Friday, 8 July 2016

Review: Alfred the Great, by Justin Pollard

Excepting the Unofficial Manual (Viking edition) I think this is my first history of the Anglo-Saxon period (9th century, specifically). I’ve read a few books of later centuries and some of the Roman period, but it was unfamiliar territory for me.

Despite that, I didn’t feel lost. The world is unfamiliar, but Pollard’s tendency to explain aspects of Anglo-Saxon life that are not well-known provides helpful context (for example, the near total lack of urban living).

The start of the book has an introduction explaining the limited sources, and how some were consumed by fire. I felt this could perhaps have been a shade briefer (it didn’t go on for ages, it must be said).

Alfred is one of those kings most people can name, without knowing much about him. His biography proper begins with his grandfather, and paints a concise picture of the political situation in Britain. This not only informs the reader of the world Alfred was born into, but also made plain the scale of the subsequent upheaval that was caused by Viking raids, and then invasions.

The book is not an object of hero worship. Whilst Alfred achieved great things, the author is unafraid to point out where he screwed things up (usually by complacency rather than active ineptitude). There’s also an interesting take on when Alfred was reduced to (effectively) internal exile, with precious few followers, suggesting that it wasn’t a surprise attack by Vikings, but collusion of his own nobles with the Viking leader Guthrum that saw him deposed.

As is usual with this sort of book, there are a few pages given over to photographs relevant to the subject (although they’re on plain paper rather than the glossy stuff often used).

I liked that the book didn’t stop dead with Alfred’s demise, but had a brief outline of events that happened immediately after his death. There’s a (short) explanation of what happened to the king’s remains, which seems like a tragic allegory for our sometime collective failure to respect history.

Downsides? The chapter about gathering learned men to propagate knowledge felt a little long to me. It’s hard to know whether a little more of Edward the Elder would’ve been possible (naturally, sources are limited for that period, so it may not have been an option), but if so, that would’ve been welcome.

Overall, I liked the book a lot. It portrays Alfred’s undoubted virtues and his vices, which, whilst small, very nearly lost not only he his kingdom, but Anglo-Saxon England altogether. The writing style’s easy to read and the little explanations of the 9th century world are almost pitch perfect, enlightening the reader without drifting too far from the central narrative.


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