Wulfgar

(creator: V M Whitworth)


V M Whitworth
Wulfgar of Meon, a West Saxon, was born in Meon, in the modern county of Hampshire, in 876 AD. He was the only child of his father's second marriage. By the time The Bone Thief starts, at Easter in 900 AD, both his parents are dead. Wulfgar had three surviving siblings, all his elders: Wystan, heir to the Meon estates; Cwenhild, a nun; and the bullying Garmund, also known as Polecat, son of their father's liaison with a slave-woman, who had always picked on him as a child and whom he still thoroughly disliked.

Wulfgar left Meon at the age of seven to become an oblate (a person dedicated to the religious life but who has not taken full monastic vows), fostered by his uncle, one of the canons of Winchester Cathedral, so he grew up in the complex of church and royal buildings clustered to the south of Winchester's High Street, where he was educated together with the King's younger children and the sons of thanes (thanes were usually wealthy men who owed military service to the king).

As a sub deacon, he had become secretary to the Lord and Lady of the Mercians in Worcester, just five months before the story begins. His friends call him Wuffa (Little Wolf/Wolf Cub), but there are some, such as Garmund, who still call him by his childish nickname Litter-runt.

V M Whitworth (real name Dr Victoria Thompson who also writes under the name of Victoria Whitworth) went to school in Nairobi, New York, London and Letchworth. She read English at St Anne's College, Oxford (specialising in medieval literatures and archaeology), and went on to study for an M.A. in Icelandic Literature at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York, where she stayed on to take a D. Phil. in the English Department.

She has worked at a variety of jobs, including being a tour guide, artist's model and EFL teacher, and is currently a lecturer in the Centre for Nordic Studies, Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, and a Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University. Her published works include Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England and numerous articles. Her current research is on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland.

She is married with a young daughter, and lives in the West Mainland of Orkney with her family, cats, ducks and occasional sheep, lecturing for the Centre for Nordic Studies (part of the University of the Highlands and Islands), and Newcastle University in England. She is planning further adventures for Wulfgar.

Bone Thief (2012)
Bone Thief is set in 900 AD, in the immediate aftermath of the death of King Alfred the Great. Edward, son of Alfred the Great, has inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and achieved a precarious set of alliances through marriage and military conquest. But the alliance is uneasy and the kingdom of Mercia has more reason than most to fear the might of Wessex. Their Lord is elderly and perhaps mortally sick, and his wife fears that she does not have the power to withstand hostile takeover. She also knows too well what her neighbour is capable of - after all, King Edward is her brother. The chance to rescue St Oswald's bones, beloved patron saint, to consecrate her new church and unite the people behind her, is too good an opportunity to miss. But these relics of a saint had been lost a generation earlier when eastern England fell to the VIkings, and are now rumoured to be buried a long way north - outside Lincoln, deep in hostile territory.

The story gets off to a dramatic start when the lady of the Mercians interrupts the Vespers service in Worcester Cathedral (an "unheard of" action) to tell her secretary, Wulfgar, that he must come at once. Although naive in the ways of the world, he is to be sent on the dangerous mission to recover St Oswald's bones. It is a mission requiring resources and courage that Wulfgar did not know he had, and one of the interests of the book is the way that he matures and his hitherto simplistic faith develops under stress, although he never loses his reverence for St Oswald's holy bones. Interesting people he meets on the way include a maverick priest and a Viking adventuress who keeps turning up in unexpected places and in whom he cannot help becoming increasingly interested. In the end, she, rather surprisingly, just fades away, but that presumably gives the author a chance to re-introduce her in future books.

Another strong point is the way that the everyday lives of people of the time are convincingly described, ranging from greedy, plotting clergy at the Cathedral to a slave market that included "quite little children ... Many of them looked no more than 7 or 8 years old, little groups of them huddled close together. And lots of young women. He (Wulfgar) didn't want to think about how they had got there, or their probable future. As he got closer, he could see the slaves had no choice but to huddle, they were roped or, in one or two cases, chained. He couldn't bear the dull hopelessness in their young faces." It made him feel how privileged his own youth had been (even if he had been bullied) as he watched "a buyer examining one young woman, pinching her arm and her thigh, getting her to open her mouth to let him check her teeth."

It is a long book, and it must be admitted I grew increasingly conscious of this as the story slowly unfolded. However it burst back to life when Wulfgar is precariously led at night over a hazardous causeway across the fen then has to scramble in the dirt to dig up St Oswald's ancient bones. There are dramatic fights too and Wulfgar has to face up to the fact that, "I am a man of the cloister. Dealing death is not my profession. I have vowed never to hunt animals, not so much as a bird, and now I have killed a fellow human being. The pinnacle of God's creation." But he still has to escape from his pursuers and his life is again at risk when he is accused of selling the sacred bones. In the end, it makes quite a gripping story. It is, of course, fiction but the background has been thoroughly researched and some of the characters are based on real people. The rest, the author hopes, is "a plausible speculation". It certainly seems to ring true.


The Traitors' Pit (2013).
The Traitors' Pit starts some six weeks after the end of the previous book. It tells how young subdeacon and secretary Wulfgar does not at first believe that his older brother could be capable of treason. And yet Wystan stands accused of plotting to overthrow King Edward and place his cousin, Seiriol the Atheling (a word not explained in the glossary) on the throne. It becomes clear that Seiriol and the Archbishop plan to lead an army to conquer Leicester. The Archbishop is an empire-builder, and Seiriol is ruthless. Together, they appear unstoppable. But can Wulfgar, who is prepared to act as hostage to help his employer, the Lady of the Mercians (who is Seiriol's cousin), find enough evidence to save his brother being executed and cast into the traitors' pit?

It makes a rather confusing story but it is rich in background detail, as when we are told that Wystan's arrest was all the worse because he had been roughly treated even "in front of his own slaves". And the description of being put to the ordeal (that involves "putting your hand into boiing water or picking up a bar of red-hot iron") is certainly a vivid one. To be proved innocent your hand must emerge "sound and whole", but luckily, as Wulfgar finds, a certain amount of leeway is allowed. And, as Wulfgar comments, "It's better than being hanged". Clergy had a much easier option: trial by Holy Communion, but Wulfrun rejects the chance for immediate priesting just to become eligible. Similarly he (just) manages to resist the sexual advances of the Viking adventuress whom he had first met in the previous book. He may be naive but he is also conscientious and determined.

However, the author does not always clearly identify her characters, and I ended up unsure about which King Edward it was. So, although at first the story holds the interest, it all progresses rather slowly for a reader who is less intrigued with the historical background than the author is. She explains that very little is actually known about characters like King Knut of York (though she deduces from his coins that he must have been "a fascinating and complex character") whose murder she describes in detail, although she says that she has done her best "to write nothing that could not have happened". And although some of the characters, like the dying old priest Ronan (who had been "a priest with a sword. Singing lewd songs in ale-houses. A son, and never a wife. And no tonsure" and who tells Wulfgar that he needs no last rites with chrism oil as "God and I know each other too well for that") are interesting, others, like Wulfgar's evil half brother, Garmund Polecat, are more like caricatures. But the author certainly knows her Ango-Saxon background and what she does not know she is happy to invent. So it is all quite entertaining although it is a long book and would have benefitted from a more tightly constructed plot.



The author has her own informative website that includes interesting background information on Wulfgar's World.



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The Bone Thief cover

The cover is ornate if not immediately comprehensible.

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