· culture ·

We finally got around to watching the Channel 4 historical drama 1066 a few days ago. I was never very keen on History in school and these historical dramas can be truly dreadful, but we really enjoyed it. They made the sensible decision to tell the story of the Battle of Hastings (and the lead up to it) from the perspective of the ordinary people of the village of Crowhurst. So we followed the 'weaponmen' as they were effectively conscripted to go and support King Harold, and protect the coast against the expected Norman attack.

I was obviously not paying attention in my History lessons, because I hadn't realised that the arrival of the Normans was preceeded by an attack by the Vikings (or víkingr^1^) in the north. So some of Harold's men had to run 200 miles in four days to try to prevent the Viking advances. That lead to huge losses on both sides, but the Anglo-Saxons sort of won (in the restricted sense of 'win' in which they had more men alive at the end), only to hear that the Normans had landed, and they had to run 200 miles back to the south coast.

The drama was authentically bloody and realistic, capturing the fear and chaos of battle. I also liked the way that they interspersed the narration (by the superb Ian Holm) with quotations from Norse sagas and contemporary reports and writing. It also made me realise just how much Tolkien shamelessly nicked from Anglo-Saxon and Norse writing and mythology. 'Middle Earth' comes straight from the Saxons, as does 'orc' which was adapted from the Anglo-Saxon 'orc-nea' meaning demon or monster -- or in this dramatisation -- monstrous Norman foreigner.

The timing of the broadcast was a bit unfortunate, because racist nationalists always seem keen to invoke Anglo-Saxons as the 'true English' and not, for example, Celts, Romans, Normans, Vikings, Africans or any of the many and varied people who have made England and Britain what it is today. 'We' are no more Anglo-Saxon than we are any other race in most parts of the country. But the film makers did at least try hard to show that there were (of course) good and bad people on both sides, even though our sympathies were with the Anglo-Saxons. For example, there was a rather noble Norman character (Baron de Coutances) from Brittany who was forced into fighting for William by the kidnapping of his family, and tried to stop the worst atrocities perpetrated by his side. One of the Viking attack party also ended up fighting on the side of the Anglo-Saxons.

Once again, I'm rather late in mentioning this since it was broadcast in May, but it is coming out on DVD soon, and I'd recommend it to anyone who snored their way through the Battle of Hastings at school.

^1^ For some reason, I see that written in blue with the 'r' in pink. Can't think why...