Fire Queen by Joanna Courtney

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This is the second in Joanna Courtney’s series “reclaiming” Shakespearean heroines.  However, whilst Lady Macbeth was a real historical figure, Ophelia, the main character in this book, wasn’t.  The story told here is based partly on the 13th century “Saxo Grammaticus”, an Icelandic telling of the story of the Danish prince “Amleth”, on which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is *very* loosely based, but there’s no Ophelia in that, only a “temptress” who’s nothing like the rather pathetic Ophelia created by Shakespeare.  So Joanna Courtney’s made her up, as a warrior who fights alongside the men, is Hamlet’s constable, is made a prince by him, and carries on with him and a lot of other men but refuses to marry.

It’s a bit like rewriting “Rebecca” with the second Mrs de Winter giving Mrs Danvers her marching orders.  Or rewriting “Wuthering Heights” with Isabella Linton telling Heathcliff that she wouldn’t look twice at him if he were the last man on earth.  Only even more extreme.  Totally bonkers, but it’s actually very entertaining.  She’s intertwined the story with the real life events of the early 7th century clashes between the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia and the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada/Dal Riata (Hamlet and Ophelia both end up in Britain for part of the book), a part of history which rarely features in novels.  And there are some wonderful depictions of Norse religious ceremonies  … although they all seem to finish early when everyone pairs up with some random partner and heads off into the bushes, someone decides to murder someone else, or, usually, both.

If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare, which I’m not, this book will have you reaching for either a bottle of vodka or a vial of smelling salts.  Otherwise, you will probably find it rather good fun, and quite informative as well.

In the Shakespeare play, Hamlet’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  That’s Hamlet’s mum, not his own mum.  Hamlet and Ophelia may or may not be heading for marriage.  Hamlet accidentally murders Ophelia’s dad.  Ophelia goes mad and dies, possibly accidentally, possibly by suicide.  Ophelia’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle kill Hamlet, but Hamlet manages to kill the uncle at the same time.  Pretty much everyone ends up dead.   And there are a lot of ghosts.  And a skull.

In the “Saxo Grammaticus”, Amleth’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  Amleth pretends to go mad. And resists a temptress.  Then he marries an Anglian princess and a Scottish queen.  That’s two different people, not one person.  And kills his uncle.  But then another relative, who’s ganged up with the Scottish queen, kills Amleth.  Then marries the Scottish queen.  Do keep up.

This version uses a lot of the names from the Amleth legend, although it uses the more familiar “Hamlet” rather than “Amleth”.  The uncle still murders the dad, but no-one pretends to go mad.  And Hamlet has an Anglian wife and a Celtic wife, although, in this version of events, the Celtic wife is a devout Christian who really wanted to be a nun, and only gangs up with the wicked uncle because she genuinely believes that he’ll convert Denmark to Christianity.  Hamlet still meets a sticky end, but, in this version, it’s when he’s cheating on both his wives with Ophelia, and another of Ophelia’s gentlemen friends catches them at it.  In a tomb.  And kills him out of jealousy. The Celtic wife who wanted to be a nun is also there, and comes over even more religious than usual when she sees that a rock’s been rolled away from the entrance to a tomb.

OK, it’s all a bit bonkers, but it’s generally well-written, apart from some annoying slang which just doesn’t work very well in the characters’ mouths; and Ophelia (whose name is spelt here as Ofelia) is very well-depicted.  There’s a whole background story about how she was mentally scarred by her mother’s decision to throw herself on her funeral ship, which comes across well, and there certainly were female warriors – Lagertha in “Vikings”, anyone? – , although the idea of Ophelia as Hamlet’s constable is pushing it.  And the women do all get to be happy in the end – both of Hamlet’s wives remarry, more successfully, and Ophelia gets a happy ending of sorts, too.

I did actually really enjoy this.  Bonkers or no!

Vikings Season 6 – Amazon Prime

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I’ve learnt not to expect historical accuracy from Vikings, but, even so, I was lost for words when Ivar the Boneless and Oleg of Novgorod flew over 9th century Kiev/Kyiv in a sled-drawn parachute balloon.  This was followed by the Varangian warriors spending their evening doing Cossack dancing.  Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, Bjorn Ironside was trying to rescue Harald Fairhair, who was being held prisoner by Olaf the Stout and Canute the Great (that’s Canute of holding back the waves fame) … which was quite surprising, considering that neither of the captors were born until a century or so after this was taking place, and Olaf was actually Harald’s great-great-great-grandson.  It went belly up, and Bjorn Ironside and his men tried to swim to safety, only to end up surrounded by a ring of fire.

By this point, I really wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Bjorn Borg, Bjorn Ulvaeus and all four members of Bjorn Again had rolled up in a longboat to rescue them.  I just wanted to know how Lagertha, who’d retired from public life to live as a private person (like Harry and Meghan, but without all the whingeing), but had then agreed to lead her female neighbours in an all-women army to resist attacks by bandits (Lagertha is far and away my favourite character), got her hair into that complicated coronal of plaits.  It really did look very smart, especially for a farmstead on a beach.

I do love Vikings really.  I’m very put out that this is the last series.

The Bjorn/Harald/Canute stuff was just beyond silly. OK, it’s hardly meant to be a documentary, but surely they could at least try to keep people in the right century?  And why on earth had Canute been transformed into Harald’s dogsbody?   Not impressed.  The Lagertha storyline, whilst entirely fictional, was fascinating, though.  The idea was that she was approached by a group of women and children who, with most of their menfolk dead from raiding ‘n’ trading and those still living being away, were vulnerable to raids by bandits.  Their settlement had been attacked and the women raped, and some of the children murdered.  And their food supplies had been stolen.   It’s something that must have happened to a lot of real Viking-era communities.

And Kievan Rus.  Yes, I know that Ukraine prefers “Kyiv” to “Kiev”, and I do usually respect that, but no-one ever says “Kyivan Rus”.  As a Russian history specialist, and someone who’s been to both Kyiv/Kiev and Novgorod, I was rather excited to find Oleg of Novgorod featuring in this series.  And most of what was shown was based on … well, the facts as far as they’re known.  Oleg did indeed conquer Kiev and raid Constantinople, and the story about him refusing a cup of poisoned wine, also mentioned, is, if not necessarily a fact, a well-known legend.  Like Canute and the Waves, probably!  Looks like a pop group when written like that, but never mind.

What about the other Varangians?  Well, we saw little Igor, Oleg’s eventual successor, the son of Rurik. Oleg was indeed his guardian, and, as the programme showed, quite possibly his maternal uncle.  However, in this, Askold and Dir were also Igor’s uncles, Oleg’s brothers – whereas, in fact (as far as fact is known), they were the rulers of Kiev whom Oleg defeated.  There is a story that Askold was actually Bjorn Ironside’s son, but the scriptwriters didn’t go for that.  I suppose it was a bit late to bring in an adult son at this point!  Or maybe the son of Hvitserk, another of Ragnar Lothbrok (I do miss Ragnar!)’s sons, but, although Hvitserk’s included in the series, they didn’t go for that option either.

It’s all a bit complicated!   I’m so chuffed that the Varangians have been included, though.  They usually get forgotten when people are talking about Vikings.  But there’s certainly nothing in history to suggest that Oleg ever met Ivar the Boneless.  As for the parachute balloon thing …

And I’m not convinced about the Varangian warriors doing Cossack dancing!  They did generally seem very Russian/Ukrainian, although Oleg himself chatted away merrily in Old Norse.  The issue of whether the Rus were of Scandinavian origin, Slavic origin, or probably a mixture, is complex, and quite sensitive.  Russian history works much better if you downplay the Viking connection, just as English history works much better if you downplay the Norman influence.   However, I don’t think the scriptwriters were trying to align themselves with any one school of historical thought.  Cossack dancing just looks good!!

And it all looked good.  OK, OK, it wasn’t very accurate, but it was really good fun – and it didn’t actually stray into the realms of fantasy.  There was a bit of supernatural stuff going on, but that was mainly about prayers and rituals: we didn’t have elves or hobbits or even trolls running about.  I’m just sad that this is the final series!   There are more episodes to come, but we’ve been told that there won’t be a “Season 7”.  I’ve watched it from the start, and will be sad to see it end.  Balloons nothwithstanding …