Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

Edwin High King of Britain He attempted to unite the warring tribes of Britain under one crown. He converted to Christianity in 627 and many others followed his example. After his death he became a saint. These are some of the achievements of Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria, but how many of you, without having read the title of this post, would have known who I was talking about? I always think it’s a shame that so much is written about some historical figures and so little about others, but in this, the first of the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert gives Edwin the attention he deserves.

Edwin: High King of Britain is a fictional account of Edwin’s life. The story begins with Edwin in exile at the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia and follows him as he attempts to regain the throne of Northumbria. With his kingdom secure again, Edwin goes on to conquer several of his neighbouring kingdoms, believing that strength lies in unity. To secure an alliance in the south of the country, he marries Æthelburh, daughter of the King of Kent, but when his new bride heads north accompanied by her two Christian priests, Paulinus and James, Edwin has an important decision to make both for himself and for his people.

This is a fascinating novel and I feel that I’ve learned a lot from it, but it’s also a gripping, entertaining story. My description above might make it sound a bit dry, but it’s really not dry at all. In the first chapter alone, while seeking refuge at King Rædwald’s court, Edwin learns that his Northumbrian rival Æthelfrith has bribed Rædwald to assassinate him, and later that same day he has a moonlight encounter with a mysterious stranger who predicts that he will become a great and powerful king.

In the pages that follow there are battles and duels, feasts and feuds, and lots of political intrigue; there’s always something interesting happening or something new to learn and I was never bored. One very important thread that runs throughout the novel involves the coming of Christianity to Northumbria and the choice Edwin and his people are forced to make between the old pagan gods and the Christian God. This religious conflict is portrayed particularly well through the characters of Paulinus, the Italian missionary, and Coifi, Edwin’s chief pagan priest.

Writing a novel set so far into the distant past means that there is obviously a limit as to how much information is available, but Albert does seem to stick to the known facts as far as possible; his author’s note at the end explains where it was necessary to change things. The main sources he acknowledges are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. He also includes some riddles and poetry from the Exeter Book (one of the few remaining works of Anglo-Saxon literature), which I thought was a nice touch.

I have read about this time period only once before, in Nicola Griffith’s beautifully written Hild, but while Hild gives us a female perspective, this is more of a male-dominated story so the two books complement each other very well. It was nice to be able to begin this book with some familiarity with the period, however slight, but I didn’t really need it because the author makes Edwin’s story easy enough to follow even if you have no previous knowledge at all. He also provides a list of characters and a glossary at the front of the book – and a map, which is very useful if you’re not sure where the various kingdoms that make up 7th century Britain are located.

Edwin: High King of Britain is one of the most enjoyable historical fiction novels I’ve read so far this year. I’m now looking forward to reading the sequel, Oswald: Return of the King.