Last week I had the pleasure of re-reading a favourite GA Henty book, The Dragon and the Raven. What a trip down memory lane! This was the very first GA Henty book I ever read--in fact, my mother read it aloud to us--and while this must be at the very least the fourth time I've read it, I found it just as good this time around.
Of course I wanted to read this because I'd just finished with Ben Merkle's The White Horse King, and I hadn't had quite enough of thinking about that great king, Alfred. I already knew something about Alfred, mainly from this book and another, The Namesake, by C Walter Hodges, which I didn't enjoy much.
The Dragon and the Raven refers to Alfred's Golden Dragon standard, and the standard of the Danish kings, which was a raven. The story opens in the year 870 in the marshes of East Anglia, where an Anglian ealdorman, his kinsman Eldred, and his son Edmund have been driven in an attempt to hide from the Danes. The Danish advance is resisted one last time by an East Anglian army led in part by Edmund's father, but the resistance is crushed and Eldred and Edmund fly south, to Wessex. But even Wessex, the last Saxon kingdom, won't defy the Danes forever...Ever mindful of his homeland's fall, young Edmund determines to fight his hardest against the brutal, bloodthirsty Danish invaders. From the marshes of Athelney, to the heart of Danish territory, to the siege of Paris and even the invasion of Sicily, Edmund and his good ship the Dragon fearlessly sail in search of adventure. Throw in a pretty Danish girl, her honourable (if piratical) father, and her wicked suitor, and you have everything else you need for a gripping yarn.
The subtitle of this book is Or, the Days of King Alfred. Strictly speaking, it's an accurate title: the book is less about King Alfred than about the time in which he lived, the wholesale onslaught of the Danes against the entire civilised world, from England to France to the Mediterranean. Unusually for a Henty book, most of the memorable bits of the story are not based on history at all; though if you're paying attention you will hear all about the battle of Ashdown, the battle of Ethandune, and the great invasion of 893.
At first I thought this was an unusual way of doing things--Henty usually spends far more time on historical detail than he does here--but I believe his intention was to give the reader the biggest picture possible. It wasn't just England that tottered before the heathen attack. It was Europe. The Vikings plundered, pillaged, slew, and sacked from the Orkneys to Palestine and everywhere in between, using rivers to strike quickly into the heart of Italy, France, and Spain as well as England. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Henty's detailed account of the year-long siege of Paris in 885.
It would have been nice, though, to get a little more historical detail. For example, here's one throwaway paragraph:
Another party of Danes in twenty-three ships had landed in Devonshire. Here the ealdorman Adda had constructed a castle similar to that which Edmund had built. It was fortified by nature on three sides and had a strong rampart of earth on another. The Danes tried to starve out the defenders of the fort; but the Saxons held out for a long time, although sorely pressed by want of water. At last they sallied out one morning at daybreak and fell upon the Danes and utterly defeated them, only a few stragglers regaining their ships.However, according to Ben Merkle, this siege actually went something more like this: When Ealdorman Adda saw that defeat was certain, he gathered his men together and they all decided that on the whole, it was better to have the desperate last stand outside the fort, where it would be over quickly and they would have the chance to strike one last blow at the enemy. It wasn't so much about winning as it was about how best to die. The hilarious thing was that they won--because the Danes didn't expect an all-but-defeated garrison to do something that crazy!
If GA Henty misses an opportunity here or there in The Dragon and the Raven, he picks up opportunities in other places. One thing that comes up again and again (and again) in the book is the fact that small bands of Saxons and other Christian warriors were consistently able to totally defeat armies twice their size or more. The reason was probably that, although the Danes were professional warriors, the Saxons were fighting for home and hearth and freedom--not, like the Danes, for easy plunder.
Another little historical detail Henty makes the most of: Edmund determines to join King Alfred on the swamp isle of Athelney for Dane-repulsion purposes. Arriving at the tiny island, he asks a local whether said local knows the whereabouts of the King. Oh, the Saxons, says the local. An idle, thriftless lot. No good at all.
"Ah!" Edmund said, "you do not know here how cruel are the ravages of the Danes; our homes are broken up and our villages destroyed, and every forest in the land is peopled with fugitive Saxons. Did you know that you would speak less harshly of those here. At any rate the man I seek is young and fair-looking and would, I should think"--and he smiled as he remembered Alfred's studious habits--"be one of the most shiftless of those here."Oh, says the man. That one! He's so useless, I don't know how my neighbour puts up with him. Three doors down, on the left.
I was laughing already, but then Edmund and his chums turn up at the cottage just in time to catch the famous burnt-cakes episode--the dame scolding, the King looking sheepish, the whole thing having been worked up to high comic effect!
As for the rest of the story, it's mostly adventure on the high seas, with plenty of danger and derring-do as Edmund chases Sweyn Left-Hand (why Left-Hand? Well, ask Edmund about that...) around the seas in pursuit of his lost love. One more exciting and informative adventure story from GA Henty.