It was back in 1995 that Octavia Randolph published The Circle of Ceridwen, the first in what was planned to be The Circle Trilogy. A lot has happened since. 

The trilogy is now a series of 11 books, including a prequel to this gripping adventure. As the series progressed, the location shifted from ninth-century England to Gotland, the runestone-bejeweled island the author now calls home. 

Moreover, as revealed in her interview with The Viking Herald, Octavia has initiated her own tours of this Viking outpost in the South of Sweden; the visitors are drawn to this unique medieval trading post by the stories and characters so colorfully depicted in the Ceridwen series. 

From the Dee to the sea 

As a researcher, Octavia is precisely where she wants to be, buried in books related to Anglo-Saxon and Norse history, surrounded by the legendary carved Viking mementos of Gotland. As a writer, she not only has a readership but also the most sought-after of treasures: a cult following. 

And it all started here, with an orphan girl "on the wild Welsh border beyond our river Dee." 

As Octavia outlined in her interview, "I wanted to tell the story from a female point of view. In order to do that, I wanted to use actual historical personages but build my fictional characters around them." 

"I wanted a more nuanced view between the religions and a more balanced view in the greatest conflict, which was Dane versus Saxon." 

"That was something I could best achieve through fiction. I was naturally led to create stories from that really beautiful armature, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the sagas give us." 

"It's quite an armature that the novelist has to work with, where there's plenty of room for invention." 

And invention is Octavia's strong suit, for in The Circle of Ceridwen she finds such exquisite beauty in clothing and kitchenware, weaponry and jewelry. 

"Those cultures left nothing undecorated," she explains. "Wooden spoons were decorated. Even the humblest things that we find often have some kind of embellishment on them." 

"There was just a natural sense of grace and beauty in the way that they used objects." 

Set against the backdrop of Viking invasion and Saxon resistance, Octavia Randolph's first book in The Circle of Ceridwen Saga transports readers to a world of courage, passion, and survival. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The making of England 

The social interaction and dynamic of the characters using these combs, spoons, and swords are played against a factual historical backdrop. 

A map is provided to distinguish Lindisse from Mercia and Wessex, the cross-country journey traversed by Ceridwen and her new-found companion, Alfred's right-hand man Gyric, that makes up much of the book. 

A date set, 871, is the year that Alfred the Great came to the throne, another specific that the writer nails down to provide her story with historical context: 

"The books really come out of a girlhood fascination with the making of England." 

"I was genuinely interested in what created the notion of England, particularly the story of Alfred: such an exceptional young man who emerged during a time of real crisis, becoming the tactician and diplomat he was." 

"Just as the heptarchy was collapsing, he faced the onslaught of these truly superior warriors. It took so much to outspend and outfox them." 

While this first volume ends with Alfred, a man of ill health initially in charge of a faltering Wessex, it sets the geopolitical scene as experienced by a girl raised by pagans, schooled by monks, and nurtured by Saxons bound for Danish servitude. 

By wagon and on horseback, scampering through virgin forests and fording great rivers, Ceridwen and Gyric encounter outlaws and burned-out villages, kindness and starvation, comfort and danger. 

The brows they devour, the mead they gulp, and the ties that bind them tell the reader as much about Anglo-Saxon England as any simple history. 

Underpinning the saga is the dovetailing of pagan worship and Christianity and the recurring conflict that all but ripped this divided land apart. 

In the midst of the turmoil of 871 England, Ceridwen's journey unfolds as she navigates the complexities of loyalty and warfare, forging alliances and confronting challenges that test her courage and resilience. Illustration: The Viking Herald

A fight for love and glory 

All this unfolds over the course of 560 pages and 74 chapters, which fly by despite the references to thegns and cottars, trevs, and ceorls. 

Part travelogue and part love story, The Circle of Ceridwen is rich in medieval detail yet universal in its humanity. Love, betrayal, fear, lust, jealousy, piety, evil, friendship, and age-old emotions are played out as Norsemen – "Danes" – ravage Anglo-Saxon England. 

"I try to keep a very balanced nuance on the followers of the old religion as well as the very devout Christians. Obviously, Alfred was one himself." 

"The conflicts were enormous, and it's just such an amazing time of history." 

"Like many people, I was always entranced with the contents of Rooms 39-41 of the British Museum, the Sutton Hoo treasure, all those amazing artifacts, the buckles, the carnelians, the amazing gold and silverwork, and of course, and the corresponding items from the Viking era." 

"They're thrilling, they're beautiful, and you look at the imagination from which these physical objects came to us, and you've got to be interested in the people behind them because they're so exquisite." 

From the Norse point of view, as loathed by locals as the Romans would have been, the Danes are not just one-dimensional bad guys in this story. 

The lead characters, Yrling and his nephew, the amorous, scar-faced Sidroc, are portrayed with a human side. Both are battle-hardened and far from their homeland. 

Yes, they murder and plunder and make strange offerings to their gods, but they can also show compassion and tenderness, which twists the whole story and leaves Ceridwen doubting her character and motives. 

Breadcrumbs of the potential plot are scattered along the trail for the author to follow later. 

We know as much about Ceridwen's mother as she does, and it would be interesting to know how many readers of The Circle of Ceridwen then bought the subsequent Ceridwen of Kilton.

You probably don't need Wilfrida, the herbal healer, to arrange her dried ferny leaves to suggest the answer. 

The Circle of Ceridwen by Octavia Randolph is available for purchase on Amazon here

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