The Last Berserker is a story set in 772 in what is now the northern part of Germany. It follows a young man, Bjarki Bloodhand and his adventures in a world where Charlemagne’s armed forces advanced themselves towards the Saxon areas. The period is known as the Saxon Wars, and this is a story of a young warrior who found himself entangled in one of the critical historical events.
The Saxon Wars
The historical backdrop of this series is the brewing of the Saxon Wars, which would last from 772 to 804. I wasn’t necessarily familiar with European continental “Dark Age” history, especially not the transition period towards Medieval. Those who know me will not be surprised that I spend enough time reading supplement textbooks and watching a number of Saxon-themed documentaries to understand the context.
I suppose the story aims to imagine and illustrate how the historical event happened through the eyes of the Saxons, or at least one of them: Bjarki. I liked the idea because it’s as if reading a story from a loser’s point of view. Oh, dear. I sounded so callous and insensitive. You know how history was written by the winners, right? The story is definitely nuanced differently when you read the Frankian sources, i.e. Einhard, the Chronicler.
But I’m ready. I’m ready to learn something new about Germanic people in early Medieval Europe. It is time for me to change the scenery from lovely Medieval England.
We know the word berserk comes from an Old Norse word berserkr, meaning bear-shirt. The usage of this word focuses on one’s wild and uncontrollable behaviour hence somehow described as barbaric and reckless. Reading this book, I learned that being a berserk has more meaning than simply ‘going insanely wild’.
The Last Berserker introduced me to Bjarki Bloodhand, the main character, though not necessarily the protagonist, I think. Early in the story, a second central character, Torfinna
Hiraldsdottir Hildarsdottir, was introduced almost simultaneously with Valtyr, the Far-Traveller.
Bjarki came from an island called Bago (or Bågø), located in Denmark territory. He did something that caused him to be exiled from the island. Bjarki went with Valtyr and Tor, after his exile, braving the First Forest as they travelled towards Fyr Skola in Eresburg (present-day Obermarsberg, Germany).
Awesome mood-setting music to accompany your reading
Noting that Fyr Skola is a fictional institution created solely for The Last Berserker, it is said that Fyr Skola is located in a sacred place where the berserkers train and study to become mighty warriors. Upon the completion of their ‘study’, Rekkars graduated from Fyr Skola often assist local thegns or jarls for potential attacks to their areas. That’s my attempt in politely saying that they work as mercenaries hired to guard a realm of a thegn or a jarl.
Bjarki is characterised as a guy who’s taken away from everything he loves. He was forced to leave Bago and Freya, the girl he wanted to marry. Now, as he followed Valtyr to Fyr Skola, I feel like he was shoved into a situation he didn’t expect or ask for. He doesn’t want to be a berserk, though Valtyr seemed to think otherwise. I think the fact that he has nowhere to go and no dream to pursue, in Bjarki’s mind, the option of enrolling in Fyr Skola is better than being a thrall somewhere.
I have to be honest that I don’t really like Bjarki’s character in this story. He’s such an undecided man. In my biased view, it’s kind of weird to have an undecided Saxon man. I don’t know exactly where the author will expand Bjarki’s character. I somehow feel that Bjarki’s character already knows that they can’t win against the Frankians. Spoiler alert: they didn’t, indeed. Charlemagne won the war, and this is stamped as true in history.
I hated Torfinna. Why? Because I found a little bit of myself in her. Sorry, I lied—a lot of myself in her. Impatient, reckless, selfish. I hope her character develops as she realises that the world isn’t made for her only. But she’s not all that negative, you know. Tor is also affectionate and sympathetic. Although perhaps she doesn’t show it too much cause she’s a shield-maiden. I think she had to be depicted as showing toughness and a degree of callousness. She loves animals, though. So, that’s a plus.
If I had a favourite character, it would have to be Gunnar. I actually wanted to know more about the Mikelgothi, Skymir. But she’s killed quite quickly when Charlemagne attacked the Fyr Skola. So, yeah… no more Skymir. While Gunnar is not one of the main characters, so far, the author hasn’t killed him yet. I don’t know why, but I wish the author would explore some story arc about Gunnar.
My favourite part of the book was when Bjarki, Tor, and Captain Otto went to Eggeldorf to ‘fight a monster’. The mission turned out to be Bjarki’s Voyaging, and the monster was a she-bear who was wounded and ‘asked’ Bjarki to free her from suffering. This she-bear would then be Bjarki’s gandr. She left behind a tiny cub, then adopted by Tor and Bjarki. They named it Garm. This whole scene—the freeing from suffering and the sight of a tiny bear cub—was tear-jerking for me. I have a soft spot for furry animals.
I also liked the scenes when Bjarki and Tor were in Fyr Skola. As I understand it, it is a school for individuals who wants to become a Fire Born; the term used was a Rekkr. Perhaps, it is similar to Hogwarts for those who want to study the arts of wizardry. Fyr Skola is located in Eresburg, which is also where the One Tree, a.k.a. Irminsul was standing.
This book confuses me. I don’t know if it’s my state of mind during the reading of this book or else.
I think the book is a wee bit too tame for me. But I appreciate the author for wanting to tell the story from the Saxon side and not Charlemagne’s side. It is refreshing to read, though fictional, from the losing side.
This book confuses me. I don’t know if it’s my state of mind during the reading of this book or else. I said I was unfamiliar with the transition period from the pagan Saxon to medieval Christian Europe. My knowledge is limited to the chronological boundaries that this period is referred to as Early Medieval Europe, AD500-AD1000. Heck, I even don’t know much about the geographical or geopolitical boundaries in this era.
Therefore, I dug up my personal stash of textbooks and found several supporting books or articles that helped me understand more about this period. It feels a bit weird to engage in studying instead of just keep reading the damn novel. But noooo… I had to find out where the heck was Eresburg located. I also read articles about Irminsul, Yggdrasil, and the sacred tree worship in Saxon paganism. I didn’t realise that Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is packed with archaeological findings from the Saxon era.
(Insert here my long-gone dream of wanting to enrol in Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Archäologie des Mittelalters, Universität Tübingen)
The book is a wee bit too tame for me. I was slightly disappointed because I thought The Last Berserker, as the first book of its series, will narrate in heavily gore-ish details about Charlemagne’s attack on Eresburg, Fyr Skola, and how his army destroyed the Irminsul. Unfortunately, I had to find out that Fyr Skola had already been destroyed when Gunnar told the story to Bjarki and Tor.
You see, in the real world, the issue about Eresburg and Irminsul is still a debate. I would be highly interested in how a historical fiction author would have a go and imagine how things went down there. Tsk, but it didn’t happen. The feeling of wanting to know about what happened in Eresburg is similar to me, reading about what happened in Lindisfarne. I have found my Lindisfarne story, but I guess I have to keep Eresburg’s attack as a free-to-interpret story.
I appreciate the author for wanting to tell the story from the Saxon side and not Charlemagne’s side. It is refreshing to read, though fictional, from the losing side. I don’t know what state of mind I will be in as I read the next book(s) on this series. Knowing this is already a losing game, maybe it’s hard to be optimistic reading them. But I am also curious how Bjarki’s character will evolve. Maybe the loss suffered by the Saxons will be depicted with dignity.
Although I’m slightly disappointed that our supposed protagonist is painted as undecided and seemingly unwilling to fight for his own kinsmen, I guess not everyone has to be depicted as a muscular, sweaty hero, drenched in his enemy’s blood. Perhaps I still have the vivid depiction of Beobrand from the Bernicia Chronicles, and that’s why I expected Bjarki to be as deadly and vicious as he was.
I see that the second instalment of this series is already out, and it’s good news because I need to read more books in this series to make further ‘examination’ of Bjarki’s psychology. Hahaha, as if I’m the psychologist. But truly, Bjarki confuses me.