‘Thurkell the Tall’ by Jill Paton-Walsh

Personally, I would rather have been born a Guadeloupean – or Gallic, or Russian. But since my DNA comes from unvarying Anglo-Saxon stock I might as well read about them every once in a while. In this book, Wordhoard, stories by Jill Paton-Walsh alternate with others by Kevin Crossley-Holland (did one have to possess a double-barrelled name to make it into this collection?), all covering the years between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of William the Bastard. Some are duffers, some are very much not. 
 
But first the cover: a garish hybrid of Anglo-Saxon style ornamentation and early 1970s psychedelia. Who could resist such a potent brew? Besides, these old Puffins are so evocative of long-ago school libraries and the books teachers wanted you to read but which you never did. Turns out some of them are quite good! This wonderful story, ‘Thurkell the Tall’, starts in media res. Crowds of frightened people huddle inside Canterbury cathedral while besieging Vikings attempt to batter their way in. The year is 1012 AD. When the battering ram fails, the Vikings set fire to the building – iron spear-points await any who escape. A handful do survive, and one of them happens to be Alfig, the Archbishop himself. Kept as a high-value hostage by Danish warlord Thurkell The Tall, Alfig does a fair amount of preaching, converts a number of his captors to Christianity, antagonises the rest, until finally he’s slaughtered at a feast by Vikings shitfaced on mead. Upon hearing the news, Thurkell the Tall is filled with such disgust and heaviness of spirit that he himself converts and changes sides. (But don’t worry, Alfig, you did enough to be canonised – now you’re St. Alphege!)
 
All true and brought magically to life by Paton-Walsh. Which only leaves one pondering why one ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ should be so enshrined in history, while that of Alfig, a mere 158 years earlier, could be so utterly forgotten. The answer lies in the self-serving historiography of the Norman ruling class, of course. But there’s no time to get into that now.

Published in Wordhoard: Anglo-Saxon Stories for Young People, Puffin Books, 1972

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