Phil has suggested that I write about the American political themes in my Erling Skjalgsson novels. This had never occurred to me, but it’s an excellent idea, because I have indeed had our American republic much in mind as I wrote.
There’s a scene in my novel The Year of the Warrior, where the missionary king Olaf Trygvesson is talking to some Norwegian farmers, trying to persuade them to convert to Christianity. One of the reasons he gives for converting is the glory and wealth of the Christian countries. He speaks of the great cathedrals and palaces in England and France, beside which the low wooden halls of the Norse were unimpressive.
This is emblematic, I think, of a political difference that runs through history, a problem that’s been solved in various ways. How do men live together in a society? Will there be freedom (which can become anarchy), or will one central authority control everything (which can become tyranny)?
In the days of the Romans, and later in the early Middle Ages, there was a division between the Latin cultures—those descended from the Roman empire—and the Germanic cultures, which were generally democratic in nature. I might symbolize them by the Roman palace or basilica, and the Norwegian hall.
A Roman palace was large and ornate, and built solidly in stone. It would last for centuries, in recognizable form, even if neglected. It was like monarchy or autocracy, easy to maintain once established, and hard to knock down. But it had little flexibility. If you outgrew it, you had to build onto it (expensive), and if your numbers dwindled, you were stuck with all that maintenance (think of impoverished English nobility, rattling around in great old ancestral halls, most of which have been shut up, until they finally have to sell them off to the National Trust).
A Norwegian hall was made of wood, and so necessarily both smaller and less impressive (though the stave churches give ample evidence they didn’t have to be plain). Periodically they would rot and fall down, and have to be re-built again. Their maintenance was a constant duty. That’s like a democracy or republic, which constantly has to renew the quality of its human resources, and is easily lost by a single negligent generation.
(That, by the way, is why conservatives are conservative. We recognize that our republic is not a massive basilica, which you can pretty much leave alone without immediate fatal damage, but like a wooden building which must be constantly tarred and repaired. Or, to switch metaphors, we believe a republic is a perilous thing, like two men sitting in a car perched on the edge of a cliff, two wheels spinning in thin air above a canyon. The liberal is saying, “We gotta get out of here! Let’s move! Let’s move! Do something!” And the conservative is saying, “No! First let’s think this out! We need to figure out how we can move to keep from putting weight down on the wrong side!”)
Erling was a man standing between two words. We know from history that he was a Christian (more Viking stone crosses have been found in the territory he controlled than in any other part of Norway), and Christian interests tended to be allied with centralized monarchy, a model based on Charlemagne’s, who based his on Rome. But Erling was always, to the last day of his life, a defender of the old Norwegian system—government of laws, not of men. A republic.
(The latest Erling Skjalgsson novel is West Oversea, published by Nordskog Publishing.)