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The King's Head

Style: Average

Attitude: Unobjectionable

In Brief: Lightweight framework of folk stories; mocking or unsure attitude of people of Dark Ages to Christianity

Cover of The King's Head

Author: Susan Price

Publisher: Scholastic

Published in: 2002

Age Range: Young Teens+

Period: Dark Ages

Setting: England

Genres:  FantasyHistorical


Characters:

  • Egil Grimmsen is King Penda's storyteller whose head, cut off in battle, carries on telling stories until it has fulfilled its dying wish to tell a certain story to its captured king.
  • King Edgar is the victorious king in the battle which left King Penda wounded and captured. He refuses at first to give the head what it wants and sends it away.
  • Osyth is the daughter of Thane Redwald who stays melancholy until the head comes and tells her a story. She takes the head back to court.

Synopsis:

Brother Dominic and his fellow monks are scouring the battlefield looking for survivors to tend to when he comes across a head, detached from its body but still talking. It is the head of Egil Grimmsen, story teller to the vanquished King Penda. Grimmsen refused the king one last story on the night before the battle and now must stay alive until the story is told.

The victorious King Edgar is suspicious and sends the head away, where it travels to Brother Dominic's monastery and then to the house of Thane Redwald and finally back to court with Redwald's daughter Osyth. Each time, the head tells a story, funny or heroic or pointed according to the audience.

Notes:

Putting aside the fantasy of the talking head, the book is a framework for a few folk stories, all of which are worth reading in their different ways, although none is sparkling. The language used is occasionally quite earthy and vulgar.

The attitude of the monks to the head — to treat it more or less as a holy relic — is probably meant to be a bit of a fun-poke at the credulity of such people, but not too much is made of it and I would hesitate to make an issue out of an absurdity.

We learn that the reason the head wants to pay its due to King Penda is because of that King's patience and perseverance in hearing Egil tell of the tragedy in his life (his brother married his fiancee) night after night without tiring or sending him away. For this “heartsease” he owes the king the story he denied him on the night before battle.

“Would you have had the fortitude of King Penda, Christian man? Could you have sat through all those long evenings, and spoken not one impatient word, not made one excuse? Could you have endured? Wouldn't it have been easier to have taken gold from your fingers and sent me away?

That is why I am King Penda's man. That is why I must keep my promise to him. Take me to him, I beg of you. Keep your promise

Saturday 26th July 2003