All posts by Lars Walker

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Enemy of God is the book I feared I’d encounter when I originally hesitated to read Bernard Cornwell’s “Warlord Chronicles” series about King Arthur. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, The Winter King, there is evidence in the (scanty) historical record that the original Arthur made enemies in the British church. I feared that Christianity would be made to look bad.

And that’s what happened in this volume.

Oh, Cornwell covers himself. He has a couple positively presented Christian characters, notably the warrior Galahad, but that reads to me like the standard “Some of my best friends are Jewish” denial of anti-Semitism. In this book, the Christians are the bad guys. Even worse guys than the Saxon conquerors Arthur is fighting. Arthur is tolerant of religion but doesn’t believe in much of anything himself, except his honor, and Cornwell seems to see this as the best way to live.

Arthur (not a king but a warlord, and protector of the not-yet-grown king, Mordred) made himself the most powerful man in Britain at the end of The Winter King. He wants to solidify the peace through a marriage between Princess Ceinwyn, Princess of the kingdom of Powys, and Lancelot, whom he has made king of another British kingdom. But the narrator, Derfel, spoils this plan by running off with the princess. Later Derfel gets involved in helping the druid Merlin search for the cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn, obviously meant as the inspiration for the quest of the Holy Grail. The story of Tristan and Iseult is also incorporated (in the most horrifying version you’ll ever read).

But the real struggle in this story is with Christianity. The Christians of Britain, whipped up by the oily Bishop Sansum and his missionaries, are working themselves into a passion to convert all Britain by force before the magical year of 500 A.D., when they expect Christ to return. They are being cynically manipulated by King Lancelot, whom they adopt as their leader despite the fact that his faith is questionable. This mob enthusiasm threatens Arthur’s peace and the very existence of what remains of unconquered Britain.

Except for the exceptions referred to above, all the Christians in the book are either stupid or evil, and virtually all the priests are assumed to be either sexual predators or pederasts. Derfel and Arthur look at the Christians as an alien group that has settled in Britain, grown in numbers insidiously, and now threatens to impose its laws on everyone. Perhaps Cornwell has the Muslim presence in today’s Britain in the back of his mind.

It bothered me, but I finished it. I’ve started the third book now, and that one is less offensive.

For the rest, good story, interesting characters, exciting action. A Cornwell novel.

Go Fish Meme II

OK, I’ll bite.

Yes, I certainly have Andrew Klavan books. In fact I think I have everything in his oeuvre, (including the Keith Peterson books) except for Hunting Down Amanda, which I’ve got to find one of these days.

Roy, do you have any books by Walter Wangerin?

R.I.P. Johnny Hart

Johnny Hart, one of the great cartoonists of our time–creator of “The Wizard of Id” and “B.C.” as well as an in-your-face Christian witness–died today at his home at Endicott, NY. He was 76 years old.

I think he was probably pleased to go home on Easter Day.

“Hey! Heaven got cartoonists!”

Letter from Jerusalem

Good Friday is a time for meditations. Here’s one of mine.

I imagine one of the Lord’s disciples, getting up early one morning, after the triumphal entry, and writing a letter home from Jerusalem.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Just a note to wish you a happy Passover and to tell you what’s been going on here.

It’s been just incredible.

I didn’t know what to expect when we came to Jerusalem, but I never expected we’d be rock stars! All the people turned out in the streets to cheer the Rabbi. They waved tree branches. They laid their robes down in the street for his donkey to walk over. The children were dancing and singing. It was a party! It was incredible!

I always knew the Kingdom was coming, but I’d never really expected to see it, I guess. Everybody’s talking about the Rabbi. We’ve got the whole city on our side. It’s going to happen! Soon the Rabbi will sit on the throne. He’ll drive the Romans out. Israel will be a mighty kingdom again.

And your son will be a governor, at least.

That little farm you’ve always wanted? I’ll see that you get it. Only it’ll be a big farm. And when you come to visit me in my palace, I’ll send you home with expensive gifts.

Pretty soon now. Any day, it’s going to happen. Nothing can stop us now. We’ve got the momentum.

Ah. There goes the Rabbi. He seems to be headed for the temple.

I wonder why He’s carrying a whip?

God’s ways are not our ways. That’s one of the lessons of Good Friday. But let us remember that it’s also a lesson of Easter.

Wheeling and dealing internationally

I was cited as a reliable source today over at Gene Edward Veith’s Cranach blog. I think this is good. Dr. Veith is now on his way to acquiring that high level of credibility he’s been striving for.

It looks like I’ve got a renter. The story (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn) is rather weird.

Last night I got a call. It turned out to be a transcription call (or whatever they call it). That’s the kind of call you get from a deaf person. They type out a message which is read to you by the operator. Then the operator transcribes your reply so the caller can read it.

This caller was a businessman from Columbia, South Carolina, calling from Thailand (I’m not making this up). He was contacting me on behalf of his son, who is coming to study for a Master’s Degree somewhere in these parts. They (or he) saw my ad in the local Christian paper (probably on the web site, I would guess) and they want the room.

Sight unseen.

And they’ll pay an entire year’s rent in advance.

Hard to turn down an offer like that.

Around bedtime I got to thinking, “You know, this is suspicious. I get a call from a guy in the far east, whose voice I don’t get to hear. He offers me a sizable amount of money. I’ll bet this is a scam. I bet he’s going to end up asking for my bank account number.” (Which would be a joke on him. Hardly worth the cost of the phone call.)

But I checked my e-mail again and there was a message saying he’s sending a cashier’s check.

I can’t figure out a way for that to be bad.

Hope I get along with my new tenant.

When I get to meet him.

I think I know why it took this long to get a renter. This past Monday I sent an e-mail to the relatives in Norway, saying I wouldn’t be able to come to visit this year. I think if I’d had a renter, I might have opted to make the trip. And I think God doesn’t want me to do that in 2007. For reasons of His own.

His ways are above ours.

Have a blessed Maundy Thursday, friends.

Update: Commenter Susan warns me that this offer shows earmarks of a classic e-mail scam, and on checking I see that it does look suspicious. The main difference is the original contact by phone in my case. Security experts warn that one should never accept payment from a renter who contacts you by e-mail and does not examine the property first. I am going to take this very cautiously. Thanks to Susan for the heads-up.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Just as I expected (let’s face it—I’m always right, and it sucks) we had snow on the ground this morning. I can’t describe it as a blanket of snow. More of a sheet, with a low thread count. But it was white, and it’s not what we want to see in April (though we do, we always do). Most of it melted in the sun today, though the temperatures stayed below freezing. Tomorrow will be a little warmer, but it will be slow warming up. Easter, I think, will be about fifty.

Dave Alpern sent me Bernard Cornwell’s three Arthur books to read. I’d been thinking about reading the books, since I really like Cornwell as a writer (I especially enjoyed his seafaring thrillers, which he’s given up on because they didn’t sell). But I hesitated with these because I’ve become leery of all contemporary treatments of the Matter of Britain (reasons to follow).

Everybody, it seems, wants to write about Arthur, and some very good stuff has been done. I’ve thought about doing it myself, though it would mean trying to master a whole new cultural idiom. Stephen Lawhead did a series that pretty much accomplished what I meant to try (probably better than I’d have done it), so I figure, why bother?

Not that Lawhead entirely succeeded. I don’t think anyone has succeeded in writing a great Arthur novel since T. H. White. Since White everybody tries to set Arthur in his proper historical period. That’s fertile ground, and yet… no novel ever seems to achieve the promise.

When I read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, or any of the earlier Arthurian material, I feel as if, from time to time, I get to peek through a spy hole in a theater curtain, looking at a great drama being performed. I can only see bits of the action and hear scattered words of dialogue, but it looks like a great play. Modern attempts to retell the Arthur story always look to me like attempts to reconstruct that hidden play, but they never live up to my hopes.

That said, Cornwell’s The Winter King (first of a trilogy) is pretty good.

Cornwell’s Arthur is not a king, but a “warlord,” regent for a king who’s still a small boy. This agrees well with the (meager) historical record, by the way, since our earliest reports of Arthur never call him a king. Also authentically, his primary concern is defending Celtic Britain from the inroads of the Anglo-Saxons. His primary challenge is the disunity of his own people, a situation he himself makes worse when he breaks an oath to a neighboring king. Real tragedy is at work here, in the classic sense where a man means to do good but is frustrated by his own passions.

The narrator is Derfel, a Saxon by birth and a former slave, who rises to become one of Arthur’s lieutenants. Derfel is a sympathetic voice, a deeply feeling and compassionate man, yet a great warrior, who writes the story in a monastery in his old age.

It was the religious element that made me wary of these books. The second volume is called The Enemy of God, after all, and that accords with some of the earliest accounts of Arthur in books of saints’ lives. Arthur seems to have had a bad reputation with the church. It’s been speculated that he appropriated church treasures to pay for his campaigns. There’s much opportunity here for an author with an anti-Christian axe to grind.

I wasn’t entirely happy with Cornwell’s treatment, but it could have been much worse, and I can’t pretend it lacks historical probability. Cornwell’s Arthur is a man of no particular religion in a Britain divided between Christians and heathens. The wars are not religious ones, and any given kingdom or army is mixed. One Christian priest is pictured pretty negatively, but other Christians look good (though it seems to me they are treated more sympathetically in reverse proportion to their orthodoxy).

On the other hand, Cornwell does not, as so many do today, gloss over the ugliness of heathenism. His Druids, even the friendly ones, are dangerous and half crazy, and their rites and ceremonies are bloody and ugly.

Merlin is presented as a Druid. He’s amusing, and reminds one of Gandalf, if Gandalf were utterly amoral and ruthless. He’s on Arthur’s side here, but everyone knows that that’s only because he finds Arthur useful. If Arthur becomes inconvenient to him he’ll throw him away like a small animal whose guts he’s divining from.

Cornwell doesn’t stick strictly to historicity. Later accretions like Lancelot and Camelot are included without apology.

As in any Cornwell novel, the battles are well thought out and vividly described. The end is extremely satisfying, but you know there’s more coming. Fortunately there are two more volumes.

I liked it a lot. It was as good as any Arthur book I’ve read, since White. It may even be the best since White.

The sweepings of the day

Well, it was a short summer.

(That’s a Minnesota joke. We like to use it in spring, when an early mild spell is followed by a return of cold weather and snow. Which is what happened today. It snowed on us, although the stuff melted when it hit ground. I expect the snow predicted for tonight will be waiting for us in the morning though.)

Just to bring you up to date on my personal life, which I know is why you come to this blog, I actually had a guy over to look at my room to rent on Sunday. What amazed me was that I’d made a special prayer that morning for the Lord to send me a renter. Then I got a call of inquiry before I left for church.

What spoils the story somewhat is that I suspect the guy won’t take the room. If I’m any judge of people (and I’m not), I don’t think he was much interested in what’s on offer here. But we’ll see.

Today counts as a good day, all in all. I banked my tax refund (smaller than I’d hoped, but welcome) and the Spectator ran my piece. I feel almost like a person today.

I close with the following quotation, which I found in a devotional book this morning. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I like this one a lot:

What an amazing, what a blessed disproportion between the evil we do, and the evil we are capable of doing, and now seem sometimes on the very verge of doing! If my soul has grown tares, when it was full of the seeds of nightshade, how happy ought I to be! And that the tares have not wholly strangled the wheat, what a wonder it is! We ought to thank God daily for the sins we have not committed.

(Frederick W. Faber, 1815-1863)

Requiem for bank robber

It only got up to about fifty today, with cloudy skies, and tonight it’ll rain. It might turn to snow.

See, I told you. The stab isn’t coming in March as I predicted, I grant you, but Madame March just handed the shiv off to Lady April. Lady April is just as villainous as Madame March, and the more dangerous because we trust her more.

In case you were wondering what happened with the police cordon I reported on Friday, it was indeed a serious business. And it ended in tragedy. Though not as awful a tragedy as it might have been.

According to news reports, a man named David Dahlen, previously incarcerated for bank robbery in California, walked into the Four Seasons Mall US Bank in Plymouth, Minnesota (which is next door to my dentist’s office, as it happens) with a gun. It’s unclear whether he left with the money he wanted or not, but he fled the bank and entered a house in the neighborhood. He forced the woman who lived there to leave at gunpoint. She called the police, and they sealed off the area. And waited.

While they waited, trying to contact him, he called his family. Then he put the gun to his chest and shot himself. After some hours the police entered the house and found the body.

It’s a sign of the depravity of our times that a story like that seems almost sweet. Here was a guy with a gun, on the run. The standard procedure for someone in that situation, in recent years, has been to take hostages or just shoot down innocent bystanders.

Robbing a bank is a bad thing. Pointing a gun at innocent people is a bad thing. I don’t want to be misunderstood on that. And I consider suicide a mortal sin.

But this guy had the chance to end his life like a Tarantino movie, and instead he chose to go out like someone in a Bret Harte story. In my book, that wins him a few sympathy points.

How many times have I heard of a hostage or sniper situation in the last few years and thought, “If you want to kill yourself, just kill yourself—don’t murder people who want to live”?

May the Lord have mercy on David Dahlen.

Tilt-A-Walker

More rain today, and it’s supposed to rain even more over the weekend, then snow early next week.

But it’s Friday. I don’t intend to go out any more than I have to over the weekend, anyway.

I stopped for groceries on the way home. A side street at the grocery store intersection had been cordoned off by the police. Cop cars were parked all over. A news helicopter hovered patiently overhead. I don’t know what was going on, but somebody was involved in a life-or-death drama, just a few hundred feet from where I was buying bananas.

It seems wrong, somehow, that we can be utterly oblivious to the sufferings and stresses of our fellow humans, even near at hand. I often remember that episode of Star Trek where Mr. Spock felt a sudden psychic pain when a Vulcan starship exploded.

On the other hand, I have to admit what we’ve got is a mercy—a kind of spiritual and emotional air-lock system. C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Problem of Pain that, by God’s kindness, the greatest amount of pain that can exist in the universe is limited to the greatest amount that one individual can endure. That may be a lot of pain, but there is no accumulation of common suffering.

There’s been some “buzz” around the blogosphere about the proposal in the Minnesota State Legislature to make the Tilt-A-Whirl the Official State Carnival Ride. The proposal was made by a representative from Faribault, where the Tilt-A-Whirl was invented and continues to be manufactured.

Let me state for the record that, as a person born in Faribault myself, I fully support this initiative, and indeed any initiative intended to promote anything or anyone originating in Faribault (pronounced “Fair-boe”).

I plan, in fact, to petition to have myself named Official Minnesota Washed-Up Midlist Author.

The tank is empty tonight

I have less than nothing to say tonight. Anything I said would actually reduce the sum of public knowledge, just as a carbon credit is supposed to reduce global warming (but doesn’t).

Gleaned from a comment at Luther At the Movies: Scenes from Luther’s life done in Legos! That’s what I call culture!

For Aitchmark and other cat-lovers: This piece by Austrialian writer Hal G. P. Colebatch on cats in literature.

Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. Wake me when it’s summer.

Walker plays the sax

Today is a rainy day, cool but not cold. My lawn is starting to green up.

I still expect another snowfall before spring.

I meant to post the pictures below on Monday, but was prevented for reasons explained yesterday. Then I figured I’d better review the Barnitz book while its memory remained fresh (memories go bad faster than ripe bananas for me these days). So I left it to today to report on my big weekend project.

The Vikings had two kinds of swords. One, called a sverd, was a double-edged, one-handed broadsword. The other was similar to the sverd, but had only one cutting edge. This somewhat cheaper sword was called a saex (or seax, or sax). There was also a shorter version called a scramasax, which was used as a utility knife, chef’s knife and backup weapon. A few weeks ago I bought this replica scramasax on eBay:

Saex1

The knife itself is pretty decent. It appears to be a copy of a 7th Century Frankish scramasax presently located in the Cleveland Museum of Art (which I’ve visited, years back—great arms and armor collection). A knife like that is kind of early for my own Viking “impression,” but it wasn’t uncommon for weapons to be passed down from generation to generation.

The main problem with this knife, and the reason, I suspect, why the guy on eBay is selling them off cheap, is the sheath that comes with it. This sheath’s first sin is the black leather, which is something all serious reenactors eschew. It seems the Vikings did not blacken their leather.

Secondly, the sheath has too narrow a “collar.” The collar is important in a knife hung horizontally (in the Viking manner), because you need to hold it in the sheath with friction, as you can’t depend on gravity. But this sheath’s collar is too narrow to allow the knife to be completely sheathed. The guard comes up against it and is too big to squeeze inside. The only way to use this sheath is to slit the collar’s closed side, creating a pair of “wings” on either side that hold the knife only loosely. Since the knife is grip-heavy, this makes it prone to slipping out, especially in the action of live steel.

So I made a sheath of my own. It looks like this:

Saex2

I’m pretty happy with it. It’s tight enough to hold the scramasax securely, and the rear belt loop is far enough toward the collar to make it hang pretty straight. You’ll note that the knife is suspended with the cutting edge upward in this configuration, but that’s something many reenactment groups prefer, or even insist on. It has the advantage of putting the weight down on the knife’s spine, which then doesn’t cut into the bottom of the sheath (an academic point here, since I gelded the blade for live steel use). And it’s no problem to draw that way, because it’s worn behind the back.

My real innovation is the shape of the collar. Instead of it being cut straight across, it’s cut at an angle. This wasn’t the result of a plan, but of the shape of the piece of scrap leather I was using. Once it was done, though, I found I rather liked it. It has a humped, whale-backed appearance that looks very Scandinavian to me.

Probably wouldn’t be approved by the English reenactors, though. But I already know the English reenactors would laugh my impression off the field.

My vengeance, needless to say, would be terrible to behold, but that would be bad for transatlantic relations.

The Deepest Sea, by Charles Barnitz

Sorry about not posting last night. I was… indisposed. I’m not going to go into more detail, because it was pretty disgusting. Don’t even think about it. I’m trying not to.

And that was a great pity, because it tacked a nasty ending onto a glorious day. The temperature was something like 80°, a record for the date. As I took my evening walk (wearing a tee-shirt) I just wanted to spread my arms and sing out—

“DON’T BE TAKEN IN!”

Don’t forget it’s March, fellow Upper Midwesterners! Haven’t you paid attention to what I’ve been saying about the deceitfulness and tricksieness of Madame March? When she gives you a beautiful day like this, it’s only for the purpose of softening you up for the big double cross. Beware! Beware!

On the other hand, she did come in like a lion. Maybe she’s tired.

No, no, no, no! Listen to me—even I am falling for it.

Cooler today. Rain coming tonight.

When frequent commenter Dave Alpern sent me a pile of books to read a while back, he included the novel The Deepest Sea by Charles Barnitz. I read it with much interest and considerable enjoyment.

If my own The Year of the Warrior ever had a sister, it would be The Deepest Sea.

I hasten to add that I don’t mean to suggest he copied my book (the first part of TYOTW came out in 1995; the Barnitz book in ’96). I’m sure he’s never read any of my books (who has?).

But clearly he was trying to do the same thing I was attempting—to tell a rollicking Viking story in a non-clunky form. I tried to do it by putting on a stage Irishman’s brogue and trying to be creative with idiom. Barnitz tries to do it by creating a character who’s been alive since Viking times (I won’t tell you how) and so speaks our language. This results in a Dark Age narrator using terms like “off ramp” and “middle managers,” which irked me at first and never entirely pleased me, but I got used to it.

The book started a little slowly, but (as many people have told me about my own books) it grew on me as I read, and I spent Sunday afternoon and evening not putting it down. One problem I saw is one I can identify with—delayed introduction of the fantasy element. Jim Baen was always complaining about that with me. “This is a fantasy, isn’t it?” he’d say. “We don’t publish historical fiction.”

There’s a natural impulse to try to draw your reader in with naturalistic narrative before taking the risk of introducing the fabulous. But the fact is, if you delay the magic too long, its introduction jars the reader. In a book like this one, where you’re planning to bring a dragon onstage later on, it’s good to set it up with something a little stronger than mystic dreams and soothsaying.

I can quibble with some of the Viking stuff. Barnitz has a character named Snorri and one named Skallagrim, in a book set in the 790s AD. But we know from the sagas how each of those names came to be (they started as nicknames), and that was in Iceland some time after the date of this book. Also he has a minor male character he calls Hjordis, which is a woman’s name. He also thinks people sat around belowdecks in Viking ships. They didn’t. (One reenactor has described Viking ships as “floating water tanks.”)

But these are nitpicks. The book grabbed me before long, and had me by the short hairs by the time it was done.

The hero-narrator is Bran Snorrison, the son of a Danish settler in Clontarf, Ireland. He falls in love with the sister of his chieftain, and goes on a Viking raid to England, in order to either win enough money to sue for her hand, or kill the Irish nobleman who is betrothed to her (and who is along on the raid), or both. He gets separated from the army, and finds himself traveling cross-country in the company of a strange young woman who attaches herself to him for no reason he can understand. She has a secret, which is revealed in a very effective climax.

The anticlimax pleased me less well, but that’s mostly because of my taste in music.

I was worried in the beginning by Barnitz’s flip attitude toward his Vikings, and I was afraid I’d be treated to another “dumb warriors” story, but the characters and the stakes got more serious as time went on.

I was also worried that there’d be a lot of Christian-bashing, but I was surprised to see Barnitz depict the monks of Lindisfarne (which makes a big part of the story) with considerable respect. This is not a Christian novel by any means, but it could have been much worse.

All in all I liked it a lot, and wish there were more.

But there aren’t. Barnitz hasn’t published a book since this one.

Not a good omen for our sub-genre.

I see dark clouds anyway

If today’s weather were a meal, I wouldn’t be able to afford the restaurant where they serve it.

It’s 65° right now, and tomorrow’s supposed to be even nicer. When I took my evening walk, it seemed like everybody else in the community had the same idea. Pasty-faced Minnesotans were crawling out of their lairs, blinking in the sunlight, and stretching themselves like badgers (Gophers would be more appropriate, since the badger is Wisconsin’s animal, but badger sounds better).

Life felt good.

Which, of course, it isn’t.

I don’t do much politics here, with good reason, but I’d like to go on record with the opinion that the Islamists have now been notified that they can have anything in the world they want, including the full submission of the United States to Sharia law, if they remain ruthless enough for long enough.

I’m sure the American left will be perfectly content to watch their gay friends being stoned to death, just as long as we’re not at war. The important thing is not to be at war.

My big question is, once Islam has conquered the world, and the only war left is the one between Sunnis and Shiites, which side will the left support?

Confession of an approval junkie

I’m a slave of mutabilitie, as Chaucer might have put it. One e-mail, and all of a sudden my attitude changes and the world looks brighter.

The e-mail to which I refer is one I got this afternoon, from a woman representing the local chapter of the Nordmanns Forbundet, a Norwegian-American friendship organization I once actually belonged to (though in Florida). They had a speaker cancellation for their April meeting, and she wondered if I could take the gig at short notice. She’d met me when I spoke to a Sons of Norway group in St. Paul last year.

Somebody needs me! I regard myself with scorn in my mind’s eye, saying, “You pathetic loser. Somebody shows you a little attention and you wag your tail like a dog.”

Yeah, I do. Having no self-esteem of my own, I depend entirely on outside reinforcement for my satisfaction.

I think my depression the last few days may have been a symptom of an unconscious feeling of closure. I’ve always considered my lecturing career a sort of dragging appendage of my novel writing, like a long tail. I’ve basically stopped advertising myself as a lecturer since I lost my publisher, so I’d figured the Owatonna gig on Monday was the final shot. The last gasp of the tail end of my life as an author.

But now it’s OK, at least until the middle of April. I’m not quite gone yet.

A second consideration is that it pays an honorarium, which will help with my ongoing financial crisis. It occurs to me that this is one of God’s methods of providing for me on a One Day At A Time basis, just like the Bible says.

I’m always hesitant to talk too loud about these manna deliveries. I don’t want to sound like one of those enthusiasts who gets a smile from a girl and decides it’s God’s will that he marry her, or has a cancer remission and loudly proclaims he’s been completely healed forever. Guh-lory!

So I sin in the opposite direction, denying God the praise He deserves.

But today I’m giving credit where credit is due.

Did I do good, God? Huh? Huh?