Shining a Light on the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxons and Vikings for years 3/4 April 3, 2017 – Posted in: Book News, Booklist Updates, Our Favourites – Tags: History, KS2
The period after the Romans left Britain in 410 to the crowning of our first Norman king, William the Conqueror, in 1066 is an important and fascinating part of British history. As part of the history curriculum for key stage 2, more children than ever are now learning about the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ (something to debate with your pupils! How dark were the ‘Dark Ages’ really?).
The history of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings in Britain are so closely intertwined that it makes sense to approach them together, in the same unit of work. Starting with the arrival of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, your class can go on to discover how they came to be called Anglo-Saxons; how they lived, worked and worshipped; the ‘real’ King Arthur; the arrival of Christianity; Sutton Hoo; King Alfred the Great and the Viking Invaders; why the Vikings have such a vicious reputation, and much more!
Publishers have been gradually catching up with the demand for books on the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings to use in schools, and there are now plenty of non-fiction texts to choose from. Good quality fiction on this topic is still a little scarce, but I have put together here a summary of what I consider to be the very best books for this topic.
Beowulf, of course! The oldest surviving long poem in Old English is commonly cited as one of the most important works of English literature. Written in a West Saxon dialect sometime between 700–1000 A.D. by a now unknown Anglo-Saxon poet, this epic poem is a fantastic illustration of the sort of stories Anglo-Saxon people told. The Michael Morpurgo version illustrated by Michael Foreman is the best edition to get. The book is divided into three stories. In the first Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall in Heorot has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel. Beowulf fights Grendel and slays him. In the second story Beowulf faces Grendel’s mother, who attacks the hall, and is also defeated. Lastly, in the third story, Beowulf goes home to Geatland (Götaland in modern Sweden) and later becomes king of the Geats. After a period of fifty years has passed, Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants cremate his body and erect a tower on a headland in his memory.
If you are short of time you could choose to just read the first story, the introduction of Beowulf and battle with the monster Grendel, with your class. These are stories of a great hero doing battle with vicious monsters and are therefore fairly violent in nature. Michael Morpurgo does not shy away from describing some of the gory details, so do make sure to read it through first and satisfy yourself that your class will be happy with the blood and guts!
There is also a much shorter, simpler version of Beowulf available in the Usborne Young Reading series. The writing by Rob Lloyd Jones is very good and the whole story is told with much less of the violent description. It is very brief and therefore you do lose some of the wonderful Anglo-Saxon atmosphere of the Morpurgo version, but for a young or more sensitive class this version might be more suitable.
Other fiction focusing solely on the Anglo-Saxons is almost non-existent. One recently publication is “Anglo-Saxon Boy” by Tony Bradman. In my opinion most teachers will find this novel a little too long and complicated for using with most year 3/4s. If you’re doing the topic with upper KS2 pupils, it may then be worth considering. Or you could just look at a short section. The story centers around Magnus, who is the son and heir of Harold Godwinson, who becomes King of England in 1065. It’s pretty clear from the start therefore that the story isn’t going to have a happy ending, as Harold goes on to lose the Battle of Hastings and is killed by William of Normandy in 1066.
Time-Travelling Cat and the Viking Terror is a good fiction choice for this topic. Set in 868 A.D. it covers both the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. However, there are a few recommendations I would make… This book is the fourth in the series about the Time-Travelling Cat, and the first chapter does assume you know about the main character Topher and his previous adventures already. It’s not a huge problem, but makes the beginning of the story a little confusing in parts. For this reason, and the fact that the first section (set in modern times and focusing on a terrorist attack in London) doesn’t really add to the historical section at all, I think it would be reasonable to skip these bits entirely and just read the Anglo-Saxon story, which is the bulk of the book.
In the story Topher finds himself in a Saxon village, where a scop (an Anglo-Saxon poet) tries to warn the villagers about some raiding Vikings who are nearby and looking to kill the King and take their land. Topher must get the villagers to heed his warning and foil the aggressors led by the terrifying Viking, Ingwar the Boneless, infamous for his cruelty and devious tricks. It is a difficult task and one that sees Topher experience family tragedy, get captured by Vikings, hide out in a monastery and desperately try to get to King ….. before the Vikings do. The end of the historical section of this story is a little abrupt, as Topher is suddenly pulled back to the present. This does however mean the door is left open for discussion in the classroom – what could have happened next?
You have a little more choice for fiction that centres on the Vikings. My favourite is not a tale of fearsome raiders from the North, but a wonderful fantasy adventure, starring Odd, a young Viking boy, and the Norse gods. Odd and the Frost Giants is written by prize-winning author Neil Gaiman, who tells a witty and touching story about gods and magic in Viking times. Having run away from home, Odd finds shelter in a little hut in the forest. Here, he meets a bear, a fox and an eagle all of whom seem determined to befriend him. Soon, Odd discovers these are no ordinary animals and that they badly need his help to save the city of Asgard from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. With his cheerful temperament and quick thinking, Odd is just the kind of imaginative hero they need and a wonderful battle for power unfolds. Chris Riddell’s enchanting pen and ink illustrations throughout bring the magic to life. If you can only have one fiction book for this topic, I’d make it this one!
Another must-have is Viking Longship by Mick Manning. This picture book is halfway between fiction and non-fiction, with a (brief) story that flows through the book and lots of interesting facts on each page to back it up. The author introduces us to a range of characters, including a warrior, a pirate and a priest, who sail in a beautiful longship called The Sea Dragon to Lindisfarne. After a devastating storm, Viking Longship continues the story of Grimm, a young warrior, who buys and fixes the broken ship and sets sail in search of adventure, battles and treasure. The story follows Grimm’s progress as he invades England with his band of grizzly warriors and then creates a farm settlement where his family can live peacefully. I love the sketch-book look, complete with casual, handwritten notes on each page!
The Saga of Erik the Viking by Terry Jones is definitely worth dipping into for this topic. While you may not want to read the whole thing from cover to cover, the format of short chapters that are all individual stories is always useful in the classroom! Eric the Viking and the crew of the Golden Dragon set sail in search of adventure and to find out where the sun goes at night. Along the way they encounter storms, giants, evil spirits, trolls and much more, and must use all their strength and cunning to get out with their lives. I would definitely recommend getting the Michael Forman illustrated version.
I really enjoyed The Littlest Viking by Sandi Toksvig. It’s an easy, fun, well-written story, with loads of humour and a bit of Viking trivia thrown in. Little Amber, a small Viking girl, took a wrong turning 1000 years ago and has somehow ended up in modern-day Britain. Siblings Katie, Gary and Joshua find her stranded on the beach near their home and decide they’d better look after her! While they teach her all about 21st century life, introducing things like cars and chips, Amber opens their eyes to some wonderful Viking behaviors and beliefs, including their myths and legends, runes and poetry!
The Sword of the Viking King is part of Terry Deary’s Viking Tales series, which are fairly short and simple books; great for a quick read while studying the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Set in Wessex in 878, fortunes are not on the side of the English and the Vikings will soon control all the land. Even the young boy Ethelbert believes he could do a better job than King Alfred. Little does he know that soon he will be called on to prove it! Terry Deary’s Saxon Tales will be released in June 2017, so keep an eye out for these making an appearance on our Anglo-Saxon book list shortly.
Myths and Legends:
You can’t study the Vikings without taking some time to look at their fabulous myths and sagas. The Usborne Illustrated Norse Myths and Legends is a good starting point, with all the main characters lined up in a useful ‘Who’s Who’! There’s also a history of the Norsemen and their myths and religion, along with retellings of the most famous stories.
The Dragon’s Hoard: Stories from the Viking Sagas is another must-have. A wonderful book consisting of eleven stories taken from the Viking Sagas, packed with warriors and battles, heroes and heroines, Berserkers, monsters and zombies – and lots of magic!
If you’ve got time, stop off for a week or two with King Arthur. No one knows exactly whether or not there was a real King Arthur, or who he might have been, but taking some time to examine the possibilities is certainly worthwhile! How did this mysterious character, who is said to have led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders, become such an iconic and legendary figure?
Richard Brassey explores the history, the mystery and the legendary figures that populate the myths about King Arthur, in his enthralling King Arthur. With his customary wit and fabulous, colourful illustrations, Richard Brassey explores the fact and the fiction surrounding the legendary King Arthur.
The Illustrated Tales of King Arthur is a lovely book to have in any classroom and perfect for sharing the classic stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, from the sword in the stone to the last battle.
There’s so much non-fiction now available on the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings that telling the good from the not-so-good can be quite a challenge. Some books are, in my opinion, too brief even for year 3s, just regurgitating the basic facts found in other books and not giving you good value for money. The following are a few non-fiction books that really hit the nail on the head, providing clear and interesting information and appealing illustrations in an accessible layout.
Usborne’s Anglo-Saxons and Vikings – from their ‘History of Britain series – is a very useful little book that covers Anglo-Saxon society, through the invasion of the Vikings and right up to the Battle of Hastings. Illustrated with a combination of cartoons, artwork from the period and photographs of cultural artifacts and reconstructions.
‘The History Detectives Investigates’ is a really good series, covering lots of useful curriculum-related periods of history. There’s The Vikings, The Anglo-Saxons and also The Normans and the Battle of Hastings available. All the books have a question at the top of each page – ‘Who were the Vikings?’, ‘Why did the Vikings travel so much?’, ‘What were Viking towns like?’, ‘What did the Vikings do for fun?’, etc. – and there’s also the detective dog Sherlock Bones to help readers find the answers to his questions.
The other series I would recommend is Ladybird Histories. Here too there are separate books available on Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and The Battle of Hastings, all of which are perfect for helping LKS2 children to get stuck into their own research on these topics. Most books include a glossary, a timeline of events and a ‘Who’s Who’, and lots of colourful illustrations on each page, which really help to bring the text to life.
Reading The Viking Invader is a fun way to pick up a few facts about the period. Laid out in the style of a tabloid newspaper, there are major headlines, descriptive articles, adverts, quizzes and more, just as you’d find in a real paper! The contents are very funny (a little reminiscent of Horrible Histories!) and there’s lots to look at, as you can jump from one article to another. Could be useful for guided reading.
How to be an Anglo-Saxon (in 13 easy stages) is another text that lends itself to guided reading. It’s a short, fun, non-fiction guide to the way Anglo-Saxons lived and behaved, with a different stage on every page. The cartoon-style illustrations will appeal to children and help to break up the text.
Alfred was the only English king ever to be given the title ‘Great’. Why? He successfully defended Britain from wave after wave of Viking invaders, formed the first English army and navy, encouraged English people to talk in their mother tongue and set up the beginnings of a renowned, progressive legal system…. Find out more about this great king, including the truth behind the famous story of the burnt cakes, in Alfred the Great and the Anglo Saxons.
Lastly, from a series that I love, A Viking Town, is a wonderfully detailed visual guide to what life would have been like in a Viking town. This is a superbly illustrated look at the daily lives of different types of Vikings, exploring the towns in which they lived, how they ate, dressed, entertained themselves and sometimes fought. Illustrations of artifacts and paintings from the era help to support the main text by presenting the evidence that explains how we know what we know.
THE 10 MUST-HAVE BOOKS FOR YOUR ANGLO-SAXON & VIKINGS TOPIC:
9. Viking Town