In July 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure was discovered in Stratfordshire, England by metal detectorist Terry Herbert. The artefacts, which included over 3,500 pieces of gold, silver and precious stone articles, have provided an enormous amount of insight into the life and times of the Anglo-Saxons and obviously, set imaginations soaring. Better Than Gold is a praiseworthy attempt by Theresa Tomlinson to construct what life must have been like in 7th-century England for the Anglo Saxon kings and queens and, from the narrative already available, she has chosen the best aspect to be dramatised for young adults.
The entire story broadly revolves around people and events that actually existed or happened. Indeed there was a Mercian King named Penda who was still a pagan, a worshipper of Woden (Odin), in a world rapidly adopting Christianity. He would wage savage wars on his neighbouring kingdoms especially Bernicia, the lands of King Oswy Iding. Penda had really kept Oswy’s son Egfrid, the main protagonist of the novel, as a hostage and had demanded rich tributes on condition of peace. How Oswy’s son became the hostage is not a matter of record and thus, Tomlinson creates a rich story in this space.
The novel begins in medias res as the 10-year-old Prince Egfrid is abducted by the savage Penda. He is taken across his father›s land, which had adopted Christanity, to the pagan Mercia and became the foster son of Penda after impressing the bitter rival of his father with his bravery. The story is about the little prince’s daily courage in the face of hardship, his conflict with loyalty towards his own father and the “enemy” who, as he lived with them, turned out to be rather human after all. Historical records do mention that King Penda, despite being a savage pagan, did not force religion on his subjects. Indeed, he allowed even his own children to take up the new faith if they were swayed by the teachings. However, he is said to have been harsh with those who did not practice their religion once they adopted it. As is said in the record books, King Penda did die during battle with King Oswy and when the latter’s son returns unharmed he exclaims that a son is better than gold.
The entire story broadly revolves around people and events that actually existed or happened. Indeed there was a Mercian King named Penda who was still a pagan, a worshipper of Woden (Odin), in a world rapidly adopting Christianity.
As a child, author Theresa Tomlinson had little interest in writing. It is only after she was an adult that fiction seemed a better creative outlet instead of painting or dance. Initially, she would write stories for her children and illustrate them and since 1987, when her first book, The Flither Pickers, was published, she has remained a much-loved author for children and adults. Her novels are usually strongly character driven and have strong female protagonists like the Penda’s wife, Queen Cynewise or Maid Marian of the Robin Hood legend. Often, for research about new books, she travels far from home and her novel, The Voyage of the Snake Lady, took her to Turkey which is thought to be the historical city of Troy.
Tomlinson is the author of a few more books about the Anglo Saxons and confesses to be obsessed with the period. She grew up around Cleveland and North Yorkshire, and the history and mythology of the land inspired her to turn these stories to fiction. In her website, she says that Archaeologist Steve Sherlock’s discovery of a mysterious Saxon Princess burial with gold and garnet jewellery, on the cliffs near Loftus, close to where she lived as a young child, greatly fascinated her and resulted into her first novel about the Anglo-Saxons, The Wolf Girl.
Do not expect a Game of Thrones-like narrative from Better than Gold. It has all the necessary elements to be a page-turner but there are no dragons here. The author has only filled up a space left in the historical records of the time. An Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard was found and there are no theories how it came to be there. Tomlinson, with her creative license, suggests that the hoard was the huge tribute King Oswy had paid to Penda to keep peace in the land. The same treasure was then buried in the ground for safe keeping and also because the wife of King Penda was uncomfortable with the wealth which, she believed, was unjustly procured and thus, hidden out of sight. The Stratfordshire Hoard does not have a single woman’s ornament or household item which is quite unusual. It only consists of military related metal work and these facts further help cement Tomlinson’s fictional narrative.
127 pages of derring-do and battles of will, Better Than Gold, is definitely worth a read.