Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

Best Tolkien Movie Yet

Jeffrey Overstreet calls Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary on the war that shaped J.R.R. Tolkien the best offering of all of Jackson’s Tolkien-inspired movies.

Honoring these intimate archival recordings, Jackson reveals harrowing accounts of the misleading propaganda that summoned so many young men, the dehumanizing pressures of the war, the particular chaos and slaughter of the Somme, the burdens that the survivors would have to carry, and the betrayals, abandonment, and loneliness that awaited those few who returned. And as we listen, he fills the screen with highlights (that word sounds trite and inappropriate here) from more than 600 hours of material from the Imperial War Museum and BBC archives. Much of it is sharpened and focused, but then, as in Wings of Desire and The Wizard of Oz, its black-and-white footage suddenly blooms into color and detail that takes your breath away.

Tolkien fans: Peter Jackson saved the best for last

Early Review of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

On this day in 1895, the great American orator and statesman Frederick Douglass passed away. To mark the day, Bookmarks has reproduced a review of Douglass’s 1845 autobiography that ran in The New York Tribune on June 10, 1845.

We wish that every one may read his book and see what a mind might have been stifled in bondage,—what a man may be subjected to the insults of spendthrift dandies, or the blows of mercenary brutes, in whom there is no whiteness except of the skin, no humanity except in the outward form, and of whom the Avenger will not fail yet to demand—’Where is thy brother?’

Narrative was well-received, selling close to 30,000 copies by 1860.

‘Intelligences to Replace Us’

We are rushing into the unconsidered embrace of a computerized future that, deep in the core of its design process, hates us. “Engineers at our leading tech firms and universities tend to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution,” Team Human notes. “When they are not developing interfaces to control us, they are building intelligences to replace us.”

Joseph Bottum in his review of Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. It’s an uneven book, he says, with many good details and many mushy proposals presented as solutions.

‘Ivory Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

As I write this review, I have beside me an exact-sized, museum-authorized replica of one of the kings from the Lewis chessmen. Because as I read this book, I felt I just had to have one.

The Lewis chessmen are one of the most famous, and intriguing, archaeological treasures in the world. They’re surrounded by mystery – we know they were discovered on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides in 1831, but by whom, and exactly where, are the subjects of contradictory tales. They are 93 objects (one an ivory buckle), which include elements from several chess sets – including, probably, non-chess pieces. And in themselves they’re fascinating objects. Like the contemporary Icelandic sagas, they speak to us across the centuries with almost a modern voice. Each piece is a distinct individual, and their postures and gestures seem to be telling us something – though we can’t be sure we can read them across time and cultures.

Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, was not exactly the book I expected from the title. And that’s good. Over the years, in my amateur historical reading, I’ve come up again and again against books that take one small piece of evidence, build a huge framework of supposition on top of it, and then declare that they have “proved” some radical new theory. This book is not like that. This is a good work of history with a somewhat grandiose title.

Author Brown examines the Lewis chessmen by category – Rooks, Bishops, Queens, Kings, and Knights. First she describes the pieces, and relates how their functions changed over the centuries, and how they worked under the rules of the 12th Century (when they were probably carved). Then she relates those functions to the history of what might be called the Norwegian Sphere of Influence during the early Middle Ages. We are treated to a pretty good overview of Scandinavian/North Atlantic history in that period, with an emphasis on Iceland and Norway.

In recent years the prevalent scholarly view has been that the Lewis pieces were carved in a workshop in Trondheim. Author Brown makes a good argument that the pieces were in fact carved by an Icelandic woman mentioned in the saga of Bishop Pall Jonsson of Skalholt: “Margret the Adroit.”

Her case for Margret is not watertight, but it’s a good, plausible one, worthy of attention. And in the course of the argument, she provides us with an excellent history lesson.

I enjoyed Ivory Vikings, and recommend it.

…but Christians can’t do science!

From Hillfaith, (tip, Instapundit):


Meet J. Warner Wallace. No, Wallace is not a former congressional investigator, but he is one of the world’s most respected experts at solving the toughest crime cases, the ones that have gone unsolved for years.

Read the rest here.

He’s NBC’s “Cold Case Detective,” and he’s a Christian. Author of, among other works, Cold-Case Christianity.

THE TURN THAT REVEALS

In this universe God made, streams run to the sea; salmon swim upstream; monarch butterflies, at winter’s coming, fly 5,000 miles in search of warmth; objects tossed into the air return to earth—and doings among men are subject to “the turn.” The yearning for justice is as engrained as yearning for the last note on a scale to be played, and godly souls feel ill at ease till it’s complete.


Andrée  Seu Peterson, “The Turn”

Saga tropes

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.

‘John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone,’ by Woodworth Clum

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 voluntarily surrendering).

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 sales.

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.

How Americans Got Christmas

Christianity Today has a series of posts pulling back the curtain on Christmas concepts and traditions. W. David O. Taylor describes the debauchery of 17th century Christmas celebrations, how Puritan leaders outlawed Christmas all together, and the influences that brought it shaped what we celebrate today.

One of those influences was Queen Victoria, who shared her family traditions with the world just as Christmas was beginning to be accepted again in America. (Alabama was the first state to make it legal in 1836.)

As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.

Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”

Add to this Dickens giving us the Spirit of Christmas instead of the Spirit of Christ and various artists portraying St. Nicholas as a secular toymaker.

Photo by Jessica Lewis/Pexels

Bing Crosby, Forgotten Giant

There’s no good reason Bing Crosby is not at the top of everyone’s list of twentieth century superstars. He had a voice just about every man wanted, even those who didn’t like men singing.

Crosby recorded 396 hit singles, 41 of which topped the charts—yet only one, his 1942 “creator recording” of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the bestselling record of all time, continues to be heard regularly. He was also the most popular movie star in the world for five consecutive years between 1944 and 1948, a record topped only by Tom Cruise—yet few of the four dozen feature films in which he starred are still shown with any frequency on TV.

Terry Teachout reviews a new biography on Crosby, part two of what may be a three part set. Gary Giddins released the first volume back in 2001, so readers will have waited a fair piece to see Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. Maybe that’s because writing about this man is a challenge. He led an eventful life.

Still, readers who want to know as much about Crosby as Gary Giddins wishes to tell us—among whom I count myself—will find Swinging on a Star a compelling study of the middle years of a popular artist who by the end of the Second World War was so closely identified with the American national character that he seemed to embody it.

(via Prufrock News)

Stanley: Make the Church Irresistible Again

Andy Stanley wants to make the church Irresistible again (maybe he should get ball caps printed). He explains the problems he sees in the American church in his new book, released last month, and according to Marvin Olasky, gets several things right.

Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Stanley says he knows “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but seriously people, “the Ten Commandments have no authority over you.” I don’t think Jesus would sign off on that. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant. The law given to us by Moses still reveals the state of our sin and our need for salvation. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he essentially told us if we thought we knew what the law required, we didn’t know the half of it.

I don’t doubt Stanley has a pretty good point somewhere at the beginning of his line of thought, but where he runs with that line is straight heresy. I love what Steven Graydanus said about Stanley’s solution, published in an interview this summer.  Stanley said, “Without the OT, we can make a better case for Jesus,” to which Graydanus replies, “As *what*? Go into the Sistine Chapel and paint over everything except the figures of Yahweh on the central ceiling panel and Jesus on the west wall. At that point, what on earth are you looking *at*?”

Drink History from the Fountainhead

They say history is written by the winners, which is obvious because they are the ones still living. History is also written by people who implicitly swear to us they are telling the truth, that they have upturned the facts and have built the most complete picture they can of their subject.

Justin Taylor writes about Stanford professor Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) and draws out one example of a popular historian who has violated his oath. Howard Zinn urges us to believe the US dropped the bomb on Japan because we had the biggest hammer and we were going to use it. But the proof for this assertion crumbles when we start following citations.

“Zinn did not consult the documentary record to find the original cable. Instead, he relied on a secondary source,” who also relied on a secondary source.

In a related post on the same blog, Thomas Kidd describes how we can avoid sharing fake or falsely attributed quotations. Google Books is a great resources.

That reminds me a quote I’ve looked up without resolution. It’s attributed to Calvin, but I can’t find where he may have written it. “False teaching is easily identified by the fact that it is willingly received by all and is to everyone’s liking.”

It could be that I haven’t found the right translation, but it’s likely in this new age of free quotation someone made it up.

Will the Real Frederick Douglass Please Stand?

Douglass’s story was unique among slave narratives of the period, not because it followed one man’s path from ignorant bondage to literate freedom, but because his depiction of this journey insisted, more than any other before or since, on the connection between literacy and wisdom, between man’s physical freedom and his liberty to think for himself. In Douglass we watch not only the liberation of an American slave, but also the formation of an American consciousness.

One cannot look for a better guide through Douglass than Blighthimself a master orator and one of Yale’s last great lecturerswho is equally attuned to the beauty of Douglass’s language and the depth of his thought. Blight seeks to balance “the narrative of his life with analyses of his evolving mind, to give his ideas a central place in his unforgettable story.”

362 Cases of Innocent People Convicted of Crimes

Since we review so many crime novels on BwB, I occasionally think about posting something on true crime. I discovered a site today for the Innocence Project, a group seeking to “exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” Their site summarizes the stories of 362 people like Joseph Abbitt, who served 14 years for a sexual assault he did not commit. Even though he was at work at the time of the attack and his employer backed him up, he could not produce a time card for the day four years prior. The two victims were sure Abbitt was the man who attacked them, so he was convicted. But DNA testing was able to rule him out several years later.

It’s chilling to think law enforcers would want to wrap up a case plausibly, even if it isn’t true. But that’s human perspective for you. I hope this Innocence Project is doing good work and not just bending plausibility in another direction.