Reviewed by David Maclaine
The King of Athelney offers up the life of Alfred the Great, treating in a tidy 302 pages events spanning six volumes in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales. Both Cornwell and Duggan base their portraits of the king on the dubious biography by "Bishop Asser" but Duggan tackles the absurdities and contradictions of that source with his characteristic skill and good humor, producing a more sympathetic picture of the king than Cornwell does. His version of Alfred the Great joins his series of astute portraits of likeable, well-intentioned people coping with the roles they must play. The great Alfred's life is dictated by his birth into a family that takes great pride in its antiquitity, going back to Woden in "the right line of Cerdic" - he sees the Carolingians as "a new family." When this younger son with no real notion of becoming king finds himself with the crown, he goes about his business as dutifully as any conscientious modern heir to a business. This means he must lead the thanes of Wessex against the depredations of what they call "the Army," the horde of Danes who have been ebbing and flowing across the landscape of northern Europe for decades. Alfred's kingdom survives when others fail because he keeps doing his job no matter how dire the situation, considering it disgraceful when kings flee into exile instead of fighting to the end as the position requires. Because his doggedness is mixed with real intelligence, he is eventually able to save his realm and create the foundations upon which the English nation was built.
Despite the tumultuous events raging in the background, The King of Athelney mostly tells this great story through the matter-of-fact thoughts and conversations of a man whose amusing foibles - bias against Mercians, an elevated sense of family pride and the amusing ability to rationalize his one failure to maintain his own ideals - combine with the self-assurance and devotion to duty of the prototypical Englishman. (1961, 302 pages)More about The King of Athelney at Amazon.com