All that we can read of Guthrum’s life has been given us by his adversary, King Alfred of Wessex … whose self-publicising activities are now properly understood and acknowledged. Indeed, so good at propaganda was he that, over the centuries, his exploits have been mythologised beyond belief and Guthrum’s status has been reduced to that of a pirate. But the time has come for a change, perhaps, because hard archaeology and anthropological analysis is now revealing this mysterious Dane as a man of much cunning and foresight.
In The Prize, the world he inhabits and his adventures are seen through the eyes of three characters: firstly his own, or rather, that of a character named Guthorm – this being the modern Danish spelling of his name and not the Latinised version given him by Alfred’s scribes. Indeed, as far as Guthorm is concerned, the Britain that he comes into is still a Roman province; it is a place full of the rectilinear geometry of Roman buildings and straight roads, which fascinate his navigator’s mind, and he has no conception of the Latin tongue or of books, and thinks reading without speaking to be witchcraft.
The second witness is that of a clever, wilful, and devious East Angle noblewoman named Wynflæd, who becomes Guthorm’s wife. This remarkable woman not only risks the bearing of his children – a demanding enough task in itself at the time - she also uses her courtly skills to undermine his Danish adversaries, and she introduces him to the subtleties of written text, whereby his eyes are opened to the power of written treaties and laws.
The third is a one-time monk named Odna, who was Wynflæd’s childhood tutor of rhetoric and who now guards the books he has rescued from Elmham Minster with his life. On the campaign into Wessex, he reluctantly becomes Guthorm’s runesman.
The three characters coalesce in the turmoil of the times. But their relationship is uneasy, for Wynflæd and Odna cannot be sure of Guthorm’s objectives in attacking Wessex. And perhaps neither is Guthorm himself, for he may be doing no more than satisfying the lust for plunder of his young adventurers, wherein his strength lies. In this, Guthorm is a man riding ‘on the back of a whale’, because he and his older men would rather settle.
And the politics of Wessex are no less fraught with dilemmas; Alfred is not fooled by Guthorm’s playact of peace but his indolent eoldormen are, and he has to place himself as bait at Chippenham and flee into hiding to encourage them to open their purses to raise the militia.
And so the board game is set, but for one outstanding question: what is the prize to be, and is it worth the winning?
A glossary of Old English placenames and words is provided together with maps of the journeyings of the Danes from Thetford to Edington and Chippenham. For those who become interested in the historical aspects of the work, the author has used a website as a repository for some of his research – PWiltshire.com. Find the Facebook Page here.
Footnote: it has become popular to adopt the notion that ninth century scribes changed the year date on 23rd September. This has been ignored in the writing of The Prize to avoid confusion.
The wind opened the sail with a mighty thud. He wondered the cloth was not ripped to shreds. It now bulged taut, straining against the clews, and it dragged the creaking strakes of the ship upward, lifting them high onto a rising wave, and the sea-soldiers whooped with joy at the god’s power, their hearts as swollen as the sail, and their sinews stretched as taught as the tethers to the sail. They were flying across the sea. They were flying.
He pulled back his hood to let the wind cool his head and was dazzled by the sunlight shimmering through the spray. All was fine and keen. All, that was, except his tunic, which was smeared with thick grease: its bright silk threads clogged with a brown filth. He cursed his misfortune. Was that why Rikvith had turned her away? She had stitched it so proudly for him, and with such care. And yet again he had given the sanctimonious Gothi an excuse to console her with his long-fingered hands. He glanced to where she had been, but the shore was too far distant now, and he would not see his mother’s red hood again. But she would hear of his deeds … and her eyes would brighten at the sound of his name … and he would send her gifts … and make her think of him and his father once again ... all together … and she would push away the leech.
Angrily he cast about for a means to scrape the grime away. Seeing a loose rope end, he strained across at full reach to take hold of it. But the ship thundered down into a trough and rolled, and the green sea loomed high above him. He could see sunlight through it. The wave passed, and the ship lifted once more above the dark depths, thrusting its crew upward into the clean air: an air that scoured sadness from his mind. Here he was on the shoulders of his wild father again; his flaxen strands of hair lashing about his head. He revelled in the slackness. He let loose a loud obscenity, bellowing a bawdy song into the face of the leech. Before three words had passed, the whole ship was with him, and before the end of the verse, the ships to left and right also.
The daughter of Hlaford Eadwin, Eorðing Hall 866
In the latter half of October of that year, a light wind came in from the east and carried a chilled edge and this gave rise to the land being shrouded in thick fog. It so clogged the air at Eorðing Hall which nestled deep in woodland, it stifled all sound. The noisy business that would normally ring from the outbuildings was reduced to no more than a few tinklings of harnesses and the occasional blow of a horse. The geese sat silent and wary.
After eating, when the last of the serving women had left the hall, the daughter of Hlaford Eadwin stood just beyond the great door to take in the air – as was her habit. She did not care to be enclosed with the settling stomachs of the older people at this time. She wrapped her cloak tightly about her shoulders and stared into the darkening gloom. Her good friend had gone that day and would come no more. She would write letters to her – if her new Mercian husband would permit it. But she, Wynflæd, would miss her monthly visits terribly. Wynflæd would not be married they said, for she had a great gift and she was behoven, they said, to become an abbess. It was God’s will, they said. She had therefore accepted it, but the thought did not excite her.
The young guard was standing at the side of the doorway. She had often caught him slyly looking at her and his eyes were raking her now. He was a youth of only one or two years more than her own fourteen and she took it into her mind that she did not care to be treated with such disrespect. She flashed a stern glance at him and he dropped his eyes to the boardwalk, renewing his upright stance. She fought to keep her smile within.
The door creaked further open and Hog swayed out from the hall to flop his snub-nosed bulk upon her feet. Thus impeded, she could not, and did not, move, but rather chose to enjoy his warmth. The hound pointed his nose in the same direction as his mistress, though he knew not why he should, and panted out his own contribution to the vapours about them.
Once again, Wynflæd reflected upon her circumstance. She had been clamped in safety all her fourteen years. Her parents and her tutor held so fast to the belief in her gift they would not let her run even the smallest risk. This she could not reconcile, for what good was it to be so learned if she had no real knowledge of the world? Her cousin Osric had been over the sea to Frisia at her age, and now Beorwynne was to be married in Mercia. The world and all its joys and pains were passing her by. She must do something. She must feel the excitements of life.
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