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By Thomas Wheeler

A company called Unimax has created a new series of 1:18 scale action figures titled AGES OF ACTION, featuring soldiers and warriors from historical time periods.

It turns out that Unimax is the maker of an interesting line of authentically-designed action figures, some representing World War II, some representing the modern day, called FORCES OF VALOR, also known as BRAVO TEAM.

AGES OF ACTION is another matter. It's not available in stores and only a handful of online retailers are presently carrying the line. I have no idea if this was intentional, or if, as I suspect, offering historical military figures to the average toy department was something of a hard sell. If that's the case, too bad. These figures could go a long way to teaching some history, as well as being just plain fun.

I decided to start off with the NORMAN KNIGHT. And no, his name isn't Norman. The name given to him is Guinard des Roches. The Normans, however, have a rich history:

The Normans were the people who gave their names to Normandy, a region in northern France. They descended from Viking conquerors of the territory and the native population of mostly Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock. Their identity emerged initially in the first half of the tenth century, and gradually evolved over succeeding centuries until they disappeared as an ethnic group in the early thirteenth century. The name "Normans" derives from "Northmen" or "Norsemen", after the Vikings from Scandinavia who founded Normandy (Northmannia in its original Latin).

They played a major political, military, and cultural role in medieval Europe and even the Near East. They were famed for their martial spirit and Christian piety. They quickly adopted the Romance language of the land they settled in, their dialect becoming known as Norman, an important literary language. The Duchy of Normandy, which they formed by treaty with the French crown, was one of the great large fiefs of medieval France. The Normans are famed both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture, and their musical traditions, as well as for the military accomplishments and innovations. Norman adventurers established a kingdom in Sicily and southern Italy by conquest, and a Norman expedition on behalf of their duke led to the Norman Conquest of England. Norman influence spread from these new centers to the Crusader States in the Near East, to Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, and to Ireland.

Geographically, Normandy was approximately the same region as the old church province of Rouen and what was called Brittania Nova as well as western Flanders. It had no natural frontiers and was previously merely an administrative unit. Historically, its population was mostly Frankish. It included Viking settlers, who had begun arriving in the 880s, divided between a small colony in Upper (or eastern) Normandy and a larger one in Lower (or western) Normandy.

In the course of the 10th century, the initial destructive incursions of Norse war bands into the rivers of France evolved into permanent encampments that included women and chattel. The pagan culture was driven underground by the Christian faith and Gallo-Romance language of the local people. The small groups of Vikings that settled there adopted the language and culture of the French majority. After a generation or two, the Normans were generally indistinguishable from their French neighbors.

In Normandy, they adopted the growing feudal doctrines of the rest of northern France, and worked them, both in Normandy and in England, into a functional hierarchical system. The Norman warrior class was new and different from the old French aristocracy, many of whom could trace their families back to Carolingian times, while the Normans could seldom cite ancestors before the beginning of the 11th century. Most knights remained poor and land-hungry; by 1066, Normandy had been exporting fighting horsemen for more than a generation. Knighthood before the time of the Crusades held little social status, and simply indicated a professional warrior wealthy enough to own a war horse. Many Normans of France and Britain would eventually serve as avid Crusaders.

In Italy, the two most prominent families to arrive in the Mediterranean were descendants of Tancred of Hauteville and the Drengots, of whom Rainulf Drengot received the county of Aversa, the first Norman toehold in the south, from Duke Sergius IV of Naples in 1030. The Normans eventually captured Sicily and Malta from the Saracens, under the famous Robert Guiscard, a Hauteville, and his young brother Roger the Great Count. Roger's son, Roger II, was crowned king in 1130 (exactly one century after Rainulf was "crowned" count) by Pope Anacletus II. The kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194, when it fell to the Hohenstaufens through marriage. The Normans left their mark however in the many castles, such as the Iron Arm's fortress at Squillace, and cathedrals, such as Roger II's at Cefalù, which dot the landscape and give a wholly distinct architectural flavour to accompany its unique history.

Soon after the Normans first began to enter Italy, they entered the Byzantine Empire, and then Armenia against the Pechenegs, Bulgars, and especially Seljuk Turks. The Norman mercenaries first encouraged to come to the south by the Lombards to act against the Byzantines soon fought in Byzantine service in Sicily. They were prominent alongside Varangian and Lombard contingents in the Sicilian campaign of George Maniaces of 1038-40. There is debate whether the Normans in Greek service were mostly or at all from Norman Italy, and it now seems likely only a few came from there. It is also unknown how many of the "Franks", as the Byzantines called them, were Normans and not other Frenchmen.

In England, the Normans were in contact from an early date. Not only were their original Viking brethren still ravaging the English coasts, they occupied most of the important ports opposite England across the Channel. This relationship eventually produced closer ties of blood through the marriage of Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, and King Ethelred II of England. Because of this, Ethelred fled to Normandy in 1013, when he was forced from his kingdom by Sweyn Forkbeard. His stay in Normandy (until 1016) influenced him and his sons by Emma, who stayed in Normandy after Canute the Great's conquest of the isle.

Normans came into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families who would provide some future kings such as Robert the Bruce as well as founding some of the Scottish clans. King David I of Scotland was instrumental in introducing Normans and Norman culture to Scotland, part of the process some scholars call the "Davidian Revolution". Having spent time at the court of Henry I of England (married to David's sister Maud of Scotland), and needing them to wrestle the kingdom from his half-brother Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair, David had to reward many with lands. The process was continued under David's successors, most intensely of all under William the Lion. The Norman-derived feudal system was applied in varying degrees to most of Scotland. Scottish clans of the name Ramsey, Fraser, Hunter, Olgivie, Cameron, Douglas, Wallace, & Gordon to name but a few can all be traced back to Norman ancestory.

The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture and history after their invasion at Bannow Bay in 1169. Initially the Normans maintained a distinct culture and ethnicity. Yet, with time, they came to be subsumed into Irish culture to the point that it has been said that they became "more Irish than the Irish themselves." The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. Both cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other's language, culture and outlook. Norman descendants today can be recognised by their surnames. Names such as French, (De) Roche, D'Arcy and Leacy are particularly common in the southeast of Ireland, especially in the southern part of County Wexford where the first Norman settlements were established.

You can learn much more about this by heading to Wikipedia and entering the topic "Normans" on the search area, and I highly recommend it.

So -- how's the figure? Well, I don't think one can question its authenticity. Apart from the Unimax logo and the mention of the Forces of Valor line, there's another logo on this package that will catch the eye of anyone interested in military history -- Osprey Publishing. I've mentioned them from time to time on occasional G.I. Joe reviews.

For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Osprey is a publisher of an astonishingly wide range of military history books. These books, although not generally massive tomes, are good, straightforward, in-depth books on very specific subjects from throughout the massive range of world-wide military history. If it took place in history anytime after cavemen started bashing each other over the head with clubs, and has anything to do with anything conceivably military, then there's likely either an Osprey book about it, or it's on their "to-do" list. The written word is joined by excellent photographs and superb color illustrated plates in any given book, and they're sticklers for accuracy. If they're allowing their name to appear on these toy packages, you can better believe the toy is as authentic as possible.

For that name to be on this package -- okay, I'm officially impressed and I haven't even opened the box yet. But let's open the box.

When some people think of knights, they think of a heroic, dashing figure, wearing solid pieces of gleaming, polished armor from head to toe. That person has likely seen too many bad movies. Although I've seen some impressive suits of armor -- in the British Museum years ago -- they didn't all dress like that. Guinard here certainly doesn't.

The figure is wearing a suit of armor that is mostly chain mail, and it's to the credit of the metal-workers of the time that they were able to come up with something like this given the limited technology they had to work with. Guinard is wearing a chain mail headpiece that drapes down over his shoulders, and protects his head but leaves his face exposed. He comes with a solid helmet to wear over this.

His arms and legs are also covered in chain mail, and he is wearing thick gloves which I believe are intended to look like leather. The only other solid metal-looking pieces the figure is wearing protect the fronts of his lower legs.

Over this, Guinard is wearing that appears to be a thick tunic, which one can see at its base has a chain mail counterpart underneath. The tunic itself is a golden-orange in color, appears to be padded, and has a coat of arms on the front and sleeves, a shield-like emblem in yellow with a series of red symbols within it. Guinard has a leather-like belt strapped around his waist, and a couple of sheathed swords attached to the belt.

A small folder comes with the figure, which gives profiles for all of the figures in this first (I am optimistically saying "first" as I would like to see this line have a long and healthy run) series. Consider them the equivalent of file cards. Our Norman Knight friend's reads as follows:

NORMAN KNIGHT Guinard Des Roches

A bold French knight of the 'Hundred Years War', Guinard Des Roches was a warrior born of noble blood. Knighted at age 21, Des Roches soon entered into the war against the English. In preparation for battle, Des Roches would don protective gear, which consisted of a chain mail coat, thigh and knee armor, a chain mail hood, helmet, leather gloves, boots, and a colorful padded tunic. He used an array of weapons, most commonly his sword, pole arm, and dagger.

The figure's articulation is excellent, if somewhat hindered by the tunic, which isn't very flexible. The Norman Knight has articulation points at the head, arms, elbow (including swivel), wrists (glove tops), legs, knees (with swivel) and ankles. The legs do not move too well because of the tunic, but one can see that they're supposed to be able to.

Painted detailing is excellent. The figure looks somewhat worn, but honestly, that's probably pretty accurate historically, and the silver brush coat over the chain mail does make it look that much more authentic. Assembly is well done, although one side of Guinard's right ankle is a little off. The peg sort of "missed". This sort of thing does bother me. However, his foot isn't in danger of falling off, it's only slightly looser than the other because of it, and there's no reason to assume they're all like this. It's the main downside to having to buy online. You're essentially buying sight unseen. In this case, though, I can live with it. Might even be able to fix it. The plastic seems flexible to a degree.

The Norman Knight is extremely well-equipped. He comes with a sword (the ones on his belt are not removable), a large shield that matches his coat of arms, with a long strap for carrying and two shorter straps on the back for combat use, the aforementioned pole arm, which is essentially a nasty-looking blade at the end of a long pole that's taller than the figure, and a very nice and rather ornate helmet, that actually has a slot in it through which the figure can see out once it's in place.

How well would these figures work alongside G.I. Joes? Well -- it depends on which G.I. Joes. At about 4 inches in height, he's a little tall to work well with the original Real American Hero. And as slender as the 25th-style G.I .Joes are, he's really not a good match there either. I think, if one so desired, he would work reasonably well alongside some of the newsculpt G.I. Joe figures that were available from 2002-2006. Assuming you can find a way to work him into the story.

But really, these AGES OF ACTION figures work perfectly well just on their own. Here are some military replicas that beat the heck out of non-poseable little metal soldiers that are so small you need a microscope to make out the details. Guinard here has a very nicely detailed face, right down to blue eyes. He can be posed well in any number of ways, and comes from an interesting period in history that is well worth greater study.

So, what's my final word here? I'm extremely impressed. Unimax has teamed up with THE experts on military history in my opinion, the fine people at Osprey, and have started a fascinating line of action figures, not just little military replicas, but ACTION FIGURES -- representing some historical periods that, in many cases, don't get a lot of attention today. And are well-deserving of more than they get. To whatever degree this action figure line can bring a greater sense of awareness to these historical periods, it should be commended for doing so.

The entire AGES OF ACTION line definitely has my highest recommendation, and that certainly includes GUINARD DES ROCHES, the NORMAN KNIGHT!