted certain elements (for instance, the Muslim embassy to Achen did not happen as indicated). This is where I started having problems with the book. Although I am not too keen on authors taking liberties with what little we know about the historical events, some of this tends to happen in most historical novels and it is perfectly acceptable, but only up to a point. It becomes problematic when the author changes the historical events so as to make one of his characters - here Count Hroudland - look better or worse than what the historical events tend to suggest. Here Hroudland is made to be both reckless and irresponsible, even when overlord of the Breton March where he runs into debts and makes himself quite unpopular. In addition, the town of Pampeluna was not taken, pillaged and torched by Hroudland, but by Charlemagne himself and this happened as the King lead the main army that came into Spain via the Roncevaux pass. The other force crossed over in the east and marched on Barcelona but failed to take it. It then retreated to Zaragossa which the joint army also failed to take.
A second problem is that Tim Severin has sought to oppose the rough, coarse and somewhat "barbarian" Franks to the refined and civilized Moors. This is largely an anachronism, with regards to the Muslims at least. He also ignores the political context of Muslim Spain at the time: it was torn apart with civil wars between Muslims as Abd El Rahman the Omeyyad sought to bring under his control the whole peninsula after his successful coup in 756. Also, the Muslims were in fact a mix of Arabs (Yemenites settled in the Ebro valley and Arabs from Syria settled in the valley of the Guadalquivir), converted Berbers from North Africa, and converted Wisigoths, especially among the nobility. For instance, the historical character of Wali (Governor) Husayn was in fact the descendant of the last Wisigoth count that was ruling Saragossa when the Arabs invaded: he converted, rallied to them, and kept his post, as many other Wisigothic nobles.
There are also a couple of glitches with regards to military aspects. Severin's descriptions of Frankish heavy cavalry are mostly accurate. I am however unaware that the military obligations of Frankish warriors were limited to 60 days at the time and I do not know from where the author has drawn this (the limit that would apply a couple of centuries latter would be 40 days). At the time, it seems that the King could request military service for up to 6 months at least from his vassals, although there was of course no permanent army. However, "Sarracen" horse archers using composite bows in Spain in the 8th century is not accurate. Muslims only started to use horse archers in the early 9th century when one of the sons of Haroun El-Rashid hired large numbers of Turkish horse archers out of Tansoxiana to fight against his brother for the throne and Empire. So while a composite bow could have made its way to the stores of Charlemagne as part of a gift (from an Avar embassy, for instance), such bows do not seem to have yet made it to Spain at the time.
A third problem and perhaps the most far-reaching one, and something that may become a problem for Tom Severin's next books in the series, is that in 778 AD, when the expedition to Spain took place, Charlemagne was in his mid-thirties and NOT, as indicated in the book, a middle aged King almost fifty years old. By 778 AD, he had already been King for 10 years, and sole King of the Franks for seven years after getting rid of his brother Carloman.
Despite my reservations, I must admit that I very much enjoyed this book. I read it within a day during which I did little else. I will certainly read the next episode and I certainly recommend this one.
OK, years ago I read a wonderful series all about the Vikings by Tim and whilst I didn't own the first part in hardback, when I had the opportunity to I quickly fixed that problem as its been a series I've read quite a few times since due to my love of the characters and the writing skill that generated a wonderful story.
So when I heard that Tim was tackling a series set around the Saxons, well I couldn't wait to see what would unfurl. As with the Viking series, Tim's writing brings a lost world wonderfully to life, its descriptive, has some wonderfully descriptive sequences and when added to great combat really makes this a book to sit back with and enjoy. However, whilst this alone is usually enough to sell a book, Tim takes it one stage further by giving the reader a lead character that they can like to spend time with. Whilst Sigwulf is definitely his own man, its his foibles and the authors imaginative sequences that bring it to the fore, It's a great start and to be honest I am just pleased that I had the second book ready to roll as soon as I finished this one. Great stuff.