‘Behind the Text 37. ‘The Wanderer’ 7 : ‘The Wastes of Gadarike’
This book is the seventh in ‘The Wanderer’ saga and is set in Russia (988-90) – then known as Gadarike (‘the land of fortresses’).Chapter 1 was started in September 1998 but the rest had to wait another 5 years before they written. Why? I wasn’t sure how to continue the tale apart from a broad outline. Religious squabbles play a big role, and the Pechenegs a lesser one than originally intended. This shift in balance was undoubtedly affected by the much earlier completion of the Byzantine and MOST of the Palestine books. If the reader does read Books 8 & 9 in ‘The Wanderer’ they may understand my reasons.
This book starts with Ethelwulf and his followers being on the run and it ends that way too; the bit in-between doesn’t prove much better for our hero. For over a century Vikings (known here as Varangians) mainly from Sweden had used the river system to spread a rather patchy control based on Kiev (aka Holmgard). They became surrounded by a collection of Slavic peoples, often hostile, with their own cultures, religious practices and ambitions..
Into this morass Ethelwulf (sometimes derisively called ‘the Westerner’)steps to find his Christian faith rejected by Orthodox Christians – as well as by Moslems, Jews and pagans. From the start he’s deceived and even recovering ‘stolen property’ adds to his store of enemies. His judgement is questioned regarding an instance of religious strife, his loyalty doubted when challenged by the vicious governor of Sarkel, Menash Bulan, and his agent, Toghrul Beg; and he’s stalked by the awesome Pechenegs as he and his followers make their escape towards the Crimean area and the Black Sea.
One aspect which dominates the whole book is the sheer size of Gadarike. This is true whether the Wanderer and his men are hunting down Oleg Askoldsson & the runaway Princess, or simply enduring the journey to Khazaria, or attempting the impossible task of limiting Pecheneg raids. The final challenge proves to be the nightmare escape down the Kuban to its marshy delta and personal tragedy.
Not that this book is filled with evil, cruelty and bloodshed but that side of life sometimes threatens to swamp the good – such as the priests, Cyril and Makarios, the former seeking martyrdom and the latter helped by the gentle Elizabeth. Then there are the hopelessly optimistic Ali ibn-Yussuf, the loyal translator, Chorpan, and the doomed youth, Aaron. The key figure, if somewhat distant, remains the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir I who never trusts Ethelwulf, being open to influence from his wife, Anna.
On the Sea of Azov Ethelwulf may well acquire a ship at Tmutorokan but, in Thorgeis Green-Eye he is joined with a fighter who shares too many characteristics with that unremitting enemy, Thorgrim the Short.