Aidan of Lindisfarne, pt 1

Oswald, King of Bernicia, had a problem. He had spent long years of exile amongst the Dál Riatan Scots* after his father, Æthelfirith, was slain and his throne taken by Æthelfirith’s brother-in-law, Edwin. Approximately 16 years later Edwin was slain by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and Oswald’s older brother, and heir to the throne, Eanfrith, rode south from Dál Riata with a war-band to sue for peace. But Cadwallon was not much interested and killed Eanfrith, taking the Bernician throne for himself.  Cadwallon promptly spent a year raping and pillaging his conquered territory, as Bede puts it, “like a cruel tyrant ravaging and tearing them apart with dreadful loss of life.” Oswald, being next in line for the throne and hearing these distressing reports of the murder of his brother and the ravaging of his people, rode off to war with a small army to re-take his ancestral throne back from the British king.

During the time he had been in exile amongst the Dál Riatans, Oswald and his brothers had become Christians, due to the influence of the monks at the island monastery of Hii (now called Iona) where they would have been sent for education. Oswald was facing a bigger army and the odds were not good, but the night before the battle he fashioned a wooden cross and knelt and prayed for victory, his army kneeling at his side (although many of them, being Angles, would have been pagans).

Oswald received a vision from the monk Columba, founder of Iona, who promised him victory, and sure enough, Gwynedd’s army was routed and Oswald crowned King of Bernicia and Deira. Seeing this success, his nobles and war chiefs all were baptized and agreed to follow Christ.

All was proceeding smoothly, and Oswald went back to Bamburgh, his royal fortress on the north-east coast, and began to organize his kingdom. His first priority was to bring a monk from Iona to begin a missionary work amongst the pagan Northumbrians. There is no doubt that Oswald was a sincere Christian, and this would have been something he was eager to do, but as well it is likely that the military support that he gained from Dál Riata during the battle came with a price tag–to start a missionary work in Bernicia.

And then the first hiccup occurred. The monk, Cormán (or Gorman, in some accounts), was singularly unsuited for the task, and by all accounts the mission was a disaster.

What went wrong? This is how Bede puts it:

….[a] man of sterner temperament was sent at first; but although he preached among the English for some time he met with no success, and the people were unwilling to listen to him. He therefore returned home and announced at a meeting of the elders that he had been able to make no headway in teaching the nation to which he had been sent, for they were an intractable people of stubborn and uncivilized character.

Hmmm. Certainly a measure of pointing the finger there, to be sure, but I have a twinge of sympathy for Corman, thrust from the civilized world of the Irish, where learning was prized, to the world of the pagan, uncouth Angles. He would not have known the language, and the people would have been inclined to hostility, I would think, given their treatment at the hands of Cadwallon’s British occupying army. The native Britons were called wealas by the Angles, meaning “foreigner” (the origin of the word Wales), which is ironic, seeing as it was actually the Angles who were the foreign occupiers of British territory, but oh well, to the victor belongs the spoils, so they say. And here was yet another wealas bossing them around and telling them to give up their gods and their glorious afterlife of riches and feasting for the discipline of a Christian life where the individual’s will was brought into subjection to Christ, the strange “white god” who couldn’t be much of a god if he allowed himself to be killed.

The return of Corman and his entourage of monks back to Iona could be nothing but a disaster, both spiritually and politically. Here was an opportunity to claim a kingdom for Christ, but the door had been closed. And what of Oswald, the Dál Raitan foster-son, who had lived and fought alongside them and converted to the faith, who had begun his rule with a great sign from God? His people had proven too much of a challenge for an experienced monk. For Corman to pack his bags and go home would have looked very bad for Oswald. What would that say about Christianity to his watching thegns and earldomen whose conversion to the faith had likely been prompted more by the desire to back a winner than out of real understanding of it.

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.  It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

Iona Abbey, Scotland, by Roy Lathwell, on Flickr.
The beautiful abbey of Iona. The buildings date from medieval times. It is located on an island off the west coast of Scotland. Another place on my bucket list!

To have Corman slink away with his metaphorical tail between his legs would have made Oswald’s faith look weak, and in extension, would have made Oswald himself look weak in the eyes of his subjects. And weak kings in Anglo-Saxon England did not last long.

Back to that meeting of elders described by Bede, where Corman has just laid out his case for why he came back. You can imagine the dismay at his words. They all knew what was at stake. One of the attendees of the meeting was Aidan, at that time a Bishop of Scattery Island.

We don’t know a lot about the early history of Aidan (anglicized form of the Gaelic Áedán or Aohdán). But in my next instalment I will tell you what we know, and give you a clearer picture of this man, whom I found by happy accident while researching the people and the places of the era of my novel, who has come to be known as the Apostle of the English…


*Today this is Ireland, but no such designation existed then. The Irish were called the Scotii by the Romans, which morphed into our modern-day word for the Scots. I know, confusing.

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Book Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I approached this book with a mixture of heady anticipation and fearful doubts. I absolutely love Novik’s Temeraire series, which, in a nutshell, is an alternate history series speculating on what the Napoleonic Wars would have been like if the countries had dragons to help them fight. Those books are delightful, and I highly recommend them. There are eight books so far in the series, with another one on the way in 2016 (whoop!).

Novik took a break from dragons to write this book, an homage to the Polish/European fairy stories she enjoyed as a child. However, there IS a dragon in it, but this “dragon” is a wizard who protects a small village from the near-by menacing Wood and selects a village girl every ten years, for what exact purpose the Villagers don’t know. As the main character, 17 year old Agnieshka, says in the opening paragraph,

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would ban together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful. 

It’s hard to follow up a tremendously successful series, especially one in which the characters are so finely drawn and the voice so singular, as is the case of the Temeraire books. (Temeraire is the name of the dragon who is discovered and raised by the main character, Captain Lawrence). Which is why I was a bit afraid to read this book. It’s been out for a few months, but I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as the others.

Well, I needn’t have worried. Did I like it as much as the Temeraire books? No, but that’s okay. I still enjoyed it very much. Novik is a wonderful writer, and she pulled me into this world very quickly. It does read like a Grimm’s fairy tale, with wizards and the menacing evil of the Wood hanging over all, and I enjoyed that flavour to it.

The story opens with Agnieshka and the rest of the 17 year old girls getting ready for the feasting day when the Dragon will come from his tower and pick the girl he will take. In this case, everyone assumed that his choice would be Kesia, Agnieshka’s best friend, who is beautiful and graceful, everything that Agnieshka isn’t. But when the moment comes, to everyone’s surprise, it is Agnieshka who is taken.

Agnieshka is an appealing character, clumsy and ill-kempt, but with some spunk to her. I liked her from the get-go, and sympathized with her plight. The Dragon is cold and impatient, especially when he begins to teach her some magic; for the reason he chose her was because, unbeknownst to her, she had magical abilities that the rest of the girls did not have.

I enjoyed the comparison of Agnieshka’s magic to that practiced by the Dragon. Agnieshka’s magic is much more organic and intuitive, while the  Dragon’s is  logical and mathematical. Novik does a good job of describing the two and their burgeoning partnership as Agnieshka begins to learn her magic under the Dragon’s exacting tutelage.

There are some funny parts to this novel, and some creepy ones as well. This is not a book for younger teens, in my opinion. There are some sexual scenes, which, although tastefully done, are not appropriate for that age. And the scary bits might be quite unsettling to younger readers. For example, here is the description of the Wood:

No one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.

Working on intuition and spurred on by her love for her friend, Agnieshka manages to save Keisa when she is captured by the Wood. Her success is not complete – Keisa is changed by her time spent in the Wood, with superhuman strength and other inhuman qualities, but her personality is intact. Because of this success, Agnieshka is roped into a plan to save the country’s Queen from the Wood, who disappeared there some years before.

There is a wider world beyond the confines of the Valley and the Tower, and Agnieshka’s magical abilities involve her in the politics of the country and the people who had only interested her Valley people as fodder for tales and legends. Despite their doubts about the wisdom of doing such a thing, Agnieshka and the Dragon manage to rescue the Queen, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong with her….

I won’t give any more away, for I would recommend this book as one for you to read. It’s a modern-day Grimm fairy tale, with humour, a European flavour, and a romantic element to it as well, although the fact that Agnieshka is only 17 put me off the  physical side of the romantic relationship. There is an interesting magic system and a creepy evil to be vanquished, and it’s all done in Novik’s very competent writing style.

I did enjoy this book…..but I really can’t wait to return to Captain Lawrence and Temeraire’s world  in League of Dragons, coming sometime in 2016, I understand….