In this strange life I’ve stumbled into, I spend a lot of time living inside a foreign language. I think I’m beginning to develop a slight empathy for what foreigners encounter when they try to learn our very bizarre English tongue.
What struck me the other day was the way we use (or torture)
the letter S.
At the end of a word, “s” can mean one of three different
things in English:
It can mean a simple plural: “dog” becomes “dogs.”
If we precede it with an apostrophe, it means a possessive: “Edward’s” (except in the case of “its,” an unfortunate and confusing side effect of the very problem I’m complaining about).
Finally, when used with a verb, it means present tense: “This is the product Acme makes.”
This is all the result of bad table manners on the part of
the English people – bolting down a Germanic language and Old French without
chewing them properly (Old Norse for dessert).
Norwegian is much more rational (a final “s” means possessive. That’s all). I’ll bet Chinese is too.
And pretty much any other language you could name.
But I love English. It’s kind of like one of those exclusive neighborhoods with the winding, poorly marked streets: “Welcome to Pretentious Heights, Minnesota. If you can’t find your way around, it’s probably because you don’t belong here in the first place.”
I can only attribute it to mental failure resulting from my advanced age. I thought I was doing a pretty good job keeping the brain nimble by doing challenging mental work.
But if that’s true, how do I explain being unable to read Jane Austen’s Emma?
I’ve read Austen in the past. I recall enjoying Pride and Prejudice quite a lot. I made it through Sense and Sensibility, which I’m told is not the author’s best. Everyone speaks well of Emma.
But I couldn’t bear it. It bored me sick. I didn’t find much to like in any of the characters, except perhaps Mr. Knightly – and he isn’t around that much in the first fifth of the book, which is as far as I got. I especially disliked Mr. Woodhouse. Since I subscribe to the Law of Perverse Criticism (a theory of my own invention, which says that anything that really irritates you is probably something you do yourself), that indicates I’m probably a lot like that fussy old man.
I hereby turn in my Literary Snob card. I hang my head in
Now I’m reading a book about the Lewis Chess Men. That one’s keeping my lowbrow interest.
Happy Friday. I’ll kick off the weekend with another Erik Werenskjold illustration of a moment in the life of Erling Skjalgsson, hero of my Viking novels. This is an event I plan to describe, not in my next book (which is being prepared for publication), but in the one after that. It must have been the most satisfying event in Erling’s life, though its ultimate consequences were bloody and tragic.
I won’t tell you the whole story. If you’re familiar with Heimskringla, you know it already. If you’re waiting for my book, I won’t spoil it for you.
What you see above is a gathering at the royal farm at Avaldsnes (which was the scene of the snippets I posted recently). The short man you see through a gap in the ranks on the left is (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson. The tall man near the door of the hall on the right is Erling, elevated by the height of his schadenfreude. He has just outmaneuvered Olaf, who wanted to hang the young man in the hat on the right, and is about to humiliate him.
You can’t see much scenery in this picture, but Werenskjold has taken a chance in including a tree in the background. There’s some dispute among historians as to whether Karmøy island (where Avaldsnes is) had any trees at all in the Viking age. The place was denuded by sheep grazing for a very long time. But I think a few trees, especially around the royal farm, is a reasonable assumption.
I’m going to be a while reading Jane Austen’s Emma. So in the meantime, I must think of things to write about that are consistent with the purposes of this blog – whatever those are.
I thought I’d share a few noted illustrations featuring Erling Skjalgsson, hero of my Viking novels. These pictures come from the classic edition of Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, by Snorri Sturlusson.
In 1900, the Norwegian Parliament authorized a new translation of Heimskringla. This was not a politically neutral act, as the stories in Heimskringla were the basis for many arguments used by activists agitating for independence from Sweden. The book came to be about as common as the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism in Norwegian homes, the three of them often constituting the whole family library. (I have a copy.)
Especially for this edition, the government authorized a series of woodcut illustrations to be done by prominent Norwegian artists. Among them was Erik Werenskjold (1855-1938), who is perhaps most famous for a series of remarkable illustrations he did, along with Theodor Kittelsen, for collections of Norwegian fairy tales by Asbjørnsen and Moe.
Werenskjold did many of the illustrations for the section of Heimskringla containing the story of Erling Skjalgsson.
The picture above is perhaps the most famous picture of Erling ever done. It pictures him as Snorri describes him, as a “good farmer,” directing his thralls in the fields. We know from the saga that these men are working for their freedom, and will all be free in three years at most. Werenskjold did some research to make this picture authentic. The landscape is what Jaeder looks like – I expect the location could be identified, with some work. I’m guessing that’s Hafrsfjord in the background. The spades the thralls are holding would be made of wood. Up until recent times, farmers in Jaeder routinely used such spades to turn the earth before planting – they didn’t use plows, because the extremely rocky ground would break them. Erling looks as tall and handsome as, by all accounts, he was.
The November sky was low, a uniform shade of lead gray, like an immense plastic panel behind which glowed arrays of dull fluorescent tubes.
Every Dean Koontz book raises the question: What will he try this time? His work spans sub-genres, and even entire genres. In Winter Moon, he switches into Lovecraftian mode, with an eldritch, evil, invertebrate monster – though probably not as ancient as Cthulhu.
In a near-future Los Angeles gradually sliding into entirely
predictable chaos, Officer Jack McGarvey is nearly killed in a bloody
shoot-out. After a long recovery and rehabilitation period, he works hard to
maintain his native optimism – he assures his wife Heather and his son Toby
that everything will be fine. But it’s hard to see how.
Then – an unexpected legacy. A man he hardly knows has
willed him a ranch in Montana. When they visit, it seems like Paradise – a mountain
retreat, far from the dangers and dysfunction of the big city. They happily move
in and look forward to an idyllic life there.
But there’s something they don’t know. In the mountain woods,
an Entity lurks. It is utterly alien – it has no understanding of people or
even of terrestrial biology. And it doesn’t care. Its sole compulsion is to
possess and absorb everything not itself.
Winter Moon scared the bejeebers out of me. Because this was Koontz and not Lovecraft, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t end in universal misery and perdition – and I was greatly relieved when the family acquired a Golden Retriever, always a good sign in a Koontz book. But I couldn’t figure out how the family could possibly escape. Which makes for high suspense.
Highly recommended, with cautions for the sort of thing you’d
expect in this kind of novel.
I’m reading a Jane Austen book now. I felt like I needed a
I found a list on (of all places) a site called “TV Tropes,” describing common tropes in the sagas. I haven’t studied it exhaustively, but I find nothing here to disagree with . And some of them are amusing:
Color-Coded for Your Convenience: When colorful clothes are mentioned, it’s a hint of what is about to happen for the Genre Savvy. Character wears blue: Character is intent on killing another one. Character wears red: Character will probably get killed soon
Determined Homesteader’s Wife: Norse women worked hard — frequently harder than the men. Side note: While women in Norse society had certain rights that they typically did not have in medieval Christian societies (such as the right to divorce her husband or the right to inherit), by and large Norse society was sexist — women could, for example, not vote in the assembly or hold chieftaincies. In legal affairs, they were usually represented by male relatives.
The idea was that, the man is “lord” outside the house, and the wife is “lord” inside the house. As such, she didn’t have much influence in public. Still, she was the one with the “keys”, and it was a socially accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it necessary.
Lost in Translation: The most obvious example is the key Icelandic social position of godi, which is so impossible to translate into a single English (or most other languages) word that most modern translations simply describe it in detail in the introduction or a footnote and then use it untranslated. Also atgeir, the Weapon of Choice of many saga characters, is often translated as “halberd” despite the fact that nobody is certain whether that’s what it actually was and no actual halberds dating from the saga era have ever been found. Finally, Old Norse poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into other languages thanks to its reliance on wordplay and complex metaphor. In particular, wordplay in poems based on people’s names is often just explained in a footnote.
The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: The view of the 13th and 14th century Icelanders on the viking expeditions of the past was decidedly ambivalent. Horror and moral contempt at these barbaric practices was mixed with pride in the adventurous endeavours of one’s ancestors, bold and daring gentlemen of fortune that they were. As a result, many sagas dealing with viking episodes struggle noticeably with the problem of making protagonists who spend time as sea-raiders look heroic, not horrible. One way to do this is to cover viking expeditions only summarily, generously glossing over the questionable details; another way is to have the heroes get into a clash with other, more villainous vikings, in which the latter are soundly defeated. Thus, the good guys have not only opportunity to prove their bravery against villainous mooks who deserve no better, but also end up with a lot of loot, without the stigma of having it robbed from innocent people. Of course, they never think of giving it back. — The big exception to this rule is, of course, Egil’s Saga, whose eponymous protagonist loots and kills unapologetically for his own enrichment.
What does one do on a book blog when one hasn’t finished a book to review?
Oh yes. One talks about one’s day. That’s why they call it a web log.
It was a mixed weekend for me. I got one piece of good news
and one piece of bad news. The bad news I’ll probably never tell you about (though
I can be bribed, if it’s that important to you), but the good I’ll trumpet to
the skies – if it works out. Watch this space.
Today was a big one, because I had a doctor’s appointment,
which meant actually leaving the house and interacting with other sentient organisms.
I once knew a man who refused to ever see a doctor. He was retired, living in
Florida, and he spent his days by his pool, drinking beer and netting away any
stray leaf or insect that happened to land on the water surface. He had skin
the color and texture of fine Corinthian leather. I seem to recall he died
suddenly one day, but I don’t know whether he passed the actuarial average or
not. With that skin it was hard to guess his age.
Today’s was one of those appointments where you have to fast before you go in, so they can judge your blood impartially. Not that big a sacrifice, really. The doctor and I had the usual conversation, in which he reaffirmed the miraculous current state of prostate testing – you can either take a flawed test which is likely to give you a false positive and result in them carving out your bagel for no good reason, or you can wait and see. I chose to wait and see, rather than buying a chance in the prostatectomy lottery.
I told him what I do for a living now, and he thought it was
pretty cool. I love talking about that.
The nurse stuck me twice, trying to draw blood, and failed to extract any. Which is slightly unnerving, though I knew my heart was beating, so I was pretty sure there was blood in there somewhere. She referred me to a technician who got it done in a minute. I acquired a flu shot and the second pneumonia shot, too.
I also got two things accomplished today that I’d been putting off – one of them being taking the Christmas tree down. And in the afternoon my forebodings of job disaster, roused by several idle days, were eased by a new translation assignment.
Pornography is the new mechanics of sex without the emotional context: lust ceaselessly indulged, love eternally unmentioned. That is also how novels of the supernatural read to me when they make much of otherworldly horror but say nothing of otherworldly redemption.
So I wrote a novel that dealt with both sides of the equation, in the belief that the forces of darkness seem more real and scarier when they are one half of a balanced narrative that includes the forces of light—just as making love with a cherished partner is immeasurably better than finding satisfaction in a porn film.
The passage above does not come from the text of Dean Koontz’s novel, Hideaway, but from an afterword to this edition, in which he reminisces about the book’s reception. He tells us how it became the first of his novels to receive a substantial amount of hate mail – because it assumes the existence of God. And he tells how it got made into a film – and how he eventually lost the artistic control he’d been promised but managed to get his name (mostly) removed from the film’s advertising, so great was his disgust with the final product.
When Hatch and Lindsey Harrison go off an icy mountain road
in their car, victims of a drunk truck driver, they end up in a freezing river.
Hatch dies and Lindsey barely survives. But by good fortune, the world’s
foremost center for “re-animation” is only minutes away. A dedicated medical team
brings Hatch back to life – after a record time dead, and amazingly without
In the flush of a second chance, the couple decides to rebuild their life. Their major decision is to adopt a disabled child, a beautiful, spunky, and smart girl named Regina. Their second chance seems to be both physical and spiritual.
But somewhere in the darkness, in a secret place, there
lurks a monster – an evil young man with a supernatural link to Hatch. This man
worships Satan, and lives to kill. Through their psychic tie, the two men
became aware of each other – Hatch is horrified, but the monster sees in his
family the perfect prey he’s been hunting for.
I’d actually read Hideaway before, but I’d forgotten it almost completely, and the suspense was unimpaired on this reading. And suspense there was. I’d call Hideaway a tour de force in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – a story where good is portrayed in heartbreaking beauty, while evil is exposed in all its banality and repulsiveness. I hardly made it through this book, but it was rewarding. And essentially a Christian story.
Recommended, with cautions for grotesquery and intense
I raised my face to look at him. “Why have I never heard of this?”
I asked. “I’d think Augvaldsness would be a place of pilgrimage for the whole
north – for the English and the Franks as well.”
“We’ve been chary
of the great Roman church here in Rogaland,” said Baard. “They keep throwing
that Arian thing you touched on in our faces, when they notice us at all. We’d
as soon not have them looking too closely at our ways. We’ve learned that when
the Romans look for error, they generally find it, whether it’s there or not.”
“As an Irishman, I
know what you mean,” I said.
Baard slipped the
cover back on the reliquary, and we went back out into the dark. You’d think
that that revelation would be my chief memory of that night, but it pales in recollection,
because of what followed.
As we stepped back
through the entry and into the hall, a figure filled my view, dark against the
light, haloed like a saint in some eastern icon. She sidestepped right to let
me pass, and I stepped left to let her pass, and so we did that foolish dance
you do in narrow places, each trying to make way for the other. At last we both
stopped and laughed, and by now I could see her face.
It was the
loveliest face I’d ever seen on human head. She was woman in her full bloom,
but slender. A few strands of hair that peeked from under her headcloth were
light brown, and her eyes – those eyes! I see them even now – large and blue
under dark brows slightly curved. Her face was longer than an oval, rather
triangular in shape to make room for those great eyes, and her lips were full, but not to excess.
At that very
moment I felt my stomach lurch, as if I’d stepped down a well in the dark.
I closed my eyes
and shook my head, fearing I’d eaten something bad and was about to shame
myself before this woman, through being sick. The feeling passed.
Then I looked back
in her eyes, and my stomach went whump again.
I looked away. All
I looked back at
I was lost for
words to say, but Baard moved up from behind me and broke the moment.
“I was always told that the Centurion was a Roman named Longinus,”
“You were told
wrong. The centurion was a Norseman named Vidfarna. Maybe they called him
Longinus in the army. I know not. And the proof of my story –ˮ he paused for a
lick – “is the Nail.”
“The nail…” I
“A nail from the
crucifixion?” I gaped.
I stood up from
the bench. “This has gone far enough,” I said. “I know I’m a mere foreigner, an
Irishman among the Norse and a butt for jokes, but I wasn’t born after
breakfast today. I’ll give you this, though – you tell a good tale.” I’d been
looking for the chance to take a walk anyway – I needed to drain off my
Baard stood with
me and tugged the sleeve of my robe, getting grease on it. “I’ve had priests
tell me the same thing before. But I can show you.”
Thought I’d do a snippet of the new novel tonight. Not sure how long it will take to publish it, but it’s essentially written. Probably going to my Publishing Gremlin tomorrow. lw
Part One: The Crying Stave
I recall it as the
night of two visions. One vision was for the land, the other for me. Together
they marked a turning place.
And neither was
for the better.
We were feasting at Augvaldsness. If God blessed our efforts, matters would now be less tangled in the land. Jarl Erik Haakonsson, with whom Erling Skjalgsson could never be at peace, had returned again to England to serve his lord, Prince Knut the Dane. This freed Erling to renew his friendship with Erik’s brother Jarl Svein, whom he rather liked. Svein sat now as lord of the north of the land, under Denmark. We were crowning their friendship by handfasting Erling’s son Aslak to Svein’s daughter Sigrid. The two were young, but such betrothals were common, and the young people liked each other well enough.
Baard Ossursson, steward of Augvaldsness, was a man who liked his boiled pork. It was his habit to take a chunk from the platter in his big hand, squeeze it so the fat ran out between his fingers, and slurp the greasy runnels off as they oozed out. He was playing at that as we sat side by side, just to Erling’s right at the high table in the hall.
“This is an important place, Augvaldsness,” Baard said to me between slurps. “The man who controls the strait here at Kormt Island can stop traffic up and down the North Way like a plug in a jar. The kings of Augvaldsness in olden times were the mightiest along the North Way. You can run outside the island, take the sea way to the west, but the weather out there’s chancy.”
“I’ve heard of King Augvald,” I said. “The one who worshipped his cow.”
Strangest new year of my life, I think. This one’s “driving me alee” (as I have a character say in my Work in Progress. I’m not even sure it’s a real nautical term).
It’s not a bad new year. Quite the opposite, so far as I can tell. I’m having a good time. But it’s going too fast.
A new year is a tug on the sleeve from Mortality, telling you, “You’re running out of time.” If my life were one of those rolls of receipt tape in a cash register, I’d be seeing the red borders they put on those things, down near the core, to warn you the roll is running out. It doesn’t mean the end is imminent. It would be wasteful to change the roll now. But it means you should check your supplies, to make sure you’ve got another roll ready, because The End Is Coming.
The other day it occurred to me – I’m living the dream. All my life I’ve wanted to write from home for a living. And that’s what I’m doing now (translating is a form of writing, and one I enjoy). I don’t dread Mondays anymore – in fact, I prefer weekdays to weekends in this new dispensation.
Which means the weeks whiz by.
Back when I was toiling my way toward an ultimately useless master’s degree, I had one consolation – the slowdown of time. Einstein is famously supposed to have explained General Relativity by saying that a minute goes a lot faster when you’ve got a blonde in your lap than when you’re sitting on a hot stove. (Nonsense, I think. It’s true, but that’s a psychological and perceptional phenomenon. It has nothing to do – so far as I understand it – with Einsteinian relativity. Much evil has sprung from this error.) Those two-and-a-half years in the salt mines of academe felt like five to me. There was some satisfaction in that, at my time of life. Now, every week feels like a day. And I haven’t got that many weeks left.
The solution, of course, is obvious. I need to suffer more.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on this day in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Here’s a recording of an interview from the 1960s. I think you can identify the slight slur in his speech, caused by an early tongue injury. By all accounts, it did not affect his lecturing voice, but it did make him hard to understand, sometimes, in conversation.
Conner nodded, pleased by my response. I love him. He breaks my heart and brings me joy in equal measure and at exactly the same time. Twenty-six months old. Two months older than Tara. I watch his development with awe and a longing that could heat a furnace.
Harlan Coben has a winning formula for turning out thrillers that grab the reader. He starts with love – love for lovers, for spouses, and (especially) love for one’s children. Then he asks, “What do we fear the most for these people?” Then he takes that fear and distills it, producing at the end of the coils a spirit that burns like carbolic acid. And he applies that spirit to some innocent, fairly decent protagonist.
That, my friends, is how story-building works.
No Second Chance stars Dr. Marc Seidman, plastic surgeon, who wakes up in a hospital room to learn he’s been in a coma for weeks. He was shot in his own home, and barely survived. His wife, also shot, did not survive.
And his infant daughter Tara vanished like smoke
The police have no leads. Their best theory is that Marc
himself engineered his wife’s murder, but that theory makes no sense, and they
Then a ransom note comes to Marc’s wealthy father-in-law. He
and Marc agree to involve the police, but they will regret it, because the cops
get spotted, the kidnappers get away with the money, and Tara remains lost.
The next time a demand comes, eighteen months later, they leave
the cops out. But Marc instead brings in someone from his past, a former FBI
agent he dated in college and nearly married. Working with an old lover can be
a complication in any endeavor – but this time it might blow up in all their
I like most of Harlan Coben’s books, and I liked No Second Chance more than most. The plot is very complex, but it’s revealed in layers, which kept this old man from getting confused (I like that). There were also some intriguing side characters, like a former child actress turned stone-cold-hitwoman, and a mullet-wearing, NRA-member, redneck who turns out to be good friend to have in a corner (this book is a few years old. I wonder if Coben would have the nerve to include such a character in a novel today).
When, as often happened, one of the raiders lost his mount, he would proceed, running on his own feet, being careful not to set too fast a pace for the ponies.
Recently I saw an old Audie Murphy movie which, even within the canon of Audie Murphy’s ouvre, was fairly non-memorable. Walk the Proud Land was an attempt on Murphy’s part to broaden his range through playing, not a gunfighter, but a man of peace. That man, a genuine historical character, was John P. Clum. The movie failed at the box office in its time, but it succeeded in piquing my interest in a man I’d wondered about before. I knew John Clum as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of Tombstone, and a staunch friend of Wyatt Earp. I’d also read he was a devout Christian. I’d been mostly unaware of his exemplary career as an Indian agent.
John P. Clum was a Dutch Reformed boy from a farm in New York
state. Intending to enter the ministry, he attended Rutgers University, but had
to drop out due to lack of funds. His education did earn him a job as a weather
observer for the US Army Signal Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, however. This
led, through a college connection, to his appointment as Indian Agent at the
San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.
Clum was 22 years old when he arrived at San Carlos, not entirely sure what he’d find. In general, he was pleasantly surprised. He found the Apaches, by and large, decent (by their lights) and hard-working people, scrupulously honest, and historically eager to be friends with Americans (it was the Mexicans they hated). John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone (a compilation of two books) begins with a narrative of United States relations with the Apaches, and it’s a sad and painful story. For every American willing to treat the Apaches decently, there seem to have been ten who, motivated by greed or bigotry, lied to them, cheated them, or killed them like animals.
Clum set about earning the Apaches’ trust, helping the
decent ones and punishing the (minority
of) bad actors. In time he was able to set up a working self-government system.
He was particularly proud of his efficient Apache police force, which operated
with distinction and crowned its achievements with the capture of Geronimo (the
only time – as Clum takes pains to point out – when he was captured without
In time, however, bureaucratic interference and changed Indian policies left Clum with no alternative, in his own mind, to resigning his post and leaving the reservation. The later history of his Apache friends is sad to read.
There is considerable pride in Clum’s account, along with
great contempt for narrowminded and bigoted Americans who spoiled what might
have been an exemplary peace. The only character Clum seems to hate more than
these bureaucrats is the “bad Apache” Geronimo, whom he describes as a liar, a
master manipulator, and a merciless killer. He is particularly offended that his
friends ended up sharing Geronimo’s fate of exile and imprisonment, without the
advantages that Geronimo enjoyed – celebrity status and income from souvenir
The later part of his book is Clum’s own account of his career as mayor and editor in Tombstone, during the fabled days of the Earp-Clanton feud. He is staunch in his support of Wyatt Earp (who would seem, on the face of it, an odd friend for a good Dutch Reformed boy), and (regrettably) his account varies not at all from the well-known (and much-questioned) version told by Stuart N. Lake in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. What will be fresh for most western buffs is Clum’s own account of what he believed to be an assassination attempt against himself on a stage coach run, when he ended up leaving the stage and proceeding on foot, to be less of a target.
The book John Clum, Apache Agent was not written by Clum himself, but was edited by his son Woodworth Clum, from his father’s unpublished papers and reminiscences. The prose is not bad – generally avoiding the excesses of Victorian baroque. The main problem with this electronic edition is that it was obviously produced through OCR transcription, so there is the occasional misread word – as well as entire lines of text getting lost now and then. But it wasn’t enough to spoil the story as a whole.
If you’re interested in the Old West, John Clum, Indian Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone makes interesting reading. I suspect Clum left out some of the juiciest – and/or most appalling – details, so the book is suitable for most readers.