The Short Knife

Authored by Elen Caldecott
Published by Andersen Press

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This novel is going to become a classic of children’s historical fiction. The Short Knife by Elen Caldecott is set in Britain in the Early Middle Ages. The departure of the Romans in 410 left the country in a state of political and economic collapse. This story is set in 454, and competing groups of Britons and Saxon settlers are fighting over territory. Most people are simply trying to survive: ‘The few people we passed looked weary. One woman, huddled on her own threshold, was so thin she was no more than eyes and clogs.’

Unlike most historical fiction for children or young adults, we see the events of The Short Knife through the eyes of a young girl. The dangers Mai faces are great, and her voice is not listened to. Women are ‘as drudges or dolls to be played with’.  She dreams of revenge for the Saxon attacks on her homeland: ‘I wished I could be the warrior I’d wanted to be, Buddug in her chariot.’ Over time Mai learns to survive and to control her anger until she can mete her revenge and find her own way.

Historically the Early Middle Ages was when Welsh national identity began to emerge. The Welsh language evolved from British, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons. Throughout The Short Knife, we witness the struggle between the languages and identities of the inhabitants of early medieval Britain (England and Wales). As we follow Mai’s journey as an ancient Briton, we appreciate her love of her language, her Christian beliefs and her family’s bond to the landscape. ‘This land had belonged to his father, and his before that. He knew the soil, ploughed with his own arm and shoulder. He knew the hedges, the earthworms and beetles, the blackbirds and bluebirds on the walls. The earth had got so deep into the folds and creases of his hands that no amount of fat and lavender could lift it.’ The rootedness of the indigenous Britons is evoked with such detailed descriptions. 

Mai’s mother tongue, British, is revered. It ‘was of this land. Its sounds were the rising and falling of the hills, the melody and rhythm of running streams. It flowed as morning mist flowed into valleys, it was soft with blurred edges.’ Listening to the men talking Saxon, Mai hears its limitations. Occasional British words dropped into a Saxon conversation are ‘like wooden teeth dropped into red gaps in gums.’ Here the author creates another vivid image which conveys the limitations and foreignness of Saxon while reminding us of the lack of dental hygiene at the time.

Throughout the narrative, the reader witnesses Mai’s fear of the ‘otherness’ of the Saxons with their pagan beliefs, strange clothes and language. On entering the Saxon village, she notices: ‘I saw carvings on lintels and roof beams, strange creatures, serpents and adders with wings, devouring their own tails.’ When forced to adopt their language because speaking her mother tongue was dangerous, she notes: ‘Their words were like water crashing on rocks. They were like the ogres and coblyns of stories who would grind bones to bread. My skin shivered just listening.’ Yet she learns the language because she is quick and needs to survive: ‘I sought the gaps between the words, slight places where I might wriggle my way in’ and it is by being quick and quiet that she gathers information and survives.

Throughout the novel, Caldecott’s descriptions are also full of sensory details immersing us in a forgotten world: ‘The air smelled of roasting meat, banks of hot fires, and fermented apples’. Everything is tangible. The author seems to consciously adopts the use of compound adjectives which are bound to the landscape and concrete objects. Mai describes herself as’ pup-obedient’ at one point and ‘stone-still’. Her thoughts she tries to squish ‘like bedbugs’. The woods were home to ‘scare-bods and mud men’. This descriptive language gives us a sense of that older language. The author, who is Welsh, has also commented on Twitter that she uses many idioms translated from the Welsh to English in The Short Knife. As a result, the story is brimming with imagery and idioms, which made this reader suddenly very interested in both the period and the history of the Welsh language. 

This novel is a substantial read at nearly 400 pages and is classified as YA. There is a constant sense of threat in the story, but otherwise, I would consider it a crossover text between MG and YA. For me, it will become a classic piece of historical fiction for the Early Middle Ages as Henrietta Branford’s Fire, Bed, and Bone is about the Peasants’ Revolt of the fourteenth century. I haven’t even touched on the narration, complex structure and twists in the plot. There is so much to explore. The Short Knife would be a perfect Y7 class novel, providing rich historical knowledge of the period while opening up the potential for fascinating discussions around identity, gender roles and language.