Review: Sorrow Hill – C.R. May

Sorrow Hill CR May5 of 5 stars

Series: Sword of Woden 1

My version: Paperback
Historical Fiction Anglo, Saxons, Beowulf
Self published
Sent by author signed

Geatland in the first decades of the sixth century is an island of peace amid the upheaval which marked the death throws of the Roman Empire in the West. Under the benevolent rule of King Hrethel and his sons, the king’s grandson is carefully groomed by the family in the skills and duties of the warrior elite.

As beowulf reaches adulthood a death suddenly tears the dynasty apart. Sensing weakness, the Geats’ most feared enemy appears on their northern border and Beowulf must fight his first desperate battle to save the kingdom…

Sorrow Hill is the first in a trilogy* of novels which seek to unravel the threads contained within the original poem, by recounting the early life story of Beowulf and his family.

By anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet – The British Library.

Beowulf is the story of a legendary English hero. Except it isn’t. Beowulf is actually a tale about a Geat warrior who lived in Scandinavia, in what is now southern Sweden, in the 6th Century, or perhaps earlier. The story was told in and the earliest example we have (left) is written in, Old English. It comes from the period after the Romans had left Britannia and the Anglo Saxon migrations from northern Germany, southern Scandinavia, had begun. Maybe there was a need for an epic tale to warm the hearths of their new country and remind them of where they had come from.

Beowulf is the story of a legendary warrior who goes to help the beleaguered Danish King Hrothgar, whose hall is being plagued by attacks from the (equally) legendary monster Grendel. Put simply, like the best tales, it is the triumph of good over evil. If that sounds too Christian for you, then I should refer you to the ‘discussion’ there has been as whether Beowulf should be regarded as a “pagan work with “Christian colouring” added by scribes or as a “Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as ‘local colour.'” As Margaret E. Goldsmith says in “The Christian Theme of Beowulf.”

Using that reference to ‘historical novel’ (even if it is a poem), as a link, we finally get to the business at hand…

Now, the 6th Century is, of course, officially, A Very Long Time Ago and while the poem is written in Old English and that is an English that you and I would have trouble recognising as such, spoken or written (and, it’s a poem!), think youth, think! If you are English, or your mother tongue is English – this is your history. This is where you come from.

So the good Mr May has re-imagined Beowulf, or imagined totally Beowulf’s pre-Beowulf period. What was Beowulf’s background? Where, as in the society, did he come from? What made him into the hero Beowulf.

In Sorrow Hill, we go back before the poem and begin in Beowulf’s childhood and his later formative years in Geatland and Denmark. We follow his excursions to other lands as an ambassador of sorts, on behalf of his father, the King, and due to the Scandinavian tradition of fostering sons to other families, Beowulf starts forming the cunning, the strength and the friendships that will (eventually) lead to the events in the poem. In two more books time, according to Mr May.

Speesh Reads Fact Dept. reports: The Beowulf poem gives the earliest known version of the word sveorice, svearike, sverige – Sweden.

I knew the bare bones of the Beowulf legend, thanks to the really rather wonderful Matthew Harffy (all too) short story of last year and thanks to school – rather than the more recent quite dreadful (you know it) film. Saw the trailer. Saw Angelina Jolie. Passed. However…with Sorrow Hill, I was captured, book (!), line and sinker, from the start, from page one. Mr May writes in such a way that it is physically impossible not to be transported back in time on a glorious wave of wonderful imagery and undoubted sympathy for the characters and the period, that simply oozes from every word. It really is quite stunning to realise then, that this was Mr May’s first book! There is absolutely none of the first book syndrome. No short sentences. No style over content. No roadblocks and sudden stops. No unexplained, outside the writer’s mind at the time, changes of direction. Yes, if he wasn’t such and all around Mr Nice Guy, the absurdly talented Mr May could become irritating.

Mr May makes the period his own from the first word. Which should have been “Wait!” Or “What?!” as would have had it. And when you’ve made the period your own, brought it to living, breathing, vibrant life, who is to say it couldn’t have been like this?

If you’ve heard of Beowulf, even if you haven’t, you need to read this book. I need to read the second and third (*and suggesting the mention of ‘trilogy’ on the back blurb there may have been a bit hasty) number four, that’s for Beowulfing sure!

You can buy Sorrow Hill from Amazon, here

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Fire & Steel (large)The Serpent Sword

2 thoughts on “Review: Sorrow Hill – C.R. May

  1. Hey mate,

    I gave up trying to sleep and decided to get up and start working but found a great review instead.

    Thanks, a good start to the week after all!

    I will get Wræcca along to you in the next couple of weeks. 75k in on my new Eirik Bloodaxe trilogy (definitely a trilogy) so I should have finished the first draft in the next two weeks or so. I am aiming for a May Day publication date (because I am into dates and it seems appropriate!)

    Dayraven, book four…ish, is a novella really, a bit stand alone. I call it book four so that people can see where it comes in the timeline but the cover says Hygelac’s Raid. Because of my beginner’s naivety I originally thought that I would be able to tell the whole life story of Beowulf right up to the dragon in three books. I really wanted to work in the story of the raid on Frisia so I did it like that. There was another situation referred to in the poem we call Beowulf which I have set up to follow on from the end of The Scathing, so that will be next when I head back to the 6th Century.

    Thanks again, have a great week,




    1. I just went onto Amazon to get a link for Sorrow Hill and under the ‘other people bought’ but, there were four! I looked at the synopsis for four and it mentioned names from Sorrow, so I figured you’d decided on a quadrilogy or something! Great book though, Sorrow Hill. Got me looking at info about the poem and all. It’s strange that once you come across it in a book like yours’ you then notice it loads of places. Last summer as well, there was a two-man performance for kids on the beach here in Aarhus. THAT was, after I started wondering why they were doing a fifteen hundred year old poem here in Denmark, when I first realised the Danish connections. Fascinating stuff.


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