Saxons vs. Vikings is the first mini-history book on my shelf from Ed West. And it’s worthy of the subtitle: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages. But it also contains interminable descriptions of battles and considering its brevity that’s saying a lot. Still, I have a better understanding of some parts of my heritage now.
West tackles most of the history in a chronological manner. He also builds it around the remarkable accomplishments of King Alfred of England who established national legal codes, an educational system, and a navy, among other things. Even more importantly, Alfred envisioned a unified land rather than various entities within the island nations we call Great Britain.
In the midst of all this, West explains how the area was a crossroads of various peoples, from the Picts to the Celts, Normans, Saxons, and even Vikings. Most of those folks were originally called something else, either in Olde English or their own native language. So, it gets a bit confusing even though West clarifies the names.
Speaking of confusion over names, I wish West had included a family tree of some sort. The ruling families tended to chose similar names for each of their many children, who then often carried the same convention to the next generation. So, Athelstan and Æthelstan and Ethelstan all likely had family relationships. But it’s tough to keep track of who is who.
West crams a boatload of history in a book just under 150 pages. And that’s a pun because most people in the book arrived in England, Sussex, Wessex, or Northumbria on ships or boats.
Let’s not forget the details about Vikings, including nuggets about the old Norse gods and beliefs. My favorite quote about the conflict between the Norse pagan beliefs and Christianity also shows West’s quirky humor:
“All in all Norse paganism looks like what you get if you let teenage boys design a religion, focused on fighting, fornication, and alcohol, whereas Christianity seemed to them like it was thought up by their mothers.”
Having recently watched all of Vikings as well as The Last Kingdom, parts of these stories were familiar to me. Reading Mudlark by Lara Maiklem is what absolutely pushed me into this book, though. Each of these other works touched on a piece of the story. In the other hand, West tells it in one unified passage. And that helps flesh out the dark corners and address the inadequacies of TV drama.
All in all, this was a history book with a narrow focus. West has four other such books that cover other parts of the historical spectrum. If you’re interested in the history of Great Britain and its various countries, these books may be your cup of tea.
Pair with Neil Gaiman’s creative retelling of Norse Mythology.