Tue, Dec 11, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Book review: The Wolves of the North

Academic scholarship and bloodthirsty narrative come together in a tale of ancient skullduggery and violence

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Indeed, the finer feelings, as they’re called, such as nobility, compassion, or even nostalgia, are hard to come by in these books. Sidebottom is a tough-minded realist, both as a novelist and, presumably, as a historian. A quick perusal of his volume Ancient Warfare in Oxford’s excellent “A Short Introduction” series would be a quick way to find out about the latter.

It’s hard to question the historical accuracy of an Oxford academic, but I had to wonder about characters originating in northern Europe quoting Anglo-Saxon poems such as Beowulf and The Wanderer in the 3rd century. Traditional scholarship dates the first poem as written between the 8th and 11th centuries, though it may have been based on earlier versions handed down orally. But even proponents of this “oral tradition” theory accept that the historical figures possibly represented in the poem lived in the 6th century. As for The Wanderer, scholars date it from anywhere between the 6th and the 10th centuries, but none as early as the 3rd century. Also, both poems have Christian elements, and the Anglo-Saxons weren’t converted to Christianity until the late 6th century. There probably isn’t a reputable scholar of Old English anywhere in the world, therefore, who believes these poems were current as early as the 3rd century — the date Sidebottom has his characters quoting from them.

The author is generally keen to display his literary antecedents. Many ancient writers, from Herodotus onwards, are cited in his very useful endnotes on places, peoples, characters and technical terms, his Historical Afterwords. He also credits Anton Chekhov’s long tale The Steppe (1888), and the historical novelist R.F. Tapsell whose out-of-print books, he thinks, deserve to be re-issued.

I left this novel eager to find out more about the steppes in general and their ancient nomadic peoples in particular. I longed to read books like E.H. Minns’ Scythians and Greeks (1913), A.M. Khazanov’s Nomads and the Outside World (2nd edition, 1994) — “the essential comparative work on pastoral nomadism” — and T.S. Allen’s The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (2006). (Chekhov’s The Steppe is easily available online). But I felt a strange reluctance to tackle other novels in Sidebottom’s “Warrior of Rome” series — except, that is, for their Historical Afterwords. These were, I felt, certain to be enthralling.

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