Humor and History in England

Saxons vs. Vikings: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages, and 1066 and Before All That: The Battle of Hastings, Anglo Saxon and Norman England, Ed West (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)

These slim volumes are the first offerings from A Very, Very Short History of England, a series that pitches itself to “newcomers to the subject” who are “trying to understand England and its history in the most informative and entertaining way possible….” Sadly entertaining means the display of an ingratiating hip sensibility on nearly every page.  It begins to grate before the first chapter of the first book is finished. For example:

The Romans camped in a gorge with a forest behind them, ensuring that only a small number of natives could attack them at any one time, a battle plan similar to that of villains in kung-fu movies coming at a hero one by one rather than just overwhelming him. In contrast to the Braveheart-style appeals Boudicca to her people, Suetonius told his men, presumably in a posh accent sounding like Charles Dance….

There. Three pop allusions within the confines of just two sentences. It occurs to me that it might be possible to engage, indeed entertain, a general audience without trivializing the subject. Humor, yes; but in carefully calibrated doses that hopefully will not be dated in a year’s time.  Saxons could have been a much better volume without the trite references.

The span of a millennium is also covered by a scant 121 pages. (To be fair, it is possible to abbreviate yet leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction as does Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation.) The result here, however, is a mash-up of  facts and (admittedly interesting) tall-tales in the run-up to the rise of the House of Wessex. To West’s credit, the story holds the attention with the advent of Alfred the Great and his immediate kin.

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