Cover of The Shaping of England
Book 96 History 1969
Photosynthesis Twentieth Century Discovery
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Asimov fan
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Target reader

Reviewers of the versatile Isaac Asimov’s books of history for young readers have been consistent in several aspects of their praise. The books may have two stars (THE GREEKS and THE ROMAN REPUBLIC) or one star (THE EGYPTIANS) or simply say “with enough vivacity and humor to make crowded history interesting and a joy to read” (THE ROMAN EMPIRE). But there is hardly a review that fails to comment on the lucidity of the author’s presentation, the clarity of his organization. And the infectious enthusiasm of his approach.

Now this eminent guide takes on a tour of English history (up to the time of the signing of the Magna Carta). The story itself is familiar and important to young Americans. For here we see tribal England, Roman England, and the Norman invaders. We see William the Conquerer and Henry the II [sic]; we see church versus state and France versus England. We see Richard the Lionhearted exposed as the man he probably was. And we see it all, told with humor and affection, in the historical focus that made the “shape” of England the “shape” of American in turn.

After The Dark Ages, Asimov crosses the Channel and does for England what he did for France and the other Germanic kingdoms in the earlier book. Here he is restricted entirely by geography to the British Isles and, even more specifically, to Great Britain itself. He starts with the dawn of British history, moves through the Roman occupation and its collapse, the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons, their kingdoms, and the first 150 years after the Normal Conquest. (As a result, the break-off point here is about 200 years after the break-off point for The Dark Ages, which actually ends well before the Norman Conquest of England.) The actual ending point is the reign of King John—a man for whom I feel a certain strange sympathy—and the signing of the Magna Charta.

As with The Dark Ages, this book focuses a lot on the names and people involved, and it can become very confusing as we deal with the Heptarchy (the brief period of time when England was divided into seven Germanic kingdoms) and the period surrounding it, with all those funny-sounding names which aren’t terribly familiar to moderns. Asimov does well at making this period clear, and I for one am grateful to him.

The problem is that most of the books I’ve read about European history during this period, between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the modern European nations, tend to gloss over the Dark Ages as quickly as possible. “They weren’t as ’dark’ as is usually claimed,” say our authors, “but nothing particularly interesting happened anyway.” The broad scope of events is covered (“Europe was divided into a number of quarreling kingdoms and further splintered as feudalism came into its own”), but the nitty-gritty is not covered, at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

Thus, for example, Alfred the Great and the Danish king Canute are known to me from my general education, but mostly because of Alfred and the burnt cakes and Canute trying to command the tide, and not how they fit into the broad scope of English history. Mercia is mentioned in a throwaway line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I would know nothing more about it had I not read this book.

So, as with The Dark Ages, I would heartily recommend this book to anybody who wants to know the narrative history of an interesting period of time which is complicated, confusing, yet important to the modern world and well-explained by someone who is an expert at spinning out a narrative.

I do, however, have one gripe. (Well, two. The book needs more maps.) There’s no sequel! To be sure, a lot of later English history gets covered in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, volume two, and Asimov’s Chronology of the World covers the whole kit-and-caboodle, but there’s no specific follow-up to this volume. I would dearly love to have an Asmiovian narrative history of England after King John. It’s a pity that his histories always did marginally enough that the series died before he wrote one.

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