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Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Research - an Editorial Review of "Hengist"

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Book Blurb:

A jealous brother drove a boy from his home, expecting him to die on the hostile sea. Instead, the boy fought to manhood, became a famed warlord, and the first Anglo-Saxon king in Britain.


Hengist claimed he came to Britannia a willing exile. But the truth is . . . more complicated. His path was not straight. His hands, not clean. The truth sets the stage for the bitter conflict between the Anglo-Saxons and the Britons. Sail with Hengist and his warband and witness the opening moves in the long struggle for Britain. * This novel is based on the research of J.R.R. Tolkien, arguing that the Hengist recorded in Beowulf, the History of the Britons, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other sources refer to the same man, and were based on historical people and events.

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Author Bio:

Sean Poage has had an exciting and varied life as a laborer, salesman, soldier, police officer, investigator, instructor, computer geek and author. He’s lived all over the US and a few places overseas. Travelling the world to see history up close is his passion. A history buff his entire life, he is most drawn to the eras of the ancient Greeks and Dark Ages Britain. His books, so far, have been historical fiction novels, but he has plans to branch out in the future. These days he works in the tech world, writes when he can, and spends the rest of the time with his family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects. When he can find the time, he enjoys travel, scuba diving, and hiking in the beautiful Maine outdoors. He blogs about the historical subjects behind his writing at his website,

Editorial Review:

''Then many a gold-drenched Thegn rose up,

Strapped with swords,

When the stolid soldiers ran to the door,

Sigeforth and Eaha both, tugging out the trenchant,

and at the opposite door, Ordlaf and Guthlaf

and even Hengest, turned themselves in their tracks.''

[extract from ''The Finnsburh Fragment'']

Not by any stretch of the imagination could the life and career of Sean Poage be described as dull or humdrum! In his very active life to date he has been many things. He has served in the Military Police and the police force. Involved in 'Desert Storm', he has also been an undercover drugs investigator and a SWAT Officer; these are but some of the accomplished achievements of this much travelled man! He has also, in the course of his career, written books, ''the stories I have been waiting for someone to tell.'' From this has come the creation of three books of the 'Dark Ages'' - his Arthurian cycle of ''The Retreat to Avalon'', '''The Strife of Camlann' and ''Three Wicked Revelations''. Poage's latest venture into print is ''Hengist'', described as a 'prequel' to his Arthurian cycle. Poage's fascination with the European 'Dark Ages' finds an excellent vehicle in this short and rumbustious tale of the man Hengist prior to his arrival in the island of Britannia in the first half of the fifth century A.D.

People of a certain age may remember the semi-legendary figure of Hengist [or Hengest] and his younger brother Horsa from references made in history lessons and where they were portrayed as the ancestral creators of the Germanic invasions of the island of Britannia now evacuated by the Romans in the early fifth century AD following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. From them, the first 'colonists', we are told, there ultimately emerged the 'Anglo Saxon' State from the early days of Germanic colonisation of England and the creation of the Kingdom of Kent in the south east of the island. A great deal of ink has been spilt on the actual veracity and existence of the figure of Hengist and academics have hurled themselves with enthusiasm into this particular scholastic fray for many years. The name of Hengist actually occurs in the old Epic English poem of Beowulf, tentatively dated in its written form to the period 975 to 1025 and written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, but clearly based on a wide number of older non- Christian tales in the oral tradition, and a fragment entitled ''The Finnsburg Fragment'. All other written descriptions [many of them extensive] such as Bede's ''Ecclesiastical History of the English People' or Chronicle C of ''The Anglo Saxon Chronicle' are separated from the man and the events he was allegedly involved in by four centuries. Whatever the scale, length and details of the disputations of academics and scholars, Sean Poage has elected to follow the line of J.R.R. Tolkein in his work ''Legendarium'' and for the purposes of his story is more than happy to accept Hengist as an extraordinary human being and a man of flesh and blood possessed of exceptional cunning, resolve and bravery - and very much a man of his times!

This short book is written in the first person in three very long and slightly cumbersome chapters and in the words of the man Hengist himself. As stated, it is a prequel of Poage's other books and relates the chaotic events that lead to Hengist's arrival and establishment in the weak and enfeebled former Roman province of Brittania. The various Anglo Saxon scholars and scribes in subsequent accounts put this at 449 AD. Justifiably proud of the fact, Hengist immediately, and proudly, states his bloodline: ''My name is Hengist, son of Wihtgils, son of Witta, in direct descent from Woden All-Father.'' In other words, the man is a direct descendent of Woden, the principal Deity in the Pantheon of all the Gods! The man naturally takes pride in his descent and his divine origins. By our twenty first century standards, he displays outrageous and ultra arrogant behaviour that runs throughout the book. The reader is told of his current situation. Since the death of his father in battle, young Hengist, at the age of fifteen, has been banished for the danger he represents by his older brother. Since then he has scraped a living through trading, fishing and occasional piracy and has now amassed a warband numbering twenty seven men drawn from the lands of the Jutes, his own native Anglii and a few Saxons, doubtless as desperate and as dangerously inclined as himself. Thoughtfully, Poage has provided a map of the lands of the tribal regions of the early fifth century. Four years previously he had pledged himself and his men to the service of Hoc, a Danish King in Jutland. Hoc having recently died, Hengist switches his allegiance to his son Hnaef who has commissioned Hengist, his ship and his men to convey him to visit his sister Hildeburgh, wife of the Frisian King, Finn Folcwalding. Hoc had assumed the fostering of their son Frithuwulf according to custom and now Hnaef is his mentor. It is time for the youth to return to his own lands, his parents and his inheritance.

Much of the following events appear to draw much from the enigmatic scrap of a poem called 'the Finnsburgh Fragment' [quoted above] and a certain section of the epic poem 'Beowulf'. In both, the name of 'Hengist' or 'Hengest' is referred to directly. It should always be borne in mind that whether Hengist is a collective folk myth originating from an oral tradition and passing into recorded literature and history or not, the fact remains that there plenty of figures of his like in the fourth century A.D. and onwards; there were plenty enough of the equivalent of 'a gun for hire' in those unsettled and deeply troubled times, and a veritable host of desperate and unscrupulous men bound by tribal links and a deep sense of inculcated honour inured since childhood to a life of unremitting violence. It is late in the sailing season and soon the shipping lanes will be closed by the winter until the Spring season. Their immediate task completed, that of returning young Frithuwulf to his parents, Hengist and his command are not averse, therefore, to a period of rest and feasting and general merrymaking at the expense of the abundantly affluent King Finn Folcwalding and prepared to overlook the sparse and forbidding aspect of the landscape of his lands and territory! They settle in for the duration of bad winter weather. The homecoming and welcome feast begins, hopefully, the first of many. Poage provides a vivid description of the sheer pagan opulence of the host's Hall as a feast is prepared:

''A fire crackled in the central hearth, and dozens of oil lamps lit the room. It took a long drink from my cup before my eyes adjusted to the dimness. If the outside [of the Hall] was impressive, the interior was exquisite. Every beam and post carved to depict beasts, flowers, trees or waves in angular, geometric designs. Thick tapestries covered every wall, embroidered to portray stories of Finn's ancestors. Age-smoothed oaken tables with fur-covered benches stretched the length of the Hall to either side of the hearth......''

Food and drink is served in great measure, as is the custom of such events. Finn, his men and his guests, are soon fully in the swing of things and enjoying themselves. The atmosphere, predictably, turns rowdy:

''The mead-jug went round and round as the scop [poet, historian and musician] entertained us with bawdy poems, and we joined in raucous songs. Drink and laughter encouraged ever more lewd jests and implausible boasts, inevitably turning to the ancient art of insult. Every man, be he ceorl, captain or king, is fair sport. It is the measure of the man to not only laugh along at his own expense but to serve back better than he received. Finn was a master of the art, laughing at a poem about his age and offering a hilarious rebuttal regarding his warrior's noxious flatulence.....''

Everything is as it ought and things are going swimmingly until Hengist's own name arises in the ritual insult offering. At the mention of Hengist's name a member of Finn's very mixed household, a Jute [one of the many separate tribes of the Germanic people] by his accent, rises in anger and challenges him. The man, Garulf by name, holds an ancestral grudge, of a great harm done to his family by the family of Hengist, a tale of murder, theft and exile! The effect of this outburst upon those gathered in the Hall is palpable and ''tension was thicker than the smoke in the rafters.'' Hengist is placed in a quandary. He has been manouevered into an impossible situation. Here, before royal witnesses, he cannot promise to right the wrongs done to Garulf's family. He has been insulted, but at the same time he cannot admit, to his being banished, admit to having no standing within his own family! The situation deteriorates rapidly. Hengist's attempt to defuse the situation results in Garulf hurling a mug at him and a general brawl ensues. Finn and Hnaef shout for silence and Finn, outraged at this flagrant breach of the strict rules of hospitality sends Garulf and his supporters to the fish house to cool their heels and turns his own Hall over to Hnaef and his Danes and Hengist and his motley crew for the night. Frithuwulf, not especially enamoured with his inheritance, also requests to stay. As they all prepare for the night, they are disturbed by burning torches and the sound of a mob gathering outside. It is Garulf and his men, joined by an unknown number of Frisians, looking for vengeance. Inside the Hall, they barricade themselves in and prepare to fight. This five day siege and defence of the royal Hall forms the basis of the mysterious 'Finnsburh Fragment'. Both the attack and the defence is spirited! Garulf is killed early in the fight, ''drumming, drumming on floor-boards - until Garwulf cringed in death, at the hand of war'' - according to the 'Finnburh Fragment' - but his incensed followers fight all the harder. Many of the men of Hnaef and Hengist are badly wounded, but none are killed. In these extreme circumstances the solemn oath that Finn has made to his own warriors will oblige him to take the part of Garulf and, by the same token, Garulf's men are obliged by their oath to avenge their Lord's death. Finn is unlikely to fire his own Hall to drive Hnaef and Hengist out into the open and his own son, of course, is inside. Starving them out is the only option. By the fifth day of the siege the defenders are exhausted. In the next attack, both Hnaef and Frithuwulf, the brother in law and the son of King Finn are killed. In his grief and shame, Finn seeks to parley. A man named Ordlaf, the dead Hnaef's successor, states his terms. Finn goes one better. Until the Spring sailing, he tells them, his voice raised so that all can hear:

''I will do this and more. I will honour you as my own Thegns, [noblemen] with gifts of silver, gold and jewelled treasures. And this, my councillors proposed: that by my oath, any who bring violence against you also bring it upon me. I decree that no man shall by word and deed, impugn you for following the slayer of your patron, as necessity, not disloyalty has laid this fate upon you. If any of my people violate my decree, the edge of the sword will make good the pact.''

This is a solemn and binding oath. Oaths, like the acceptance of all-ruling and inevitable fate, are very much an underpinning force to the society of the time. It will be observed and honoured. The oath will not prevent Finn from seeking to replenish his fighting strength. Their spirited defence of the Hall has created havoc within the ranks of Finn's warriors, leaving only old men and boys. With his seasoned and calculating eye, Hengist notes all of this. The funerals of Hnaef and Frithuwulf are arranged on the beach and Poage invests the scene in all its pagan majesty. Both Finn and his grieving wife Hildeburh and a contingent of their followers attend to do honour to the fallen. They have brought costly and elaborate funeral gifts: ''The slaves laid down piles of rent and bloodied mail, riven shields, cloven helms and bowls of gold and platters of silver.'' Ordlaf is the first to place his lit torch into the funeral pyre. ''The rest of us did likewise, then stepped back. The flames raced through the fuel and engulfed the pyre, the smoke heavy with the sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh.....the men stared, silent, to contemplate our own inevitable climb up upon the smoke. Such is the custom of all who speak our tongue, whether Frisian, Geat, Angle or Jute....... We watched beyond sunset, until the flames consumed the bodies and the pyre collapsed in on itself, signalling the departure of our Lord's and Frithuwulf's souls....'' Poage leaves us with a powerful and evocative scene.

The weeks of winter are long, though Hengist and Ordlaf keep their men busy and Finn is very obliging in his supply of materials for the overhauling of Hengist's boat. The men grow restless. Finn's munificence of gifts does not cease; Hengist, for example receives a fine woollen cloak of pure white with decorations of gold and garnets. Ordlaf presents Hengist with Hnaef's sword; the finest he has ever seen. He is mindful of the ritualistic significance of this gift. Ordlaf has been slain, and his oath to his dead Lord demands he seek revenge. ''We are oathbound to slay Hnaef's slayer. A Lord is responsible for his men's actions.'' Again, the power of the given oath. Hengist spends many sleepless nights in scheming and planning. Finn, all the time is increasing his own force and power. Spring approaches and, with the better weather, Ordlaf and the Danes express their wish to sail home. Finn supplies him with a ship laden down with plunder and Ordlaf takes with him the ashes of Hnaef and Frithuwulf. Finn has other troubles of his own. He is aware of a mighty horde of men beyond the lands of Scythia, forcing a general move of people westward. The sea is rising and land is at a premium. He is of a mind to resume his raids on the Rome-deserted island of Britannia where the population is both sparse and weak and timid and where rich land lies, ripe for the taking; more food for thought for Hengist! Warming to his theme, Finn then invites Hengist to become a prized member of his own warband where he will be greatly honoured and enriched. Hengist says he will give him his answer at yet another feast the following evening. The story is told in the epic poem 'Beowulf''. At the consequent feast Hengist pledges his loyalty and Finn prepares to present him with a sword. In response, Hengist draws the sword of Hnaef and holds the King in an iron grip whilst his followers produce hidden knives and murder Finn's Frisian followers. Support comes with the return and arrival of Ordlaf and his men. Ordlaf himself plunges his sword into Finn, killing his former host. Hengist is cursed for his pains by Hildeburh, now a widow as well as a mourning mother. ''Any home you claim will be soaked in treachery and blood.'' Notwithstanding the curse, Hengist oversees the complete destruction and pillage of the settlement of Finnburh and the massacre of all the hostages they have taken.

At the very first opportunity, Hengist heads for the open sea with a ship brimming over with plunder. It feels good to be back in his element! ''With the wind in my face and the rising sun at my back, I lost myself in wonder at barrels filled with gold and silver cups, platters and bowls. Stacks of furs, woven rugs, bronze vessels, iron bars, swords, helms, mail, shields. I ran my fingers through a chest of amber, glass beads and varied gems; another of gold rings, brooches and delicate chains.'' He can raise his own army with so much wealth. If he fears a curse brought down upon him by the murder of his host, he has at the same time fulfilled his own oath to his Lord, Hnaef! Poage has brought into focus once again one of the key stimuli of the age; the overwhelming and superceding importance of the personal oath! In stressing this point, Poage has presented the reader with a fine and swashbuckling tale of adventure and 'derring do' with no further defence of Hengist really offered. He is what he is and there are few other aspects of his personality to explore. Fictitious or not, Hengist is very much a man of his dangerous times; brutal, violent and treacherous, but a man who abides by the terms and conditions of his oath! It is a paean of praise to the seafaring warrior and pirate.

The following weeks see him as a guest in the lands of his former Lord and then a troubled return to his homeland, where his older brother still lives and makes him less than welcome! He had hoped to acquire two more ships and men to crew them. In the event, he leaves with just one and a scant crew. His faithful lieutenants manage to acquire a further ship and Hengist is reunited with his young brother, Horsa, whom he had last seen when the boy was five years old. Horsa has been looking for him and becomes a member of his warband with eagerness. It is a return to the old life. Hengist's three ships indulge in a little trading and ocean going piracy, failing to make any real progress against the still fortified Roman forts along the coast of France. A chance encounter with a British oyster trader named Ceretic in the coastal town of Bononia [Boulogne Sur Mer] and from where the coast of Britannia is clearly visible revives his desire to settle down and become a powerful man and leader in his own right. Ceretic agrees to be his guide and leads the ships to the island of Thanet off the Kent coast. Fate has led him there, and to a momentous meeting with Vortigern, the 'Over King' of Britannia; a man desperate and anxious to recruit warriors for his relentless fight against the Picts of the north. But, as his own brother had accused him recently, can Hengist be trusted? ''When you sleep, do you not hear the cries of the people of Finnsburh? Those who sheltered you through the frozen months just to be slaughtered when the Spring came.''

Sean Poage ends his narrative, his tale of an unscrupulous and dangerous man who uses oaths as a motive and excuse for his violent actions, at this point. It is by no means the end of this man's career; more of a beginning. Poage tells a thrilling tale with both verve and enthusiasm.


“Hengist” by Sean Poage receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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