Alternate Heroes by Gregory Benford & Martin H Greenberg

Alternate Heroes by Gregory Benford & Martin H Greenberg

Author:Gregory Benford & Martin H Greenberg [Benford, Gregory & Greenberg, Martin H]
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780553282795
Amazon: 0553282794
Goodreads: 1618992
Publisher: Spectra
Published: 1990-12-02T08:00:00+00:00


Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey


In the year 865, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a “great army” of the Vikings landed in England, led in legend and probably in fact by the sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks. In the following years this army wiped out the rival dynasties of Northumbria, killed Edmund, King of East Anglia, and drove Burgred, King of Mercia, overseas, replacing him with a puppet ruler. By 878 all the kingdoms of the English had been conquered—except for Wessex. In Wessex, Alfred, the last of five brothers, continued to fight.

But then the Vikings turned their full effort on him. At Twelfth Night 878, when all Christians were still getting over Christmas and when campaigning was normally out of the question, they made a surprise attack on Wessex, establishing a base at Chippenham, and according to the Chronicle again driving many Englishmen overseas and compelling others to submit. Alfred was forced to go into hiding and conduct a guerrilla campaign “with a small force, through the woods and the fastnesses of the fens”. It was at this time that—so the story goes—he was reduced to sheltering in a peasant’s hut where, immersed in his problems, he burned the good wife’s cakes and was violently rebuked for it.

Yet Alfred managed somehow to stay alive, keep on fighting, and arrange for the army of Wessex to be gathered under the Vikings’ noses. He then, quite against the odds, defeated the “great army” decisively, and finally made a masterstroke of statesmanship. He treated the Viking king Guthrum with great forbearance, converted him to Christianity, and became his godfather. This set up a reasonable relationship between English and Vikings, gave Wessex security, and became the basis for the later reconquest of all England by Alfred’s son, grandson and later descendants (of whom Queen Elizabeth II is one).

Many historians have noted that if Alfred had not held on in the winter of early 878, England would have become a Viking state, and the international language of the world would presumably now be a form of Danish. Yet another possibility.

By 878 Alfred and Wessex stood for Christianity, and the Vikings for paganism. The later reconquest of England was for Christ as well as for the Wessex kings, and monastic chroniclers were liable to see Alfred as an early crusader. But we know, from his own words, that by 878 Alfred was already deeply dissatisfied with the ineptitude of his churchmen. We also know that about the same time Ethelred, Archbishop of Canterbury, had written to the pope to protest about Alfred’s extortions—which were very likely only a demand for further contributions to resist the pagan assaults. Pope John responded by sending Alfred a letter of severe reproof—at exactly the moment when Alfred was “journeying in difficulties through the woods and fens”. This letter never arrived. No doubt the letter carrier could not find the king, or thought the whole situation far too dangerous even to try.

But what would have happened if the


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