The Isles: A History

Norman Davies, Author Oxford University Press, USA $45 (1296p) ISBN 978-0-19-513442-1
Following his acclaimed Europe: A History, British historian Davies has written a wondrous, landmark chronicle of the British Isles--already a bestseller in the U.K.--that challenges conventional Anglocentric assumptions throughout. Davies situates prehistoric Britain as part of a Celtic world stretching from Iberia to Poland to Asia Minor. Unlike most historians, who stress Britain's Anglo-Saxon heritage, Davies shows that the isles' fourfold division into England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales arose from a complex mixing of peoples in a constantly fluctuating patchwork of ethnic communities, statelets and kingdoms. Bursting with fresh insights on nearly every page, this magisterial narrative, scholarly yet down-to-earth and engrossing, reveals Davies at his iconoclastic best. He declares that the Viking legacy is much greater than traditional historians admit, and that the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was not a famous showdown between the English and French, but an intricate scramble for the final Viking spoils in England (valiant English King Harold II was leader of the Anglo-Danish party). The dense narrative really hits its stride with serial wife-slayer Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and Davies gives full play to the distinctive yet intertwined cultural, economic and political affairs of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Plumbing the roots of English (and British) prejudice, parochialism, xenophobia and imperialism, Davies includes vastly illuminating mini-essays on such sundry topics as class divisions, the loss of empire, race relations, the rise of organized sports, and the steady advance of a standardized English language. He closes with a provocative forecast: ""The breakup of the United Kingdom may be imminent,"" a prediction he bases on the resurgence of nationalist consciousness and the fact that what he sees as the U.K.'s raison d'etre--the perpetuation of empire--has vanished. An advocate of Britain's full integration into the European Union, he chastises the U.K. for clinging to America's apron strings, yet he adds that a fuller embrace of the Continent might only hasten the U.K.'s breakup. No one who cares about Britain's past or future should miss this superb book. Color and b&w photos, maps. 50,000 first printing; author tour. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 02/28/2000
Release date: 03/01/2000
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