BBC History Magazine: the battle of Hengest’s Hill

The September issue of BBC History Magazine is still on news-stands, featuring my article on forgotten battles of the Viking Age. I was delighted to make it onto the cover:

Here’s an extract from the pre-publication draft:

The Battle of Hengest’s Hill, 838

‘King Ecgbehrt (Egbert) of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In 825, he had established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (just outside Swindon). It had been a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink’. This, however, was only one front in Ecgbehrt’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms and peoples of Britain. In 815, he had raided Cornwall ‘from east to west’ – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great ship-horde came to Cornwall’ which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Ecgbehrt’s power. Ecgbehrt led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill (Hengestesdun). This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon (Hengestesdun). We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This, it would transpire, was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.’

Væsen and the Golden Age of Illustration


I have wanted to share this superb animation for a while. Released in Denmark in 2012, Væsen is a wonderful homage to the Golden Age of illustration and animation, including the early work of the Disney studio – Snow White and Pinnochio in particular. Those films pulled in influences from a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrators. One artist who worked for the studio in those days, the talented and versatile artist Gustaf Tenggren (1896 – 1970), developed a style that drew heavily on the work of artists like John Bauer and Arthur Rackham (he in fact succeeded John Bauer as the illustrator of Bland tomtar och troll, the Swedish fairy-tale annual). It is a tragedy that he would later destroy many of his fabulous early paintings and go on to pioneer a flat and sterile approach that would dominate in children’s illustration for several decades.

Gustaf Tenggren

 [An example of Gustaf Tenggren’s early style]

Væsen was made for the Animation Workshop, a Danish institute dedicated to film animation and related industries. It is all the more remarkable for being the work of a group of third-year undergraduate students (for detail about the making of the film and its creators, click here). The quality of the artwork is fabulous, but what is most arresting is the weird atmosphere and myth-allegorical sub-text of the film paired with influences pulled from a number of golden age illustrators – most notably Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, John Bauer and Ivan Bilibin. This era of illustration, perhaps more than anything else, solidified the visual language of European folklore: dark forests, radiant spirits gathered by dark reflective pools in mossy groves, eyes and hands peeping and creeping from the boles of rime-scoured trees, mushrooms sprouting from every crevice. Sarah Maitland tried in Gossip from the Forest to make a case for the forest as the womb of the fairy tale, suggesting that the origins of fantastical story-telling are bound up – ‘tangled’, as she would put it – with the arboreal experience. It is a seductive idea, and feels instinctively true. But I wonder whether this association has rather more to do with the enduring popularity of Rackham’s ink and watercolour evocations of Grimm’s tales than with any real relationship between trees and the genesis of fairy tale in Britain; a brief survey of Katherine Briggs’ Folk Tales of Britain reveals a surprising scarcity of woodland settings in our own domestic story-telling. It may well be that this imagery of fairy tale, mediated to a large extent through the pervasive influence of Disney in childhood, has become foundational for the western imagination; it is bound up with the powerful emotional conductors of childhood nostalgia and a longing for a natural world that probably never was.

I’ve collected a handful of images that represent a group of the most famous illustrators of the Golden Age. Their influence is most obviously felt in the work of a small number of contemporary illustrators who keep the spirit of the tradition alive – Ian Miller, Alan Lee, Tomislav Tomic, Julek Heller. Tomic’s art in particular, with its clear allusions to Dürer and Brueghel, is a reminder that the genealogy of this sort of illustration is a long one, running back beyond the origin of the printed book to the fantastical marginalia of the medieval calligraphers.

Autumn

On one of the first days of October I went walking with my wife. I found my first conker of the year, with the beautiful patina and texture of newborn wood. It’s already wrinkled,  like a hard shiny prune. After the walk I went shopping and bought a small collection of objects. I hadn’t intended them to be a collection, but when I looked at them together I was struck how my emotional response to the season was reflected in the things I had chosen. The warm, rich, smoked flavours of Beavertown’s Smog Rocket is full of the scent of bonfires and leaf litter.

Autumnal objects

Of course, mushrooms are a seasonal crop, so a mushroom themed notebook is perfectly appropriate for this time of year.

Autumn has always felt magical, partly because my birthday falls in October, but also because of other festivals – All Hallows’ and Guy Fawkes’ – and, especially, the build up to Christmas. Magical worlds feel closer, almost tangible, and the sights and smells of the season open seductive little windows to fantasy and fairy tale. Toadstools are very much a part of the mental furniture of fairy story. Sarah Maitland described this quality of fungi beautifully in her book Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales: 

“[fungi is a] phenomenon of the forests […] which can give me the same strange shiver of fear as the dream of wolves and as the fairy stories themselves, a sense of being in the presence of something eerie.” (p. 211)

“When you come upon fungi in the woods they have a magical otherworldly appearance, enhanced by the improbable variety of forms and colours: fungi like jelly, like coral, like brains, like tongues flickering out of alder cones, and even, with the weird earthstars (Geastraceae), like aliens from space.” (p.212)

The word toadstool is particularly pregnant with images of the fairy realm, as are many of the extraordinary folkloric names of fungi, names that have welled up from porous seams of folklore buried deep below: Wood Hedgehog, Velvet Brittlegill, Dead Man’s Finger…

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Ted Hughes has made an impact on my life in many ways. I read his poetry as a child, and the story The Iron Man had a profound effect on me when I was young. I was so enthralled by it that I made my own audio book version, sitting alone in my bedroom for hours, reading it out into the microphone of a cheap tape recorder. Why on earth I should have done such a thing is lost in time – perhaps by sounding it out I felt I could inhabit the story more profoundly than by simply reading it. The poems contained in Remains of Elmet are altogether of a darker hue, filled, like Autumn, with images of beauty, sadness and decay:

A wind from the end of the sky

Buffs and curries the grizzly bear-dark pelt

Of long skylines

Browsing in innocence

Through their lasting purple aeons

(Heather, 8-12)

The first edition of this volume of poems was conceived as a collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin: her beautiful black and white images made a subtle counterpoint to Hughes’ dark and sometimes difficult text, sometimes softening, sometimes alleviating the bleakness of the words.

Shorn of those images the poems, though they lose none of their power and artistry, feel harsher and more alienating at times than they should. A reprint of the collection as it was originally conceived would be most welcome.