by Fay Sampson
Edition reviewed: Robert Hale, 1999, ISBN 0-7090-6402-0
First, a disclaimer. I have a passion for seventh-century Britain, particularly Northumbria and its neighbouring territories, and one of my own novels is set there. I try to review objectively, but my fascination for the period may colour my reactions, so you might want to bear this in mind
Flight of the Sparrow is set in Northumbria, Mercia and Gwynedd and spans most of the life of King Edwin of Deira (also known as Edwin of Northumbria). It begins around 588 AD* when Edwin's homeland of Deira is annexed by Aethelfrith the Ferocious and Edwin is sent into exile as a small child. It ends with his death in 633 AD. The central character is Edwin himself, who narrates the novel in first person. Most of the other main characters are also historical figures, including Cadfan and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Bishop Rhun of Rheged, Raedwald of East Anglia and his queen, Hild (later to be the Abbess Hild of Whitby who featured in the novel Wolf Girl), Bishop Paulinus of York and Edwin's faithful friend and thane Lilla.
Edwin grows up as a political refugee at the court of the Christian British King Cadfan in Gwynedd (modern North Wales), always overshadowed and mocked by Cadfan's son Cadwallon and always in fear of Aethelfrith the Ferocious. Aethelfrith's pursuit drives him to the English kingdoms of Mercia and then East Anglia, until with help from Raedwald (spelled Redwald in the novel) he regains his kingdom. A new wife and a missionary from Kent pressure him to accept Roman Christianity, but Edwin has a guilty secret in his past that he cannot confess to either wife or priest.
This is an elegantly written psychological study of religious guilt, self-doubt and the corrosive miseries of exile. It is narrated in first person throughout by the central character, Edwin. Readers who are captivated by the character of Edwin will find the book compelling; those who don't warm to him may find the close focus on a single individual claustrophobic. I would have liked to get out of Edwin's unhappy head once in a while and see the world through other eyes. Other characters experience sharp conflicts - for example, the thane torn between loyalty to his king and religious belief - but only Edwin's dilemmas and uncertainties are fully explored. The narrative is in past tense for the first half of the novel and then shifts to present tense for the second half. This change in tense must be profoundly significant but I have to admit I still haven't figured out why, and I found it distracting.
Flight of the Sparrow is closely focused on Edwin's self-doubt and religious guilt. Other aspects of life receive less attention, so the world of the novel can feel rather earnest. I missed the epic heroism of Beowulf and Y Gododdin, the dry wit of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion and the earthy humour of the Oxford Book Riddles. The novel gives the impression that it might be part of a larger work, as characters such as Rhun of Rheged and his granddaughter Rhiainmelt are introduced in some detail as though they were going to be important, and then disappear. Hild's story too is clearly unfinished at the close of the novel. I wonder if there may be more to come?
For some reason, the Battle of Chester has been moved from its conventional date of 613-616 to some considerably earlier period, since in the novel it takes place when Edwin is still an adolescent (he would have been 28-31 if the battle had been given its conventional date). The conventional date is not secure (few dates in this period are), being derived from a single source, the Annales Cambriae, and not specifically dated by Bede**, but specific events are so rare in this period that I would have preferred to see its traditional date retained, or a reason for the move given in an author's note.
Flight of the Sparrow has a strong ethnic/national consciousness, almost a 'clash of civilisations' theme. The English characters talk of "the English conquest " and "since our longships landed we've dreamed of taking the whole island of Britain" and of the English "pushing west all the time and driving your British cavalry back to the sea". The British characters talk of "There's only us in the west left free" and "your English warhost strides across our island" and "we will do our part for Britain". This concept of ethnic struggle is expounded in the tenth-century poem Armes Prydein but other sources such as Y Gododdin or the Canu Heledd or the Taliesin poetry or most of Bede seem to be concerned more with the doings of individual kings or kingdoms. I find it hard to imagine that the English settlements were driven by some organised strategic battle plan for the conquest of Britain that extended over two hundred years or more (the far more centralised Roman state invaded Britain in a piecemeal and patchy way, taking a bit here and a bit there according to circumstance and Imperial whim, so why should the English settlements be any different?). The settlement pattern seems to me to be equally consistent with the simpler explanation of opportunistic land grabs by small groups at the expense of their neighbours.
The central character, Edwin, is portrayed as irresolute and fearful, racked by self-doubt and a crippling inferiority complex. Things happen to him and he reacts to circumstances, rather than driving events, and he is always afraid of what other people might think of him. This may well reflect the realities of growing up as a political refugee, a cross between a beggar, a hostage and a pawn, always dependent on his host's charity or political whim. Such an existence might well do lasting psychological damage, and this novel provides an unflinching portrayal of the bitter hopelessness of exile. One key thing that seems to me to be missing, however, is a convincing demonstration of how this insecure, uncharismatic individual, prone to daydreaming in battle and apparently not physically strong (he is always having to be rescued or supported by his faithful bodyguards), managed to become a successful warrior-king. Seventh-century Britain was not a society known for fixed institutions, political stability and bloodless transitions of power. Kingship might be inherited by blood but it also had to be earned and maintained by the sword. Edwin's own kingdom of Deira might have rallied to him on the strength of blood alone, but why would the warriors of his enemy Aethelfrith swear allegiance to him, and why would the other English kings acknowledge him as overlord? The novel says they did, but it does not show a convincing reason. I found this apparent mismatch between the weak, indecisive character of the narrator and the successful warlord hard to accept. I suppose the reader just has to take it on trust that he must look more sure of himself than he is.
The novel is elegantly written in literary prose, with lyrical descriptions of landscape and religious rites and a strong spiritual component, particularly for Christianity.
A psychological study of exile and religious guilt set in a fascinating and neglected period of British history.
*The date of Aethelferth's annexation of Deira is not known and an alternative date of 605 AD is also argued (there may be others, but 588 and 605 are the two main contenders). I personally think the case for 605 is more convincing but the evidence, such as it is, can bear multiple interpretations.
**Bede puts it in a chapter headed 'AD 603', but says only that it occurred 'long after the death' of St Augustine. He doesn't give the year of Augustine's death, but it is possible to deduce that Augustine was still alive in 604 and was dead by 609, so either of these would be consistent with the Annales Cambraie date.