Book Review: The Children of Ash and Elm – A History of the Vikings - Is it any good?
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Author: Neil Price
Publisher: Penguin Books
Recommended Reading Age: 14 Years plus
Everyone loves Vikings, right? Well, maybe not everyone throughout human history. I really can’t imagine that Anglo-Saxon monks were particularly keen on our Scandinavian pals. But certainly, everyone in the modern age is likely a Viking fan. Be it Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new Netflix Show 'Vikings Valhalla', the hugely popular 'Lost Kingdom' books from Bernard Cornwell, the smash-hit Viking flavoured survival video game 'Valheim', and the current blockbuster film 'The Northman'; Vikings are absolutely everywhere.
The same is true for books that deal with Viking history. There are thousands of the things. It is this though, that makes Neil Price’s The Children of Ash and Elm such a standout offering, as it is amongst the best Viking history books I’ve ever read. Nah, scratch that, it’s amongst the best history books I’ve ever read.
What makes The Children of Ash and Elm so impressive is its audacious scope. In a comparatively concise 500-ish pages, Neil covers everything anyone could ever want to know about the Vikings. Their mythology, culture, trade networks, shipbuilding, Danelaw, raiding practices - it’s all here and all of it is effortlessly dissected in Neil’s easy-to-read and accessible writing style. Oh, and despite all the intense history shenanigans, there are plenty of laughs to be had when reading the book too, as it's surprisingly chucklesome!
Listen, I know a fair bit about the Vikings and yet I found my mind being blown every few pages with some astonishing insight or other. Neil accomplishes this feat by taking well-worn ideas about the Vikings, their predilection for violence say, and turns these concepts on their heads. This is not a history that settles for looking at the surface veneer of the Vikings, instead, the book seeks to get inside the head of the Vikings. To wiggle about in their brain boxes, poke a cortex or two and inspect some neural pathways. Ultimately, to understand their mindset. Why they did what they did or why they believed what they believed? The highest praise I can give is that, by the time I put the book down, I felt that at some point in my life I had met and befriended a Viking. This then, is an intimate history, one that will live long in the memory of the reader.
Ultimately, it’s a challenging read, after all, there’s a lot to unpack here. Still, you need not know anything about the Vikings in order to cast your eyeballs over The Children of Ash and Elm. Neil takes even the newest of Viking newbies gently by the hand and confidently steers them on the rocky path to knowledge. Sure, the structure of the book can take a little getting used to, this is no chronological narrative history, oh no. Rather, the book explores the various aspects of the Vikings, looping back to previously visited eras or anticipating those still to come. Dense with facts, yet eminently approachable, The Children of Ash and Elm is an essential read for those wanting to learn more about the Vikings.
Thank you to Penguin Books for supplying us with a copy of The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings for this review.
If you'd like to pick up a copy of the book, you can do so from Penguin's website here.