Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999  


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The Heroic Age is interested in reviewing books, multimedia, and movies related to early medieval northwestern Europe as defined in our mission statement. Please contact Brad Eden, Book Reviews Editor, at beden@nevada.edu to set up arrangements. Qualified individuals are also needed to review these items. Contact the Book Reviews Editor if you are interested.

Nonfiction Fiction Fiction Series Film and Video


The Landscape of Roman Britain Equus: The Horse in the Roman World

The Landscape of Roman Britain

Dark, Ken and Petra Dark. 1997. Gloucestershire: Sutton. 186 pages. ISBN 0-7509-1874-8.

Reviewed by Linda A. Malcor, Aliso Viejo, California

The Landscape of Roman Britain is a masterpiece that should be a part of the library of everyone who seriously studies the Roman period in Britain. While the information is a bit technical at times, the Darks walk the reader through the mind-numbing details of everything from pollen sequences to plough marks. The authors then put the pieces of the complex puzzle together in a manner that is thoroughly readable to create a vivid mental image of what Britain looked like in Roman times. Numerous maps, diagrams, and paintings of reconstructed settings enhance the portrait outlined in the text.

The Darks divide their material into seven main sections. They begin with a survey of the "natural" environment in Iron Age, Roman, sub-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and medieval times, with several references to the modern appearance of the landscape. The authors then examine the "villa" landscape (essentially southeastern Britain), the "native" landscape (primarily Wales and the west and north of modern England, including areas primarily controlled by the military), agricultural areas (which overlap the villa and the native landscapes), and urban and industrial locations. The final chapter discusses the changes to the landscape that occurred at the end of the Romano-British period and describes how the evidence shows that the Anglo-Saxon "invasion" was both slower and later than has been traditionally thought.

The notes are extensive, but I found myself wishing that more of them were substantial. I would have preferred to have the effort of turning all the way to the back of the text and hunting for the note number under the appropriate chapter heading rewarded by more than an author's name and date. For such simple references, parenthetic citations in the body of the text would have saved a lot of page turning.

The bibliography is extensive and impressive, occupying nearly twenty-two pages in a rather small font. The compilation of titles from so many fields makes The Landscape of Roman Britain an extremely valuable reference source.

The only topic I found myself wishing the authors had covered in more depth was the religious aspects of the landscapes. Aside from a few references to the fact that there were numerous temples and evidence of human sacrifice in the "native" landscape during the Roman period, religious details are scant. I would have liked to know if the temples all looked alike, if the temples were dedicated to the state religion or to a single deity or to multiple deities, and if the temples represented non-Roman as well as Roman religions. A discussion of why some temples seem to be at the heart of settlements while others are outside settlements and still others seem to be in the middle of nowhere would have been useful as well.

In any case, The Landscape of Roman Britain is a splendid work, and the Darks are to be heartily congratulated for their fine contribution to the scholarship on Roman Britain.

Equus: The Horse in the Roman World

Hyland, Ann. 1998. London: Batsford; Connecticut: Yale University Press. 285 pages. ISBN 0-300-04770-3.

Reviewed by Linda A. Malcor, Aliso Viejo, California

Ann Hyland's formidable study of equines in ancient Rome deserves all of the high praise it has received. She draws together material from printed and visual sources, presenting them as a cohesive and informative unit. Her historical reconstruction work is intriguing as well.

Hyland divides her book into three parts: "Basic Principles of Roman Horsemanship," "The Roman Cavalry Horse" and "The Horse in State and Civilian Use." Apparatus includes in-text notes, tables, a couple of line drawings, several plates in the center of the text, a select glossary of Roman and equine terms, and a list of horse breeds noted in classical literature. List of tables, maps and plates in the table of contents would have been useful when attempting to locate certain information after initially reading the book. I also found it a little difficult to determine which classical source in the bibliography was indicated by some of her abbreviated notes in the text. Some of the notes could have been more complete. For example "Plutarch, Lives" on p. 182 is not enough to get me to the specific passage being cited, and the cite to Virgil's Aeneid V.545-600 on p. 111 refers to V.569-628 in Lind's edition (Hyland used the Loeb Classic edition of 1960; she does not list the editor or translator.). In other instances, such as the positioning of the III Gallica on the map on p. 194, I cannot figure out the source of her information (H.M.D. Parker, The Roman Legions, Chicago: Ares, 1980:128: "The camp of the III Gallica cannot be identified"); I would love to know where she found her data on this and other matters. At several points the inserted tables blend into the text because there are no clear lines separating them from the flow of the narrative. The same difficulty arises with the captions of some maps. Also, a map or table referred to in the text may be a few pages away from the portion of the text that describes it. There were numerous places where, in spite of Hyland's detailed descriptions, I found myself longing for at least a sketch of a piece of equipment, much as those supplied in Dixon and Southern's The Roman Cavalry (London: Batsford, 1992).

Glitches in documentation aside, there are a few times that Hyland's vast experience as a horsewoman seems to have gotten in the way of the accuracy of some of her deductions and reconstructions. For instance, the caption for plate 7 draws attention to the detail that she is riding at the canter with her heel down, as opposed to toe down as depicted in Roman images. She concludes that showing the toe down is simply an artistic convention. I would suggest, rather, that the years she has spent in the saddle, riding both English- and Western-style, have made it impossible for her to sit her horse in any manner other than with a straight back perpendicular to the horse's spine and her foot forward with her toe down. Roman art generally depicts the rider leaning forward with his foot well back from the position she uses--sometimes so far back that the foot is well behind the mass of his body--and the toe down, particularly when the horse is moving at speed. This is precisely the position used by Native Americans when riding bareback and which is depicted for steppe nomads, when they are shown on saddles that do not have stirrups. Hyland insists that the Romans had to maintain control of the reins in their left hand throughout battle, when Native Americans and steppe nomads both were able to ride into battle with extra-long reins draped around their waists so that both hands would be free for the use of weapons. Hyland also assumes that because she has trouble wielding a replica of a shield and a pilum that a soldier who had drilled in the use of these and other weapons, probably since childhood, would experience similar difficulties. She declares other feats of riding prowess, such as being able to drop to the side of a galloping horse and scoop up someone who is running alongside, are impossible without using a saddle, yet Native Americans and steppe nomads were reported to accomplish such feats while riding bareback. In all, Hyland ascribes a high level of dependence on equipment to the Romans, when the riders surely knew as well as modern riders do that equipment can fail. Certainly riders who were going into battle, where someone could slice reins, girths, etc., would have been trained to a level where the equipment was nice to have yet not a prerequisite for the soldier to be able to function in combat.

I was a little surprised that given, Hyland's background in Western riding, she did not go into the horsemanship of the Alans in more detail. These steppe riders used lariats and other equipment very familiar to most people from ubiquitous images of the American West. Her information about the Sarmatian horses and their equipment comes largely from the excavations at Pazyryk, where the finds are mostly of Scythian rather than of Sarmatian date. Although there are plenty of Sarmatian finds in Europe, she chooses to weight the Pazyryk finds more heavily in her considerations for some reason I do not understand, since she is discussing Sarmatians in Europe during Roman times. She does not seem to be familiar with Bachrach's work on Sarmatians and other steppe nomads who fought for Rome (A History of the Alans in the West, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973) nor Nickel's investigations into Sarmatian horse armor and weaponry. Hyland has a habit of assuming that the Romans took something from the Celts when they could have aquired a piece of equipment or tactic just as easily from Alano-Sarmatians; perhaps she is unaware of how much the groups share because of early contact between them. Elsewhere, she puzzles briefly about the emphasis on white horses in connection with religion, but she never really discusses the importance of the horse to religious life in ancient Rome to anywhere near the degree she examines other aspects of equine involvement in Roman every-day life. Jaan Puhvel (Comparative Mythology, London: Johns Hopkins, 1987) discusses the importance of the white horse at some length.

Hyland assumes that the hooves of steppe and other horses would have suffered greatly upon transferring to Britain since two of her own horses developed foot problems after transferring from the Southwestern United States to Britain. But the climate the Sarmatians came from was roughly analogous to Britain's climate at that time. Presumably their animals were bred from types whose hooves had little or no difficulty enduring the climate in which they lived.

In spite of the work's flaws, however, Hyland deserves high accolades for pulling so much useful information together in a single volume. This book is a definite "must-have" or "must-consult" for anyone who writes about Roman cavalry.


Island of Ghosts Ordeal at Lichfield

Island of Ghosts

Bradshaw, Gillian. 1998. New York: Tor. 372 pages. ISBN 0-812-54514-1.

Reviewed by Linda A. Malcor, Aliso Viejo, California

Gillian Bradshaw displays the same storytelling craftsmanship that earned her acclaim with her previous novels, including her Sir Gawain trilogy (Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, In Winter's Shadow). Island of Ghosts chronicles the adventures of some of the 5,500 Sarmatians who were defeated by Marcus Aurelius and sent to Britain in 175 C.E. Narrated by a prince, Ariantes, the story explores the process of the assimilation of the Sarmatians to Roman, rather than to Brigante, culture and offers several hypotheses as to why the assimilation took place in the direction that it did. The story makes excellent reading, and, for that reason, it is well worth purchasing.

Bradshaw is renowned in literary circles for her historical accuracy. In Island of Ghosts, however, some of her information is more than a little out of date. Her primary reference work was Tadeusz Sulimirski's The Sarmatians (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970). Sulimirski made the assumption that the Sarmatians were posted in units of 500 along Hadrian's Wall, a good guess at the time but one that further research has not borne out. The Sarmatians were in fact posted to the Roman fort and region of Bremetennacum in what is modern Lancashire. From there, Sarmatian cavalry was sent in vexillations of varying size to bolster the defenses along Hadrian's Wall and probably to fight far north of the Wall as well. Instead, Bradshaw places one group of 500 Sarmatians at Eburacum (York), another at Cilurnum, and a third at Condercum. The change in venue and military structure would have significantly altered the story had Bradshaw been aware of them.

Bradshaw's knowledge of Roman military hierarchy is a bit shaky as well. She creates Marcus Flavius Facilis, a "senior centurion", as the officer to lead the Sarmatians from Pannonia to Britain. A "senior centurion" would not have been of sufficient rank to oversee such a massive transfer of cavalry. The officer in charge would have been a praefectus of the Equestrian Order either on the first or last tour of his cursus ("the career pattern followed by equestrian rank officers in the Roman legionary system"). My own research has been confirming the long-standing hypothesis that the officer was in fact one Lucius Artorius Castus.

To Bradshaw's credit, she does include an epilogue where she lists her sources. While she does use Cassius Dio's history, she apparently did not consult Herodian's work for supplemental information. As already mentioned, she relies heavily on Sulimirski's findings to which she adds information gleaned from M.I. Rostovtzeff's Iranians and Greeks in South Russia, W.W. Tarn's Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments, Ann Hyland's Equus: The Horse in the Roman World (London: B.T. Batsford, 1990), and Anthoney Birley's The People of Roman Britain (London: B.T. Batsford, 1979). Yet Bradshaw knows nothing of Helmut Nickel's work on Sarmatian arms and armor, Bernard S. Bachrach's summary of the archaeological and written record of Sarmatians in Europe (in A History of the Alans in the West, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1073), nor summaries of the Sarmatian evidence in Britain as presented by J. Collingwood Bruce, Sheppard S. Frere, I.A. Richmond, Peter Salway and others.

Bradshaw does, however, get some details right that many scholars still get wrong. For instance, she has the Sarmatians using stirrups and the Roman soldiers (rather than slaves) rowing the warships. She also took more dramatic license than she thought when she had the "Thundering Legion" earning its name in a battle on the Danube against Sarmatians: Scholars actually think that the battle where the legion earned its name took place in the Middle East or possibly Egypt with nary a Sarmatian in sight (Bradshaw thinks the battle was simply an earlier one against Sarmatians on the Danube).

Still, Island of Ghosts is a rousing tale, and it succeeds quite admirably at its primary goal, which is to entertain. It was a refreshing change to follow a culture other than Roman or Celtic through the Britain of Late Antiquity, especially since the Roman army in the province was so strongly reinforced by auxilia and numeri (mostly cavalry units supplied by client and conquered tribes from outside Britain). The picture Bradshaw paints is far more accurate than many historical novels of Britain set in Late Antiquity or the early medieval period, and, for that, she deserves a hearty commendation.

Ordeal at Lichfield

Clarke, Anthony. London: Hodder and Stoughton (Coronet Books). 261 pages. ISBN 0-340-71254-6.

Reviewed by Norman Hinton, University of Illinois at Springfield

Edwin, a.k.a. Aldhelm, is a monk who falls afoul of just about every contrary tide one can imagine in seventh-century England. He was originally a follower of St. Chad ( now deceased), but in the course of the book he falls in with (or becomes subject to) Irish marauders, Saxons, left-over Ancient Britons, an A-S king, Roman rite churchmen, and perhaps others whom I have forgotten.

Edwin's announced goals are to counter the evil Owini, a churchman of dubious morals, and to avenge his father's death at the hands of a Saxon, whose name we do not know (though we do know he is nicknamed "Shitlegs".). Owini is indeed put down, but not by Edwin, and the revenge motif tends to disappear as the book continues.

The largest part of the book is taken up with Edwin's more or less accidental travels around the vicinity of Lichfield as it seems to have been constituted around 675. I have the impression that if I lived in Lichfield, the book would take on at least a geographical interest. As it is, one can keep referring to the map at the front of the book, but there is nothing in particular to be gained from that knowledge except the kind of low-level mapwise satisfaction one gets by tracing the wanderings of a Louis L'Amour hero on a large-scale map of Arizona: that is, happiness at finding the spots, but a notion that it really wouldn't matter if the sites were imaginary.

This brings us to one of the book's defects. While it is rife with historical allusions, there is little to be gained from that. Clarke seems to have taken all possible ethnic and political and religious groups from his century and tossed them into a pot to simmer. I find it very hard to believe that a small wandering band of Irish would have really tried to take Lichfield in 675, and it indeed proves ephemeral when, after some 65 pages, the Irish are swept aside by Saxons who hardly seem to break a sweat.

On another plane, while it is certainly true that not all England converted to Roman Christianity immediately after the Synod of Whitby, Clarke seems to believe that opposition to Rome was so widespread as to constitute a whole set of armed revolutionary movements. One would like to see his evidence.

It is manifest, I guess, that I did not like this book. It was episodic in the extreme, with a hero always acted upon, not acting (and usually whining about it), a heroine (of sorts) who appears and vanishes with no rhyme nor reason, sets of characters who appear and disappear en masse, and little to show for all of it at the end. It is somewhat amusing to see Clarke work in references to other literature. Three otherworldly women come to take the wounded Finn off to some mysterious place to heal after his Last Battle. Edwin hears two soldiers talk about "a Grendel" in a marshy pond. There are glancing verbal echoes of OE literature, etc. But those only serve to point up the gap between this book and the literatures the references come from.

Ordeal at Lichfield won a prize for the best book of its year about Lichfield. I am not sure just how many other books were in the competition. I would say that a reader who wants a grim and pessimistic view of England in the fifth-seventh century would do well to look up the novels Henry Treece wrote about the period back in the '50s and '60s. Or if popular fiction is wanted, then try Rosemary Sutcliffe's Arthur books or the 6th century mystery novels of "Peter Tremayne" (Peter Berresford Ellis), set in nearly contemporary Ireland (his latest paperback, The Subtle Serpent [Signet Books], is set in 666 and gives a much more reasonable and complex sense of varied religious and military currents, albeit in Ireland.).

I can honestly say, however, that if I had not been reviewing this book, I would not have finished it.

Fiction Series

The Camulod Chronicles, Vols. 3 and 4:
  • The Eagles' Brood
  • The Saxon Shore
The Sister Fidelma Mysteries:
  • Absolution by Murder
  • Shroud for the Archbishop
  • Suffer the Little Children

The Camulod Chronicles

Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler, Belleville, Illinois

Finally in the third volume of The Camulod Chronicles familiar Arthurian names begin to appear. In these two books, Whyte progresses from the orderly Roman world in the first two volumes to the early chaotic days of post-Roman Britain. These books describe the fifth century tug-of-war between the need to remain true to Roman traditions and the necessity of forging ahead to make their own way.

The Eagles' Brood revolves around the relationship between Merlyn and Uther. It follows them from their boyhood in the colony Camulod, founded by their grandfathers, to their hedonistic early adulthood and finally their maturity as leaders of the colony. This book largely sets the stage for the upcoming Arthurian drama as much as the first two volumes grounded the background of Arthurian Britain in the Roman world. Although traditional Arthurian figures appear, their context is brand new, especially for King Lot of Cornwall and Vortigern of Northumbria! Whyte's Northumbria is a good example of a few of his historical stumbles. Northumbria wasn't founded until the early seventh century and the name Northumbria didn't come into being for yet another century. Merlyn's illness and surgery are also a little far fetched. Of all the secondary relationships, the meetings between Merlyn and Germanus of Auxerre at the Synod of St. Albans are interesting, as is Whyte's resolution of Merlyn Ambrosius.

The Eagles' Brood is hung on a framework of a mystery first of a terrible crime and ultimately a horrific murder. Whyte gives himself over to his love of detail in both the crimes and his set up of the prime suspect, perhaps to a fault. The mystery does drive this book better than his other three books to date. In the end, Merlyn's world comes crashing down and the baby Arthur is all he has left. Merlyn's quest to solve the mystery and his guilt over his own failures are instrumental in his dedication to making the orphan Arthur the ultimate fulfillment of the dream of Camulod's founders.

The Saxon Shore continues exactly where The Eagles' Brood ends. The crimes of The Eagles' Brood are as yet unsolved although clues continue. We can only hope it will be eventually solved in his upcoming book, Uther, if not in the series proper. Most of this book deals with Arthur's first precarious year of life. Arthur's Irish family is a high point and promises to play an important role in upcoming volumes. The little family that will follow Arthur throughout his life are set. This book ends with an eight-year-old Arthur going into voluntary exile for his safety in north Britain, accompanied by his Irish family, Merlyn, seven-year-old Bedwyr and six-year-old Gwin (Gawain?).

Overall, Whyte's books are interesting and engrossing. At times, the detail bogs down the plot, and the book could use some editing. Whyte's version of the Arthurian legend is untraditional, although I'm not sure I know what that means anymore. I enjoy seeing the legend take a new form, as long as it is grounded in the fifth century and does not employ a futuristic or modern setting. I look forward to reading the next installment in the series.

The Sister Fidelma Mysteries

Reviewed by L.J. Swain, Western Michigan University

Historical fiction has two difficult grounds on which to prove itself: how historical it is and how it works as fiction. However, historical mystery fiction has treble the proving ground since it must be historical, work as fiction, and work as a good mystery. And therein lies the rub.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to review a collection of mystery short stories for a local library journal. One of those stories featured a medieval Celtic nun named Sister Fidelma. I thoroughly enjoyed the story but wondered a bit at the history. Needless to say, when our editor sent me three of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma books to read and review I jumped at the chance to savor that delicious story.

The three books that I read each begin with a foreward that explains the historical background the author is using. And it is here that I must quibble. Tramayne, a.k.a. Peter Ellis Beresford, presents an Irish society in the seventh century that is almost ideal and that seems to be based on an uncritical reading of the sources. One example of this is his comparison of Irish government, which he describes as being republican, to the more feudal monarchies of medieval Europe. However, in the seventh century there was no such thing as a "feudal" monarchy in the true sense of the term nor was kingship exclusively hereditary, although it was certainly moving that direction on the Continent and in England. He further makes the statement that the Brehon laws almost made for a female paradise seen from today's perspective. Again, this attitute fails to take into account the rest of Europe. Rape was never legal, and in many societies divorce meant that the husband had to give up if not some of his property at the very least the bride price. In short, the entire historical introduction is an attempt to compare Ireland with the rest of Europe, and Ireland, without question, compares very favorably. This attitude and the statements Beresford makes have been questioned over the last thirty years by scholars of such note as Nora Chadwick and Kathleen Hughes, to name two of the most well known.

I quibble with his depiction of double foundations since usually, even in Ireland (if there were double foundations there. There is some question on this.), women and men had separate wings and quarters and met altogether only for services. Further, Irish rules for monasteries, combined with the penitentials, were quite harsh, but Tremayne's foundations seem to be lax and easy to live in. Thus, as history, the books aren't quite as historically based as one would like.

This is not to say that they are unhistorical. Beresford is careful in his depiction of political intrigue even in "republican" situations, in the general attitutdes toward women on the continent in contrast to Ireland And the role of the lawyer in Irish society is an important note as well. The caveat is that one should take the historical background Tremayne paints with a few grains of salt.

As mysteries these books work fairly well. I give them a B+. Unlike a number of current mystery writers, the solution is not immediately obvious in the first chapter. And again unlike other mystery writers who use the medieval period as a backdrop, these books do use "love" as the motive either for the murder or for the investigation. These elements are appreciated.

In each case, Fidelma is stonewalled. The factors of her society, of being a woman, but somehow having special powers granted her, are constant sources of conflict with those around her. These conflicts, of course, delay the solution to the mystery. In the three books I read, the murder must be solved in order to prevent some political crisis. In the first book, Absolution by Murder, the murder is connected to the Council of Whitby recorded by Bede. The aspect of political intrigue is a vehicle used to great success by Ellis Peters, and Tremayne seems to have taken a good cue there. In the case of the first two books, the mystery is resolved but has nothing to do with political events with which they are associated. In the third book, the murder precipitates the crisis that is adverted thanks to Sister Fidelma. In my opinion, the mystery part of the books, while not a plot twister like the best of Agatha Christie, works quite well.

Finally the fiction aspect should at least be mentioned. In recent years there have been an increasing number of "literate mysteries," mystery novels which work as literature as well. The later works of P. D. James are but one example of this new genre. Tremayne's work is halfway between the traditional mystery novel and the literate one. Tremayne's character is well drawn, although one must confess that most of her attitudes, expressions, and characteristics are not gendered. That is to say Fidelma could be male or female, and it wouldn't affect the story or the character in a significant way. However, it is difficult not to see depth in this character, hidden recesses waiting to be unfolded in further stories. The plot is usually carried along quite smoothly with very few glitches or plot holes. Detail descriptions of the surroundings, clothing, or the weather are given and do assist in creating the appropriate mood fairly effectively.

All in all, Tremayne's books are pleasant reads. While the history may be debated, they could be used as a springboard to encourage someone to look more into Celtic history. Tremayne has provided his readers with a good character to whom one feels a certain attachment by the end of the novel, an easy and enjoyable way to spend an evening, with a not too taxing mystery, but not too obvious either. These books are recommended with the necessary caveat.

Film and Video

The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior

McTiernan, John, Michael Crichton, and Ned Dowd. 1999. Touchstone Pictures.

Reviewed by John Hill, US Naval Academy

Director John McTiernan's collaboration here with writers Michael Crichton and William Wisher, Jr., has produced an entertaining movie in the heterodox genre of action, horror and thrills. Inspired largely by Crichton's Eater's of the Dead, which in turn drew upon a narrative of travels among the Rus by ibn Fadlan, as well as upon Beowulf, the movie, of course, sacrifices fidelity either to the source stories or to historical period for its own center of drama and effect.

Still, thinking about The 13th Warrior and Beowulf as loosely analogous stories will bring us to some interesting comparisons. We can overlook the strange nature of the alien creatures who ride horses and terrorize the northern community that stands in for the Danes terrorized by Grendel in the Anglo-Saxon epic. The important issue is that the people over whom Hrothgar (played by Sven Wollter) is king are helpless, their community effectively defenseless. The arrival of Buliwyf (the stand-in for Beowulf) and his crew, twelve in all plus the thirteenth, the Arab Ahmahd ibn Fahdalan (played by Antonio Banderas) is a hope-filled event as the new arrivals go about refortifying Hrothgar's town in anticipation of an attack by the formidable aliens, who wear bear-skin costumes but who are not charmed against weapons and courage (Grendel in the epic is charmed against weapons.).

A number of odd changes have occurred in the shifts from poem to novel to movie. Beowulf's eventual comrade in need, Wiglaf, becomes Wigliff in the movie, Hrothgar's son and sarcastic challenger in the hall when Buliwyf and his company enter. He takes over the function played out by Unferth in the poem, a Wendel unrelated by blood to Hrothgar (as far as we know). In the movie, Wigliff's verbal challenge is nicely met but he continues to plot, eventually finding his champion tricked into facing Buliwyf's deceptively able champion, who triumphs. That killing presumably ends the court intrigue, freeing Buliwylf and his crew for their most dire of tasks: raiding the aliens' home base and killing their deep-cave dwelling voodoo earth mother (who is a nice touch, actually--a parallel for Grendel's mother in her underwater cave).

The ibn Fadlan character brings a cultural mix to the story, given that he has to learn the Vikings' language and try to understand their barbaric but finally worthy values of courage and stoicism. This too differs from the Anglo-Saxon epic, in which all the central groups involved--the Danes, the Swedes and the Geats--essentially share the same culture of warrior and communal values. One can easily multiply such observations about matters large and small into an impressive list of annoying differences. But given all of that, could this movie still perform a classroom service for those of us trying to expand interest in the early literature, language and culture of northern peoples? If not much is asked of the movie, I think it will serve. In relation to Beowulf, for example, the great hall, Heorot, is impressive; the characterization of the aged king, Hrothgar, holds up as well. Some details of landscape, especially water and cave, are appropriately evocative of natural settings in the poem. There is also nice use made of warrior understatement, augury, a meeting of old and new beliefs in deity, along with the dramatic impact of a formidable leader who seems made of something more than flesh but who dies. At moments some of these elements are combined with other strands into affecting drama--not consistently throughout, but still worth experiencing. We can point to the emphasized importance of character and strength, defense and aggressive foray, the productive relation of fighters to a vulnerable and ailing community, the reality of strongminded and beautiful women, and expected stoicism in the face of severe pain and likely death. These vital aspects of heroic life come through fairly well. That said, the movie does not approach the lasting impact of similar group against group material in Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai--a great movie, not just a mildly affecting entertainment.

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