Over the last year or so I’ve binged my way through Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories (adapted for TV as The Last Kingdom). The story of the fictional Uhtred of Bebbanburg gives a fascinating insight into the wars between Saxon and Dane in the late 9th century.
However, Uhtred was a warrior. I found myself wondering what life was like for the people who weren’t fighting but were trying to live through the wars. The Circle of Ceridwen tells their story, particularly the women.
Ceridwen is the orphaned daughter of an ealdorman. She travels with Aelfwyn, the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon lord, who is to marry a Dane as part of a peace treaty.
Aelfwyn is increasingly torn between loyalty to her family and her feelings for her husband and his people. Ceridwen is always the outsider – the child of a dead Mercian man and an unknown Welsh woman, brought up a pagan but taken in by the church, now living among Danes. She is also literate, which is unusual at that time, particularly for a woman.
The novel is clearly based on exhaustive research and paints a vivid picture of daily life in the Anglo-Saxon world, from food and medicine to religious practice to jewellery and, of course, weaponry. Through Ceridwen and Aelfwyn we see the responsibilities and privileges of women of their status, and the lives of the impoverished and defeated Saxon families coming to terms with Danish rule. At times I felt there could have been less quotidian detail and more plot, but as the book progresses the pace picks up nicely.
War is never far away and the lives of the two women undergo further dramatic change. While one element of the story is resolved, this book mainly, brilliantly, sets up further conflicts for the main characters. By the end I was convinced I want to read more.
Like historical fiction? Take a look at my review of Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell