We’ll start with the legendary king of the Geats, the North Germanic folk who now inhabit Sweden. Before he became king, he was the warrior-hero Beowulf, and the story of how he saved King Hrothgar of the Danes from the monster Grendel and his fiendish mother inspired the famous Old English poem. My favorite translation is the 2000 New York Times bestseller Beowulf by Seamus Heaney. I also enjoyed the 2007 movie rendition featuring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, even if the movie deviated from the poem and went way over the top with some of its scenes. Beowulf has inspired numerous other works, including Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead. Even the monster has his own version of the tale, as told in John Gardner’s Grendel.
In Ireland, the followers of St. Patrick continued to found monasteries and spread Christianity across the Emerald Isle. This was the age of the great Irish saints like Columcille (who is referenced often in my own novel, Enoch’s Device) and Brendan the Navigator, the subject of Morgan Llywelyn’s novel, Brendan, which I reviewed here. One of my all-time favorite non-fiction works, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, explores this fascinating part of history – for those, of course, who care about Western Civilization.
Meanwhile, in the east, Constantinople supplanted fallen Rome as an empire. This was the time of Justinian, a man born to a peasant family in Thrace who rose in station to become one of the most famous Byzantine emperors. Justinian rebuilt the city after a violent uprising called the Nika riots nearly burned it to the ground. The riots actually broke out at the Hippodrome during a chariot race between supporters of rival teams, making it officially the worst soccer riot in the history of the world. The Hagia Sofia, which went up in flames during the chaos, is the most famous of the architectural marvels reconstructed during Justinian’s reign.
Justinian also tried to recapture portions of the old Roman Empire that had been lost to the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, although these expeditions fared a bit less well than his reconstruction of Constantinople. While I’ve not read any historical fiction about Justinian (though I imagine some must exist), Guy Gavriel Kay used the Justinian's reign as the basis for Sailing to Sarantium and his Sarantine Mosaic series. Those remain on my to-read list, but if they’re anywhere near as good as The Lions of Al-Rassan, they’ll be well worth it.
As always, I am curious to know: Have you read any great fiction set in the Sixth Century, especially any books about Constantinople under Justinian’s reign?