Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Magic of Medieval Fiction: The Sixth Century

It’s been a few months since my last post in this series, largely due to a crazy summer work schedule. But as life returns to normal, I’m trying to get this series back on track. I had left it at The Age of Arthur in the late Fifth Century, including posts on The Hallows of Ireland & Britain, Tristan & Iseult, and an attempt to answer the question: Who Was King Arthur? The Sixth Century is a bit more obscure than its predecessor, but it still inspired some well-known historical fiction.

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?


Bill said...

Joe, military sci-fi and fantasy author David Drake wrote a take on Justinian's general Belisarius with co-author Eric Flint. Here is a link to the first book on Amazon:

I read this series years ago and it was my first exposure to Justinian and his era.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, thanks for the comment! I knew there had to be some good Justinian fiction out there. I'll add this to my to-read list!