When the BBC ran a poll in 2001 to name the greatest Briton, Alfred, a ninth-century monarch, was the only king to make the top 20. Also the only English sovereign to be called "the Great," Alfred used to be remembered as much through folklore as through his accomplishments.
Horspool sees Alfred as inextricably linked to the legends and stories that surround him, and rather than attempting to separate the myth from the "reality," he explores how both came together to provide a historical figure that was all things to all men. This book offers a vivid picture of Alfred's England, but also of the way that history is written, and how much myth has had to do with that.
The personal, military and religious myths around Alfred the Great are scraped off like barnacles as the West Saxon hero is pulled from the morass of pious public schoolboy attitudes and sentimental Victorian values by a cheerfully revisionist historian. Horspool goes back to original sources and reinterprets them in the context of other historical materials now available. The result is Alfred’s presentation less as a stock figure of the heritage industry than as an altogether more ambiguous and interesting character.
With infinite care, [Horspool] conducts a finger-tip search of near-contemporary sources, looking for the slivers of flinty fact that are still retrievable from underneath the layers of candyfloss accretion. In the process he discovers an Alfred who, while he may not be quite the sea-going Solomon whom later apologists such as Dickens and Chesterton want us to see, is a law-maker, a pragmatist, a safe pair of hands rather than an agent for change… It is this sensitivity, both to the way that stories start and to the means by which they transform themselves into something else entirely, that makes Horspool’s little book crucial reading for anyone who is interested in how history gets put together.
Sifting through ancient source materials, Horspool not only focuses on the actual life and times of this great king but also examines the significance behind the legends that sprang up about him. Less concerned with what the legends say than with why they came about in the first place, Horspool diligently tracks their sources, places them into historical context, and weaves them into the life of a laudable, revered, and ultimately fascinating individual. Horspool’s Alfred is more man than myth but no less intriguing, and all the more admirable for his realistic features and qualities… King Alfred: Burnt Cakes and Other Legends is one of the best texts on Alfred the Great available and a careful demonstration of how histories should be done.
In this book, we discover the man whom later generations venerated as the progenitor of Englishness. Unconsciously, but inevitably, they projected their conception of themselves onto him until the two things became fused. That is what makes Horspool’s Alfred so much more pertinent than The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s. And that is why, if you have time to read just one book about the great man, you should make it this one.
David Horspool’s Why Alfred Burned the Cakes [published in the U.S. as King Alfred] does not seek to discredit the cult of Alfred as unhistorical but instead to look at why the myths surrounding him came into being.
[Horspool] explains how laws, literacy and even national pride may have been affected by Alfred’s policies and explodes some of the myths surrounding his legacy, while retaining an interest in the genesis of the stories about him that have modern currency… Readers are offered some interesting treasures.
We will likely never know with certainty all the details of King Alfred’s reign. However, Mr. Horspool’s exacting and engaging narrative brings us closer to it and to a deeper understanding of how history makes myths of leaders past and how and why we embrace their stories.
As the title suggests, the author of this book, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement, has not written an ordinary biography, for few other historical figures are surrounded by so many myths as Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (871–899)… Because King Alfred deals primarily with popular myths, it is appropriate that it was written for a popular audience. Yet, Horspool’s thorough familiarity with the sources, both primary and secondary, make it a work of solid scholarship… Undergraduates, and even higher-level academics, will also benefit from its lessons: that history is a past constructed by people, that it is often based as much on preconception as it is on evidence, and that the very evidence we use to create history was constructed by people in their own times for their own purposes.
Horspool chronicles Alfred’s childhood, his war with the Vikings, his role as the soldier king, his legal accomplishments, his reputation as a scholar, and his posthumous rise and fall. The book, with 28 halftones, is a compelling narrative of England in Alfred’s time and the stories and legends surrounding him. History buffs will find it fascinating.
- 240 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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