The Serpent Sword is one of the books by Matthew Harffy I chose to commit myself to in 2021. Things happened, COVID passed, a new book came out, and I still have not written my reviews about them. 2023 began, and I promised myself I should catch up with the last three books before the tenth comes out (hopefully next year?). At the same time, I started my reading journal, and I think it’s perfect to read this book as my first entry there.
I’m writing this post in 2023; it means that I have read The Serpent Sword twice. But only this time I made notes ready to review the book. I also have a personal interest in the archaeological and historical subjects of York and the north-eastern part of England. Then I realised that I knew nought of Northumbria and Bernicia, not realising I once lived considerably close to the sites mentioned in the book. Having liked Matthew Harffy’s standalone books, I have high hopes when I start this chronicle.
Story of The Serpent Sword
The Serpent Sword began a story about Beobrand, a regular farmer guy who travelled to Bebbanburg in 633. His mission was to seek his brother, Octa, a warrior in the army of Edwin of Northumbria. The author divided this book into three parts, and I love the fact that each part was titled accordingly to the phases of creating a sword. It started with THE FORGING. This sub-title was very appropriate and ticked all the necessary elements that would form Beobrand into the warrior he was destined for.
To me, The Serpent Sword was the start of an epic tale. Every chapter introduced a range of characters – some endearing, others detestable. The story was skilfully crafted, tracing Beobrand’s path as he joined Edwin’s army. He began at the bottom, learning from Bassus, one of Edwin’s comitatus. Beobrand was lunged into the middle of a battle just a few days after he started practising with Bassus, which sadly ended up with the deaths of Edwin and his son.
The second part of The Serpent Sword was titled THE TEMPERING. Again, I could not contain myself with admiration for how this part was written. Picking up after losing his first battle, this part of the book finds Beobrand making new friends and gaining enemies with several characters. Some of these characters I hope to last throughout the chronicles. Conrad was one of them, a young monk of Engelmynster (a fictional place) who helped to care for Beobrand’s wounds from the battle.
The next character tempering his own was Sunniva, a daughter of a smith from Gefrin (modern Yeavering), who fell in love with Beobrand. I loved how the chemistry between them was portrayed, and I sincerely hope they would find happiness together.
The last part was THE QUENCHING. I suppose this was where I got caught off-guard, unable to find the time to write any commentary or reactionary remarks. I remember I kept on flipping the pages as I gasped, gripped, cried, and shouted. The Serpent Sword truly brought out the shouty part of me quite often. As it was titled, this is the part where Beobrand began to realise that being a warrior was his wyrd. The events throughout the third part of The Serpent Sword strengthened his will to embrace being a full-time fighter with a mighty sword.
Finally, I found a book I could read many times and still get that intense feeling. I have no complaints at all. In my opinion, this is how any historical fiction should be written. This book was an easy 5-star or 10-star from me, hands down, and it was a good start to begin a long saga.
A Personal Battle
Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon ap Cadfan were the enemies of the Bernicians during this period of history. Edwin had been trying to repel these forces advancing towards Bernicia and was caught in several battles with them. This is where my historical confusion started.
Chapter 3 mentions how Edwin and his army arrived at Elmet to face his enemies, while Chapter 4 notes how Edwin lost in a battle against Cadwallon. Based on this, I thought the battle mentioned was the Battle of Elmet. But then, the book also mentions that Edwin was killed in the battle. I’m super confused because I thought those were two different battles.
I tried to read up on the Battle of Elmet, and from what I can gather, it was a small battle in the pursuit of annexing the Kingdom of Elmet under Edwin’s Northumbrian dream. My accompanying textbooks, in this case, Bede’s Ecclesiastical, recorded Elmet as an annexed kingdom after Edwin’s invasion in 616/617. Clearly, this annexation happened far earlier than the setting in this book (633).
Another complementary reading noted that after its annexation, Elmet was incorporated into Northumbria on Easter 627. This was also the year when Edwin was baptised as a Christian. This source also mentioned that Elmet may have colluded with Cadwallon prior to the Battle of Hatfield Chase (Speight, 1900).
In reality, the exact location of Elmet is debated and uncertain. It was argued to have been situated within the boundaries of rivers Sheaf (!!!) and Wharfe between Deira and Mercia, which is quite a large area.
The author’s note referred to Beobrand’s first battle as the Battle of Hatfield Chase, where Edwin was killed. He also wrote that the names Elmet and Hatfield Chase can be used interchangeably. Plus, the story in the book also mentioned that Osfrith, Edwin’s son, was also killed in that battle. So, in this case, it was indeed depicting the Battle of Hatfield Chase.
This confusion is my own personal battle, although I may be wrong to assume these were two different battles due to my lack of resources. Then again, there is a reason why this period in history was once known as The Dark Ages. I’ve never been to an archaeological Anglo-Saxon conference; it might have been interesting to see the experts disagreeing with each other upon their interpretation of manuscripts and/or material findings.
There were two swords important for this book: Hrunting (a sword) and Beobrand (the owner of Hrunting). Hrunting, the sword, was once Octa’s, which was handed down to Beobrand as his next of kin. I’m a fan of sharp objects/artefacts, and the description of Hrunting made me shiver. It must have looked beautiful and deadly. Beobrand, as the focal point in this story, bearing the deadly Hrunting, slaying enemies and spilling their blood, is an interesting character. I hope his story arc will progress significantly in the future.
I love this series—too much. I want to liken this to Ken Follett if he had chosen the Anglo-Saxon theme with more blood and gore and maintained similar misfortunes for the characters. The amount of death in just one book is mesmerising. Granted, those were times of war and battle.
You will find me praising Matthew Harffy numerous times for his ability to weave real historical figures with fictional characters. Finally, I found a book I could read many times and still get that intense feeling. I have no complaints at all. In my opinion, this is how any historical fiction should be written. This book was an easy 5-star or 10-star from me, hands down, and it was a good start to begin a long saga.
Have you read this book? Do you like it? Connect with me and share your thoughts about it.
Words I Learnt
- plover: a type of bird; wading bird belonging to the subfamily Charadriinae.
- ebulliant: cheerful and full of energy.
- unctuous: excessively or ingratiatingly flattering.
- betony: common hedgenettle; Betonica officinalis.
- redolence: an often pungent or agreeable odour.
1. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, ed. and tr. Colgrave, Bertram; Mynors, Roger AB.1969. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-1982-2202-5.
2. Yorke, Barbara. 2002. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. Routledge: London & New York.
3. Speight, Harry. 1900. Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London.