Armitage's translation strategy doesn't worry about literal or word-for-word translation: He wants to give readers a good story that is accessible. His introduction doesn't say enough about his choices in this translation, but of his "Gawain and the Green Knight" translation, he explained that he wasn't interested in producing "an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history; the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive and readable piece of work in its own right. In other words, the ambition has been poetry."
Bernard Cornwell takes us to another moment in the English isles' misty past when the dream of unity was a fragile, endangered thing. His novel "Death of Kings" (Harper: 321 pp., $25.99) is set in the late 9th century, a time of ferocious division and Danish domination that Cornwell has claimed as fictional territory in his "Saxon Chronicles" series.
"In the winter of 898, there was no England," says Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a mighty warrior at the novel's center. "There was Northumbria and East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex, and the first two were ruled by the Danes, Wessex was Saxon while Mercia was a mess, part Danish and part Saxon."
Uhtred can well sympathize with this sorry state of affairs. His own sense of identity is just as divided: "And I was like Mercia because I had been born a Saxon, but raised as a Dane." In the dangerous maneuvers to dominate, then, whose side should Uhtred support — Saxons or Vikings?
Early on, the dying King Alfred and his son Edward call upon Uhtred to unite the Saxon lands against their common enemy. But why? Uhtred wonders. "Why ally myself to a man destined to fail?" he says, thinking of Alfred. And yet Uhtred is loyal to them, struggling against several Viking marauders as well as traitorous actions that end up pitting Saxons against each other.
Cornwell's story reminds us of the perilous condition of nationhood and identity in those distant times and of Viking power that, if it had remained unchallenged, could have turned the British Isles into some kind of Norse colony or outpost. Though readers have the benefit of historical hindsight, the players in Cornwell's story certainly have no idea how God (the Norse or Christian version) will determine their fates.
Cornwell convincingly sets Uhtred's adventures in the context of historical events (he is not entirely a fictional invention, by the way, but is based upon an actual ancestor of the author). He also gives us an awful sense of the conditions of 9th century warfare. No place is "more terrible than the shield wall," Uhtred says of the way soldiers lock their shields together to fend off the charges of their enemies. As he says this, he touches an object on his necklace that some could mistake for the cross of Christianity though it isn't one. "It is the place where we die and where we conquer and where we make our reputation. I touched Thor's hammer, prayed that Edward was coming, and readied to fight."
Before joining a shield wall, then, a stiff drink of ale or mead might be a good idea.
A veteran of the bestsellers lists (especially for his tales of Sharpe, an English soldier in the Napoleonic era), Cornwell knows how to move the story along with clean, clear, well-oiled prose. It's the sort of story that can be enjoyed simply for its plot, but it also supplies interesting information about Mercia and Wessex or the strains on a lord's finances to maintain and feed his troops. It's far smoother reading on the topic than you'll find in a musty old history book.
Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.