The King’s Corpse

Written by M.J. Jones
Review by Ray Thompson

Anglo-Saxon England, 979 CE. Tryff, a disreputable (albeit nobly born) Welshman, is ordered by the abbess, to whom he has sworn service, to find the missing body of her cousin, the probably murdered King Edward of England. Thus begins a series of misadventures as Tryff lurches from one challenging situation to the next, involving many surprising encounters, revelations, deceptions, brawls, imprisonments, escapes, even a marooning, to say nothing of drunkenness, storms, and plenty of mud and stink. An explanation for how the king died is offered and the body is eventually recovered, but the witness for the former is as unreliable as the bones and royal signet ring presented by Tryff to authenticate the latter. Especially since he has already established a very lucrative career as a skilled ‘Holy Thief—someone who makes sure saints are in the place they want to be’.

This is ironic fiction, and since Tryff himself narrates the events, they are coloured by his entertainingly cynical point of view. The plot is episodic, but it moves at a brisk pace and serves as a vehicle for rough humor, amusing coincidences, and unexpected turns of events. Though it does ramble on rather too long, this is a lively romp and offers an unusual perspective on life in the Dark Ages, including the portrayal of strong women. Literary scholars will appreciate borrowings from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

King Edward was killed under mysterious circumstances in 978 and was succeeded by his half-brother Ethelred (the Unready). Since he was subsequently viewed as a martyr and saint (such designations were awarded rather freely back then), Tryff’s profession is highly appropriate. Cheerfully recommended.