This is no ordinary history of the Dark Ages but rather a confounding, engrossing amalgamation of information and beauty.
This is exactly the sort of book to expect from a man who is equal parts archaeologist, Early Medieval expert, outdoorsman, and wordsmith. Slipping into the skin of a wandering nomad, Adams (The Wisdom of Trees, 2015, etc.) strikes out around the country, solo or sometimes in the company of friends, for days on end with little more than a tent, pack, map, and his acute understanding of how landscape influenced cultural and political histories. When it comes to the Dark Ages, we could fill volumes with what we don’t know, but the Celtic world in Britain and beyond did not utterly disappear when the Roman Empire pulled out their last remaining garrison. Rather, as the author notes, “society survived and evolved; kings ruled, warriors fought, monks prayed and peasants farmed.” The oft-painted portrait of doom and neglect has come into question recently, and scholars have even rebranded the time period more respectfully as “Early Medieval.” However, there are still far too few authors covering this time period, which makes Adams’ book all the more valuable to readers. Through visits to ruined Roman outposts, ancient fortresses, historic churches, and other locales, the author seeks to flesh out the bones of an era that has flummoxed historians and archaeologists alike for centuries. His series of long walks and in some cases nautical ventures took him from Hadrian’s Wall to Ireland, Somerset, Northumberland, Cornwall, and throughout Scotland, and the journey is a pleasure for the medievally minded. While some things are freshly illuminated, Adams’ subject is elusive, and ultimately, this isn’t a book of new discovery. But the author’s act of retracing these paths breathes life back into the sites and people from hundreds of years ago, and for that experience alone, it is a worthy book.
Myth and ancient magic meet with solid historical ground in Adams’ voyage through a largely forgotten age.