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The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Penguin Classics)
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Penguin Classics)
by Anonymous
Edition: Paperback
72 used & new from $0.01

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vinland Sagas, October 29, 2000
The Vinland Sagas describe early Norse exploration of Greenland and North America. The two sagas, "Graenlendinga Saga" and "Eirik's Saga," amount to the only major written records of these adventures -- Eirik the Red's colonization of Greenland and Leif Eiriksson's landing on the North American continent, probably in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, around the year 1000 AD. A mild climate and expert Norse seamanship made both discoveries possible.
The "Full Circle" theory of human migration holds that modern man's early ancestors parted ways about 100,000 years ago in Africa. Some turned east into Asia; some west into Europe. The two civilizations would not meet again until the Vikings encountered the aboriginal people of North America. The book's lengthy introduction provides an excellent primer on the history and controversy surrounding these sagas and the events they relate.
The Vikings treated native Americans -- whom they called "skraelings," which translates into something like "wretches" -- as shabbily as any later colonialists. From Eirik's Saga: "They came upon five Skraelings clad in skins, asleep; beside them were containers full of deer-marrow mixed with blood. Karlsefni's men reckoned that these five must be outlaws, and killed them." The five natives were, of course, a hunting party -- not outlaws.
Though they were probably the first Europeans to set foot on North America, pre-dating Columbus by 500 years, the Norse explorers failed to establish a colony on the continent. Thus, while fascinating, their adventures will never be as historically significant as those of later seafarers.


The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics)
The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics)
by Julius Caesar
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.90
133 used & new from $0.73

10 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Conquest of Gaul, October 20, 2000
This translation chronicles Caesar's military adventures in Gaul (modern France), Germany and Britain. As in any autobiography, you have to keep a skeptical eye on the events related. All autobiographers try to justify their actions and paint themselves in noble colors.
Caesar was not the historian (nor writer) that Tacitus was, but as a participant in these events, he provides invaluable on-the-ground observations. His book makes one thing clear. Ancient Gauls, Germans and Britons succumbed to splinters in their own tribal factions as much as to the might of Roman legions. Caesar spent as much time mollifying tribes and building alliances as he did conducting military campaigns.
Caesar's prose is workmanlike, if not quite elegant. A longer introduction that included more general information about ancient Rome would have been helpful for the nonspecialist.
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Tacitus: Agricola and Germany (Oxford World's Classics)
Tacitus: Agricola and Germany (Oxford World's Classics)
by Cornelius Tacitus
Edition: Paperback
42 used & new from $0.68

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Agricola and Germania, October 7, 2000
This book contains a pair of early works by the great Roman historian Tacitus. Agricola is an homage to the historian's father-in-law, a Roman governor in Britain during the 1st century A.D. Germania describes the German people and their culture during the same period.
The author's admiration for his late father-in-law is manifest in Agricola. Sometimes his admiration comes across as tender, sometimes as fawning. Tacitus writes near the crest of Roman world-domination (Americans take note). He frequently adopts the tone of a tourist in a third-world country -- sometimes looking down his nose at local customs, sometimes in fascination at a primitive culture that compares favorably to a Roman empire suffering decay and corruption. He is a loyal Roman and an educated man. As such, he can glorify Rome and, in the same breath, criticize Rome's tyranny and empathize with the empire's victims. Tacitus lends an eloquent voice to Rome's enemies and those facing enslavement. The speech (probably apocryphal) of Caledonian warlord Calgacus before the climactic battle of the Graupian mountain may be the best section of either book. Backed up to the northern tip of modern Scotland, Calgacus tries to rally his men before battle. "Now there is no people beyond us," he says, "nothing but tides and rocks and, more deadly than these, the Romans ... They have pillaged the world ... They plunder, they butcher, they ravage, and call it by the lying name of empire. They make a desert and call it peace."
Tacitus has no personal connection to any person in the second book, Germania. His writing is more sterile here, but he provides a captivating description that seems part based on observation and part on rumor.
Tacitus is a pithy writer, given to understatement and the wry aside. The translator does a tremendous job of carrying these qualities across in English. Important books both, Agricola and Germania provide some of our only glimpses of the early ancestors of the English people, the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons.


A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age
A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age
by William Manchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.89
603 used & new from $0.01

1 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A World Lit Only By Fire, October 7, 2000
Don't let the title fool you. This book is mostly about the Renaissance; only the slim first section meditates directly on the Middle Ages. We should expect this; the people of the Middle Ages left scant written evidence of their lives. As Manchester writes, "Even those with creative powers had no sense of self. Each of the great soaring medieval cathedrals ... required three or four centuries to create ... Yet we know nothing of the architects or builders."
The middle section describes the Catholic Church as an institution of declining power and influence, culminating in the Protestant reformation. Manchester recounts the un-Christian debauchery of various popes and papal officers. When in power, the Protestant elite behaved hardly better than their Catholic predecessors. The balance and majority of the book offers a biography of Magellan and his circumnavigation of the world. Manchester considers this the crowning achievement of the Renaissance.
Manchester writes popular history. His solid (sometimes stolid) prose provides a serviceable narrative. This history does not claim (in fact, the author specifically denies it) any new or breakthrough scholarship. Manchester is not writing for experts. He describes the seam between two ages, the age of God and the age of man, that became the most important period in human history. An analogy is helpful to understand its significance. Early in his life, a newborn baby has no sense of others. In the baby's mind, his mother exists solely to fulfill his needs. Medieval man, believing Earth the center of the universe, was in much the same state. During the Renaissance, Europeans -- like the newborn child becoming aware of others and their separate existence -- discovered the world around them. In the 20th century, we are still reeling from the shock of this revelation.


The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics)
The Earliest English Poems (Penguin Classics)
by Various
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.05
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4 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Earliest English Poems, October 4, 2000
Reading Anglo-Saxon literature can be for modern readers like listening to fingernails scratched on a blackboard. A mind conditioned to democracy, fair play and (public) modesty recoils at primitive sensibilities embodied in the heroic ideal -- where childlike loyalty to one's tribal lord is paramount and boasting about one's prowess is considered good manners. An excellent introduction to this anthology prepares new readers for the Anglo-Saxon world and world-view.
If we take Alexander at his word that "The excuse, ultimately, for a book of this sort is a conviction on the part of the author that some early English poems deserve to be read by those who do not make their living out of the subject, that what is excellent should be made current," these poems call for a more liberal translation. Alexander gamely tries to retain the sound of the originals, but sacrifices some of the empathy he could have inspired in an amateur audience.
Realism has conditioned modern readers to expect literary characters of more than one dimension, containing qualities both noble and despicable, and situations that are morally questionable. Most of these poems leave little room for ambiguity -- the good are good, the evil are monstrously evil.
The two most appealing poems for the modern reader may be "The Dream of the Rood" and "Deor." The first poem recounts the crucifixion from the persona of the cross. It is hard to read the line "They drove me through with dark nails" without admiration for the poet. "Deor" is the lament of a court poet whose role has been usurped by another. His plight is sympathetic.
Tales of battle and adventure abound. Perhaps the greatest adventure story is the survival of the poems themselves. They were recounted by memory for generations, transcribed by monks who layered Christian morality on top of pagan ideas, survived Viking raids and library fires as charred manuscript scraps. Old English is a language as alien to modern English as the surface of Mars is to Earth. Despite the difficulty of translation and difference of perspective, it is worth looking backwards to read these poems. If for no other reason than they are ours.
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