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‘If looks could kill’

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.

‘The Good Farmer’

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.

I know you’re dying to have an old man tell you about his health…

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.

Which I’ve got to post this and get to now.

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

Reconstructed longhouse at Lofotr Viking Museum. Photo 2008 by
Jörg Hempel

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 was steady.

            I looked back at her.

            Whump.

            I was lost for words to say, but Baard moved up from behind me and broke the moment.

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

Avaldsnes (Augvaldsness) today. This church did not exist in Erling Skjalgsson’s time.

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

Chapter I

            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.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 1

The red borders of time

Photo credit: Jeremy Thomas, @jeremythomasphoto

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.

What could go wrong?

‘New Year comes but once a twelvemonth’

This is something of a commonplace post for the year ahead with quotations taken from my withdrawn library book of quotations, that wealth of knowledge and marginalia about which the impoverish youths of the world have not a clue. Happy New Year.

For the life to come, I sleep out the thought of it. – Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.
– Lewis in Shakespeare’s King John

When the tree is fallen, all go with their hatchets.

I have learned thy arts, and now
Can disdain as much as thou.
– Thomas Carew, “Disdain Returned”

On finding a wife:

  • Choose a wife rather by your ear than your eye.
  • Choose your wife as you wish your children to be.
  • Choose a good mother’s daughter, though her father were the devil. (The latter two come from Gaelic proverbs.)

Who riseth from a feast 
With that keen appetite that he sits down? 
Where is the horse that doth untread again 
His tedious measures with the unbated fire
That he did pace them first? All things that are, 
Are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d. 
– Gratiano in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

Turn your tongue seven times before talking. (Originally French)

What is new is seldom true; what is true is seldom new. (Originally German)

Dark Day

It was 990 years ago today that Erling Skjalgsson (hero, in case you missed it, of my Viking novels) was treacherously killed by one of St. Olaf Haraldsson’s men at the battle of Boknafjord.

My new Erling book is coming along, thanks for asking. I’m nearing the end of another draft, which I thought would be the final one. Not sure now. I’ll keep you posted.

Erling would have known this as St. Thomas’s Day. It’s the shortest of the year.

The Tree of Christmas Past

This photo comes from the Walker family collection. Theoretically, it should be easy to guess the year, because there’s a calendar right there. But my scan doesn’t have enough resolution. I could consult a perpetual calendar too, but that sounds like too much work. It’s probably the ’30s or ’40s. Certainly well before I was born. My guess would be the ’40s, because I don’t imagine there was money for so many presents in the ’30s. Though it was a large family, and this probably works out to one for each member.

This was the “old parlor” in the house where I grew up. In my time we just called it the living room. The first Christmas tree I remember stood in that very spot, though I recall that one as being somewhat taller and fuller. Later, Dad would knock out a wall and we moved the tree to a different location. I think that carpet was still there when I was very young, and possibly that sad sofa. But we had different curtains by then. They were heavy, and printed with Grandma Moses scenes.

The house burned to the ground in 1986.

A Blessing on Mother

In one of our old books, which was handed down from four generations ago, I found several newspaper clippings–a couple obituaries, an announcement of new officers to a Presbyterian organization, an ad for hearing aids, and a curious poetic blessing on mothers. The only credit is to Harper’s Magazine.

It looks like the kind of folklore people would pass around and think nothing of preserving, because that would be a kin to preserving grass. We assume such things will be around forever. A generation goes by, and maybe someone asks, “Do you remember that thing we used to say? It was so good.” But no one remembers. And maybe it wasn’t actually good.

They were words of their time, spoken like all words with dissipating breath.

I found it on a page scanned from a March 1877 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine with a bit of explanation not included in my paper clipping.

The following was recently written and sent by a distinguished clergyman to his mother. It was sent on a postal card:

    Dear Mother —
    From sweet Isaiah’s sacred song, chapter 9 and verse 6
    First 13 words please take and then the following affix;
    From Genesis the 35th, verse 17, no more.
    Then add verse 26 of Kings, book 2nd, chapter 4.
    The last two verses, chapter 1, 1st book of Samuel
    And you will learn what on this day your loving son befell.

Deciphering this from the King James, we read this.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”

“And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.”

“Run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well:”

“For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him:  Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.”

Keep the change

I’m reading slowly right now – lots of translating work to do. Here’s a personal challenge – even when I actually have plenty of time to finish a translation project, I tend to treat it as if I have a deadline looming. Which makes me neglect other important things (like reading books to review). There must be an adjective to describe such a condition. Oh yes, it’s called “obsessive-compulsive.”

I know how much you look forward to my semi-annual reports on dentist visits. Well, you’re in luck, because I just got back from the dentist.  And be prepared for High Drama!!!!!!!

OK, not exactly drama. Change. I have a new dentist.

My old dentist, unbeknownst to me, suffered from a chronic lung condition. He had some kind of crisis, I learned, and decided to move to Texas. He left his practice in the hands of an old classmate, and so I had to go to a new place.

“I’m not sure I’m prepared for a change of dentist at my time of life,” to paraphrase Saki.

New office. Different parking situation. And I had to fill out all the paperwork anew.

Why must I suffer so?

I also had a small cavity, which I’ll have to get filled in a few weeks.

My great sorrow was that I lost my Dental Hygienist. The old DH was a genuine beauty, a vision of feminine loveliness whose hands I looked forward to having in my mouth every June and December. The changeover announcement said that the staff had transferred along with the practice, but I think that was hype. The new DH was very nice, and perfectly solicitous of me. But she wasn’t Heather… or Denise… or whatever the old girl’s name was. No doubt she’s been snapped up by some high-end practice in Edina.

I see no consolation anywhere about me. Except chocolate.

(I apologize for the run-together words in tonight’s post. We have a new posting system at WordPress and it’s driving me nuts.)

New Cambridge Fellow focus of Academics’ outrage

A new research fellow at St Edmund’s College of Cambridge has riled 300+ professors who think he earned the position unethically. The Guardian offers a review of the complaints, which are not based on what Noah Carl has actually written but on characterizations of his research. 

“A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the relationship between race and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to the unambiguous conclusion that his research is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed,” states the letter, which is signed by seven Cambridge professors and more than 700 other academics.

If Carl’s work has been carefully considered, then citing offending arguments and data shouldn’t be a problem. But when Quillette Magazine reviewed the work, they found nothing that aligned with the complaints. They asked one of the signatories to spell out his complaint and received a broad assertion that certain concepts have “at best questionable scientific validity” and cannot be taken in stride by anyone. Again Quillette couldn’t find these concepts in Carl’s work and are arguing for the public rebuke of the professors who appear to have signed a letter grounded in nothing by hearsay.

“Accusing a young scholar of ‘psuedoscientific racism,’ and claiming his work is ‘ethically suspect’ and ‘methodologically flawed,’ is not something that should be done lightly, given the likely impact on his career,” Quillette editors write. “Anyone who cares about intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity should join us in denouncing this witch-hunt.”

They asked many other academics for comment and received responses like this from Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business

Greg Lukianoff and I open chapter 5 of The Coddling of the American Mindwith a Durkheimian analysis of witch hunts. It works beautifully to explain the otherwise inexplicable and shameful open letter denouncing Rebecca Tuvel and calling for the retraction of a philosophy article that hardly any of the hundreds of signatories had read. That whole affair was an embarrassment for the academy and those who signed the open letter. Here we go again. If hundreds of professors think that Noah Carl conducts bad science, let them make the case, with quotations and citations. The “open letter” denouncing Carl is just a list of vague assertions and charges of guilt by association. If the signers think we should condemn anyone who gives ammunition to “extremist and far right media,” they should write a new letter condemning themselves.

Maybe the review process proposed by Susan Harlan in “A Poem About Your University’s New and Totally Not Time-wasting Review Process for Tenure and Promotion,” would help curtail these open letters. While a mob of professors is not funny, this is.

Yule be sorry

Christmas tree
Photo credit: Tj Holowaychuk@tjholowaychuk

What a weird season this is turning out to be. I enjoy what I’m doing for a living, but working part-time, from home, turns out to leave me less free time than I had when I was an upstanding cog in the system.

I usually put up my Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving, and I start writing my Christmas letter around the same time. Now it’s the 5th of December, and I’ve done nothing! Nothing!

I have failed as a Norwegian. Christmas is one of the things we do. My ancestors are ashamed of me.

But tonight I’ve put in six hours already, and I have a little latitude on the deadline, and I’ve made a personal commitment to starting the Christmas letter this evening.

Heaven knows I have a lot to write about. Mostly about my new semi-career, the schedule for which is the reason the letter will be late.

My Christmas letter is kind of an annual epic production. First I write it in English, then I translate it to Norwegian, for the recipients over there. Those letters have to go out first, because of postal transit time.

And there was something else, wasn’t there? … Oh yeah, the tree.

Well, the actual old tradition was to decorate and light it on Christmas eve. I may end up being traditional this year.