Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

A friend lent me his copies of Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? I’m glad he did. I enjoyed reading them very much.

English writer Tom Holt has mastered (perhaps invented; I’m not sure) a form of contemporary, humorous fantasy in which mythical or historical characters mix with the modern world (kind of like some of my works, or Neil Gaiman’s, but funny). A critical blurb on the cover of EST says the book “recalls Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Twain’s Connecticut Yankee….” I’d say the writing is more reminiscent of Wodehouse’s, at least some of the time (which is high praise indeed).

Take this passage from EST:

[Alberich] was a businessman, and businessmen have to travel on aircraft. Since there seemed to be no prospect of progress in his quest for the Ring, he had thought it would be as well if he went back to Germany for a week to see what sort of a mess his partners were making of his mining consultancy. He had no interest in the work itself, but it provided his bread and butter; if it did not exactly keep the wolf from the door, it had enabled him to have a wolf-flap fitted so that the beast could come in and out without disturbing people.

Expecting Someone Taller concerns a young man named Malcolm Fisher, a diffident auctioneer’s clerk who accidentally runs over a badger with his car one night. He is alarmed when the dying badger speaks to him, and even more alarmed when the animal bequeaths to him the Ring of the Nibelungs and the Tarnhelm (chief treasures of the myths immortalized in Wagner’s operas). It turns out the story is all true, except that the ring is not lost, but was seized by Ingolf, the brother of the Frost Giants, who has been laying low in England, disguised as a badger, ever since. The Ring essentially makes its owner ruler of the world, and the Tarnhelm gives him the power to change his appearance at will. A drop of the badger’s blood, as an extra, bestows the power to understand the speech of birds, and birds turn out to be a pretty knowledgeable lot.

This sets off a situation similar to Jim Carrey’s in Bruce Almighty, except that Malcolm is essentially a decent fellow, and world conditions improve considerably under his reign. But of course there are powerful forces that want the Ring as well—chiefly Wotan, the one-eyed god, Alberich the dwarf, and the lovely Rhine Daughters. Much nonsense ensues, but the heart of the story is a Wodehousian ill-matched romance, which finally wraps up very nicely (although I’m still not entirely sure I understand it).

Who’s Afraid of Beowulf tells of a young American archaeologist, Hildy Fredricksen, who makes the discovery of a lifetime—a perfectly preserved Viking ship in a burial mound in Scotland. However, the bodies in the ship are not dead, but only in suspended animation. Her breaking into the mound is a sign to them to awaken and take up the struggle against the Sorcerer-King, an ancient enemy who is now in a position to dominate the world. Oddly enough, this book has no real romance element, but concentrates on loony cross-country trips in various automobiles, and Hildy’s harried attempts to keep a crew of Vikings fed, clothed and out of trouble. This is actually less difficult than she imagines, though, because (as she is informed by the Vikings) the wonders of the modern world are nothing they haven’t seen before. (Holt makes some technical mistakes concerning the Vikings, but much can be forgiven in farce.)

Aside from the sheer fun of the storytelling, I was pleased by Holt’s approach to his material. Though jokes are frequent, and the heroes perfectly capable of taking pratfalls, the idea of heroism itself is not mocked. This is no debunking parody, but a chuckling, idiosyncratic homage to heroic literature.

I wasn’t counting bad words, but I don’t actually recall any. Appropriate, certainly, for older teens and anyone beyond that. Highly recommended.

6 thoughts on “Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt”

  1. What is sad is that Tom Holt in his newer novels resorts to more ‘salty’ words, such as the dreaded ‘F’ Bomb. I do not have a real problem with the language IF it it in context and character. But they are more loose and a crutch I feel to have some more ‘base’ humour. Don’t get me wrong, I still love his works, but wish that he would cut back on that.

    But you are quite correct in that he keeps the heroic elements alive, but is willing to have fun with it, a bit like the Norse did in the sagas at times (Thor in a wedding dress?).

    There is no doubt that Mister Holt has a true grasp of those elements and can write a good story around it.

    These two novels are his first two into humor fantasy which are also the first ones I read along with ‘Flying Dutch’ when they were new 20 years ago…

    …now I feel old.

  2. > Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?

    Before reading the post, I spent a few moments trying to figure out who this tall, Beowulf-fearing person might be.

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