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Review – Viking Britain: A History, by Thomas Williams

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Quick disclaimer: I don’t like to give star ratings in my reviews, or to try to grade the book. I simply talk about what I liked and didn’t like.

Let me just say – first book of the year, done! And I’m very pleased about it, because this reading slump has been long. Long long. And what a book to end my slump with.

There are moments of brilliance in Viking Britain. Williams has a talent for incisive analysis, and passages that weighed up subjects with different possible conclusions – such as why Guthrum chose to allow Alfred to christen him as his godson – were handled expertly and cleanly.

I actually enjoyed some of the earliest parts of the book the most, especially the author’s summary of the historiography of the Vikings and how their image has been (mis)used by the Nazis, and the overly tame revisionist corrections that followed that era.

At its core, this is a basic narrative history of Viking Britain – not the Vikings per se. A few of the reviews complained that it spent a lot of time focused on the Anglo-Saxons, but a book like this has to by necessity – we have next to no textual sources that are both 1) written by the Vikings themselves and 2) from the era – the sagas that we know today were all written down in the 1200s, long after Scandinavia had been Christianised, and the stories revised by their Christian scribes. The Vikings themselves haven’t left us a voice, so we can’t speak for them. They have to be viewed as the outsiders, and this is doubly the case when we look at their activities in Britain.

That said, Williams does a good job of presenting the material culture the Vikings left behind and telling us what we can learn from it – for example, what Viking raiding camps looked like, their burial practises and how they changed in the centuries they were in Britain, and how their towns – especially York – probably appeared. As for the narrative history itself, it was a basic run-through of the usual points we talk about when we discuss the history of the Viking age in Britain, and I found I knew general facts about each point already, before he came to it.

Where the book falls down, for me, is in its more idiosyncratic attempts to tell history. The author has tried to interweave the fairly dry history of Viking Britain with flashes of fictional prose from the points of view of people living in the age, along with anecdotes about his various walks around the potential sites of important battles and feeling the landscape and weather there. I understand his purpose in doing this – it’s an attempt to establish a more vivid connection to the past – but for me, these parts didn’t land right. Alongside his multiple-page tangents on topics as varied as broken umbrellas, old family members of his, and late Victorian writers (multiple times), I found it simply distracted from the thread he was following, muddying the trail and leaving me a little frustrated and disinterested.

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