Book Review Kings and Warriors

Full Title: Kings and Warriors in Early North-West Europe

Editors: Jan Erik Rekdal and Charles Doherty

Publisher: Four Courts Press

Published: 2016

ISBN: 978-1-84682-501-9

Pages: 480 including bibliography and index, the bibliography starts on page 433


This book explores the representation of the warrior in relation to the king in early north-west Europe. These essays, by scholars from the areas of Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon studies, examine how medieval writers highlighted the role of the warrior in relation to kings, or to authority, and to society as a whole. The warrior who fought for his people was also a danger to them. How was such a destructive force to be controlled? The Christian church sought to challenge the ethos of the pagan tribal warrior and to reduce the barbarism of warfare (at least its worst excesses). We can follow this struggle in the medieval literature produced in the areas under study.


This book contains the results of the research project for the academic year of 2012/13 by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. There were three groups of people invited to participate in the project. The project theme was “The representation of the warrior in relation to the king in the European Middle Ages (600 – 1200)”. The project leader was Professor Jan Erik Rekdal, from the University of Olso. 

The project concentrated on three areas: the Celtic world of Ireland and Wales, the Norse world and Anglo-Saxon England. The reason these areas were chosen was because of the similarities they had between them. They were in contact with each other, they all experienced the impact of Christianity, they each had a pre-Christian past that lived on in varying degrees in the literature produced after the adoption of Christianity, and the literature of each of these areas is rich and distinctive. They also have differences, which tells us what was important to each society.

Each chapter in the book approaches the theme of the project in its own way based on the individual responses of the researchers/authors of this project. There is a common concern among the researchers and that is the nature of primitive government embodied by the King, and the move from archaic to a medieval polity. 

The King’s duty included protecting his people, extending his rule and represent his people in times of war and peace. The King’s power derived not just from being a warrior but also from his relationship to the Otherworld. The King however, couldn’t be a king without his warriors but if he ever faced any opposition it was usually from them. They were rewarded for their loyalty but they were punished for opposition too. 

The book has 8 research papers a bibliography and an Index. 

  • Living with war: poets and the Welsh experience c. 600 – 1300 by Marged Haycock. 85% of Welsh poetry is concerned with warfare, the skills of the King and some nobles and warbands. The main concern of the author was how warfare is communicated and mediated in poetry. In her quest she tells us how the treatment of warfare varies depending on genre, praise poetry versus chronicles and so on. She also tells us how to read the different discussions applied within these genres. It was really interesting to see how Welsh poetry looked at the warrior king as opposed to talking about the virtues of the king. 
  • Warrior and king in early Ireland by Charles Doherty. This paper is inspired by George Dumézil’s work. The author looks at coinage, the religion of the Celts especially the gods and goddesses of war to look at the symbolisms of king and warrior. He looks at the book of Kells for the same kind of symbolisms. The author suggests that the warband evolved in relation to kingship and indicates how kingship and the church came to an uneasy accommodation leading eventually to the Europeanization of kingship in the 12th century.  
  • The medieval king: Christian king and fearless warrior by Jan Erik Rekdal Rekdal discusses the two opposite deaths in medieval Irish literature: death on a pillow and death on the battlefield. 
  • Monsters of the tribe: berserk fury, shapeshifting and social dysfunction in Táin Bó Cúailnge, Egils Saga, and Hrólfs saga kraka by Ralph O’Connor. This author also uses Dumézil as a jump off point for his paper. He looks at the phenomenon of the frenzied warrior in 1 Irish tale and 2 Norse ones. 
  • Warrior Time by Morgan Thomas Davies. The essay discusses Warrior Time by looking at two Sagas, The Táin and Beowulf. According to the author the two tales have a lot of similarities when it comes to motifs but differ in the way they treat time.
  • The low men on the totem pole: warriors and rulers in Old Norse texts from c. 1200 by Ian Beuermann. In this essay the author looks at the relationship between rulers and warriors in tales that are concerned with the periphery of the Norse World. 
  • Óláfr Haraldsson, king, warrior and saint: presentations of King Óláfr Haraldsson the Saint in medieval poetry and prose by Jon Gunnar Jorgensen. Basically, this is an essay that looks at how Óláfr Haraldsson is represented in poetry.
  • The role and identity of the warrior: self-reflection and awareness in Old Norse literary and social spaces by Stefka G. Eriksen Here the author looks at how the warriors look at themselves and their attitudes towards warrior-ship and wars, and the tension between their identity as a warrior and their other social identities.

I really enjoyed this book as a whole but of course I really loved the essays that compared Irish literature to that of the Norse the most as it gave me a great look at the differences and similarities between the cultures and how their viewed their kings and warriors. I think if you were to ask me for my favorite essay it would be “Warrior and King in Early Ireland” and my second favorite one is “Monsters of the tribe”. I highly recommend this book!