This was a welcome chance to delve back into the unfamiliar world of early medieval England, as well as a long-overdue introduction to the writing of Conn Iggulden. Several of his other novels are waiting on my shelves and it’s just chance that Dunstan got there first. I should add that I knew nothing about St Dunstan before reading this, although if I had, I would surely have felt a kind of proprietary interest in him, as a local Somerset lad and the man responsible for Glastonbury Abbey’s first flowering. Iggulden gives us a thoroughly worldly saint, shrewd, ambitious and unscrupulous, very rarely sympathetic and yet always fascinating: the partial architect of a new, united England.
Dunstan is barely into his teens when, in the 920s, his father brings him and his younger brother Wulfric to Glastonbury to pursue their studies. The abbey then is a cold place, stranded on its island in the middle of the salt marshes, accessible only by poling a boat through the reeds. The young Dunstan is captivated by the possibilities of the place, not only by the Latin, Greek and music of the monks’ regime, but also the allied skills: the knowledge of medicinal herbs; reading and writing; the crafting of ironwork in the forge; and, more than anything, the pulleys and weights used on the abbey’s building sites. He is a sharp boy, but not a lovable one: too ready to brawl rather than forgive, he swiftly makes enemies among both masters and boys, and spawns vendettas which, when they come to maturity, will threaten his life itself.
Only a quick mind can cut its way through the intrigues of an isolated abbey, and young Dunstan realises that a few miracles can only help his position. Iggulden comes up with clever explanations for the most famous deeds attributed to the saint, achieved not by the force of faith but by wit, skill and observation. As his fame spreads, Dunstan comes to the eye of Elflaed, the niece of King Athelstan, who carries him off to court. There, in the busy town of Winchester, Dunstan sees for the first time the milieu that will become his second home: the arena of politics, crowns and arms. For this is how his life will unfold: half his heart tucked away in the marshes of Glastonbury, where he strives to raise an abbey that will redound to the glory of God; and half given to the service of the king. But who is that king? In the course of his life, Dunstan will serve seven: three brothers in the first generation, two brothers in the second, and two in the third. For this is a world of blood, where kings die young and the Danes are always nipping at their borders.
This is a solid doorstop of a book: 544 pages, but it feels longer, riddled with the ins and outs of court, and with Dunstan’s own picaresque adventures. I can’t even hope to give an overview of it, so I’ve kept my summary very brief. I’ll be honest and say that it took me a while to get into it, but by halfway through I was intrigued by Dunstan as a character. There is little to warm to – he’s opinionated, arrogant and misogynistic – but his mind is a fertile ground for all kinds of new ideas. In his author’s note, Iggulden says that he truly believes Dunstan had one of those rare great inventive minds like Newton or Leonardo, which I don’t know enough to agree with or dispute, but he makes a strong case in the novel for his protagonist’s fertile powers of creation. Narrated in the first person, the book also plays with the concept of the unreliable narrator: Dunstan doesn’t exactly lie, but he sees certain actions in a very different light from the reader. He isn’t a pleasant character, but he’s one of the more credible churchmen I’ve come across in early historical fiction: the kind of bullish man who simply gets stuff done.
The novel is interesting too for its context: it hovers at that moment when England is on the brink of becoming its modern self. On one side, back in the mists of time, you have the fragmentary kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon period, which we’ve encountered so often in recent months: Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, Wessex, Alba. On the other, we have a single English state, ruled by a peripatetic king and a Witan, essentially the embryonic model of a modern constitutional monarchy. I’m now keen to learn more about exactly how Athelstan went about forging that unification, and I see that Iggulden’s historical note recommends Tom Holland’s recent biography of the king, which I’ll seek out.
This is warmly recommended to those fascinated by this early period of British history, and to those who enjoy complicated, multifaceted protagonists. I can’t say that I’ve fallen immediately in love with Iggulden’s writing, but I get the feeling I could do, with the right book. I’m certainly keen to read more. His other novels on my shelf aren’t set in Britain but in other, more exotic parts of the world. One is Emperor: The Gates of Rome, about Julius Caesar and the other is Wolf of the Plains, the first instalment of the story of Genghis Khan. Now that I know how scrupulous Iggulden is about his history, I’ll be able to enjoy them even more. Has anyone read any of his other series and, if so, what do you recommend by him?
N.B. Dunstan was published in the USA under the title The Abbot’s Tale.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review