Category Archives: Fiction

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.

The Best Icelandic Saga

What’s the best Icelandic saga? You asked yourself that just the other day, didn’t you? Yoav Tirosh says it’s the Brennu-Njáls saga largely because that title could be taken two ways.

It’s the story of a couple fun-loving vikings who want to take over their district. Everything goes swimmingly until someone dies, there’s a power struggle, and then some zealots off the one guy everybody loves. Blood-relatives or not, those zealots are going to have to pay. Lars talked about it more in an earlier post.

Tirosh praises some of the saga’s virtues and suggests the duality in the title clues us into the story’s greatness, because Brennu-Njáls can mean either Burnt Njáll and Njáll the Burner. It’s the story of the burner and the burned, both embodied in one character.

‘Hideaway,’ by Dean Koontz

Pornography is the new mechanics of sex without the emotional context: lust ceaselessly indulged, love eternally unmentioned. That is also how novels of the supernatural read to me when they make much of otherworldly horror but say nothing of otherworldly redemption.

So I wrote a novel that dealt with both sides of the equation, in the belief that the forces of darkness seem more real and scarier when they are one half of a balanced narrative that includes the forces of light—just as making love with a cherished partner is immeasurably better than finding satisfaction in a porn film.

The passage above does not come from the text of Dean Koontz’s novel, Hideaway, but from an afterword to this edition, in which he reminisces about the book’s reception. He tells us how it became the first of his novels to receive a substantial amount of hate mail – because it assumes the existence of God. And he tells how it got made into a film – and how he eventually lost the artistic control he’d been promised but managed to get his name (mostly) removed from the film’s advertising, so great was his disgust with the final product.

When Hatch and Lindsey Harrison go off an icy mountain road in their car, victims of a drunk truck driver, they end up in a freezing river. Hatch dies and Lindsey barely survives. But by good fortune, the world’s foremost center for “re-animation” is only minutes away. A dedicated medical team brings Hatch back to life – after a record time dead, and amazingly without visible injury.

In the flush of a second chance, the couple decides to rebuild their life. Their major decision is to adopt a disabled child, a beautiful, spunky, and smart girl named Regina. Their second chance seems to be both physical and spiritual.

But somewhere in the darkness, in a secret place, there lurks a monster – an evil young man with a supernatural link to Hatch. This man worships Satan, and lives to kill. Through their psychic tie, the two men became aware of each other – Hatch is horrified, but the monster sees in his family the perfect prey he’s been hunting for.

I’d actually read Hideaway before, but I’d forgotten it almost completely, and the suspense was unimpaired on this reading. And suspense there was. I’d call Hideaway a tour de force in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – a story where good is portrayed in heartbreaking beauty, while evil is exposed in all its banality and repulsiveness. I hardly made it through this book, but it was rewarding. And essentially a Christian story.

Recommended, with cautions for grotesquery and intense suspense.

Amazon TV is working on prequel series of LOTR

What would you say is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings? Yeah, that’s not this. With an estimated cost of over $1B, the new Amazon series will look into all of those details we get in the appendices about Aragorn’s life as the ranger and heir to the Gondorian throne. When Gandalf took Bilbo and the dwarves to Rivendell, the young heir was there, though perhaps not around them. A few years later, he was told who he was, that the sword of kings of Arnor was his, and that he needed to watch his back. That’s when he began to roam Middle Earth and later served under two kings for many years.

Lots of good material for them to, you know, ruin. I know they want a new Game of Thrones, which would be bad, but I hope they don’t give us a medieval Gotham, which would be like saying, “You know all of the hope and purity of Middle Earth that you’ve loved all your life? This ain’t that.”

Everything We Know About Amazon’s LORD OF THE RINGS Prequel Series So Far

Christian Movies are less art, more propaganda

Jared Wilson says Christian movies have gotten better in the last few years but still aren’t good stories.

Christian movies are more akin to propaganda than art, because they begin with wanting to communicate some Christian theme — the power of prayer, the power of believing, the power of something — and then the story is crafted around that message. This is true even when the story is something based on a real-life incident.

They also take place in a world of Christian sentimentalism, in which cliches sound compelling even to harsh critics. He make five points in all, bringing it down to this fundamental question: “What if there isn’t a way to make the gospel sound cool?”

Now I’m going to do what Jared says I can’t do, which is point to an exception, but considering how he’s defined the subject, Paul Harrill’s first film, Something, Anything, may not qualify as a Christian movie. It is a Christian story–quiet, poignant, and untidy. We saw it in 2016 and thought it was wonderful. Read more and view the trailer through the link.

‘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 2

“I was always told that the Centurion was a Roman named Longinus,” I said.

            “You were told wrong. The centurion was a Norseman named Vidfarna. Maybe they called him Longinus in the army. I know not. And the proof of my story –ˮ he paused for a lick – “is the Nail.”

            “The nail…” I said.

            “Yes.”

            “A nail from the crucifixion?” I gaped.

            “None other.”

            I stood up from the bench. “This has gone far enough,” I said. “I know I’m a mere foreigner, an Irishman among the Norse and a butt for jokes, but I wasn’t born after breakfast today. I’ll give you this, though – you tell a good tale.” I’d been looking for the chance to take a walk anyway – I needed to drain off my bladder.

            Baard stood with me and tugged the sleeve of my robe, getting grease on it. “I’ve had priests tell me the same thing before. But I can show you.”

            “You have it with you?”

            “It’s over in the church.”

            I looked at him. “You’re serious,” I said.

            “Before God I am.”

Continue reading ‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 2

‘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

‘No Second Chance,’ by Harlan Coben

Conner nodded, pleased by my response. I love him. He breaks my heart and brings me joy in equal measure and at exactly the same time. Twenty-six months old. Two months older than Tara. I watch his development with awe and a longing that could heat a furnace.

Harlan Coben has a winning formula for turning out thrillers that grab the reader. He starts with love – love for lovers, for spouses, and (especially) love for one’s children. Then he asks, “What do we fear the most for these people?” Then he takes that fear and distills it, producing at the end of the coils a spirit that burns like carbolic acid. And he applies that spirit to some innocent, fairly decent protagonist.

That, my friends, is how story-building works.

No Second Chance stars Dr. Marc Seidman, plastic surgeon, who wakes up in a hospital room to learn he’s been in a coma for weeks. He was shot in his own home, and barely survived. His wife, also shot, did not survive.

And his infant daughter Tara vanished like smoke

The police have no leads. Their best theory is that Marc himself engineered his wife’s murder, but that theory makes no sense, and they know it.

Then a ransom note comes to Marc’s wealthy father-in-law. He and Marc agree to involve the police, but they will regret it, because the cops get spotted, the kidnappers get away with the money, and Tara remains lost.

The next time a demand comes, eighteen months later, they leave the cops out. But Marc instead brings in someone from his past, a former FBI agent he dated in college and nearly married. Working with an old lover can be a complication in any endeavor – but this time it might blow up in all their faces.

I like most of Harlan Coben’s books, and I liked No Second Chance more than most. The plot is very complex, but it’s revealed in layers, which kept this old man from getting confused (I like that). There were also some intriguing side characters, like a former child actress turned stone-cold-hitwoman, and a mullet-wearing, NRA-member, redneck who turns out to be good friend to have in a corner (this book is a few years old. I wonder if Coben would have the nerve to include such a character in a novel today).

Highly recommended, with cautions for intensity.

Brief Review of Avengers: Infinity War

We watched Avengers: Infinity War today (it appeared on Netflix last week). I don’t want to recap the plot and offer a bunch of spoilers. What’s the point of that? Three quarters of those who want to see it have already seen it. I’d just like to take a moment for a few thoughts.

  1. I still like comic book movies, but nonstop fantasy fighting gets old. Watch the Ip Man movies about the founder of Wing Chun and something of a superhero in his own right for several good, made-for-movie fights. The second season of Iron Fist had good fights too.
  2. The more power you give someone, the more difficult it is to watch him fight.
    Frank: “I can stop any attack with a mere thought.”
    Bubba: “And I’m going to shoot you in the head!”
    Frank: “Ha ha! You’ll never get –” [BANG]
    Budda: “Didn’t see that coming, didya punk!”
    [Spoiler] Did we see Thanos beat up the Hulk at the beginning? How is he breaking a sweat with these other guys? I hear that answer from the back. Convenience is correct.
  3. [Spoiler] I’ve haven’t read many comic books, and I know there are some bad ones out there, even among the good heroes. Still I am glad to learn the plot of Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t come from the comics. The story of Thanos and his quest to save the universe from itself begins in the books at the place the movie ends, not after a massive failed attempt to stop him but after his success quest to obtain all six infinity stones without the Avengers knowing about it. That’s a lot better than the story we’re given in this movie because of one overused formula.
  4. At the very beginning we see a character say he has one of the great-and-powerful stones and he would give it up to save the life of someone else. That formula is used twice more and a third time in reverse. Did we focus group other rationales to advance the plot and them all unbelievable? That gets as old as the hour-long battles and is probably the weakest part of this movie.
  5. The parody How It Should Have Ended proved its genius again.
  6. The last thing I’ll say is long movies like this make me want to take a hike in the real world. I’m not sure my new shoes are the right thing for hiking though. Maybe I could find alternatives.

‘A Good Death,’ by Chris Collett

I think I’m caught up on Chris Collett’s Inspector Mariner police procedural series now. All the books to this point have been titled (or re-titled; at least some were originally published under different titles) with names including the word “Lies.” Now they’ve come out with a new book that breaks the pattern – A Good Death is the eighth book in the series.

I found this one a tad stressful, because it dealt with religious people more than earlier books. One Christian and one Muslim family are involved and – predictably, in our times – the Muslims appear somewhat more admirable than the Christians. Though the author doesn’t take a hatchet to either side. Inspector Mariner makes a dismissive comment about “God-botherers” and one point, but that’s consistent with his established character. He doesn’t “get” religion – like most Caucasian Europeans.

A Good Death involves the investigations of three separate deaths. There’s the death in a house fire of an elderly Muslim patriarch – quickly identified as arson. This is complicated by the discovery of a second body in the ashes of the same fire.

Then there’s the disappearance of a wealthy young man, just before his wedding date. I figured out, if not the culprit, at least the motive (kind of), quite early on. However, oddly enough, I deduced it from the wrong piece of evidence. (Am I brilliant, or what?)

The Inspector Mariner mystery series is a solid one. A Good Death was not my favorite of these books, but in spite of my comments on the handling of religion, it was not offensive. Recommended, with the customary cautions.

‘Destry Rides Again,’ by Max Brand

I’m the kind of buckaroo who’s interested in the books movies are based on. Even more, I’m interested in how the movies change the story, for better or worse. Recently, one of the digital broadcast channels ran both iterations of the film, Destry Rides Again. The 1939 version, a classic comedy-drama, starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. It was remade in 1954, almost shot-for-shot, with Audie Murphy and some actress nobody remembers (“Hey gang! Let’s do it all over again just the same, but this time let’s make it stink!”). When I read the Wikipedia article, I noted that the movies bore almost no resemblance (except for the hero’s name, and they even changed the first part of that) to the original novel by Max Brand. That intrigued me enough to get the book for my Kindle.

They did not lie. Max Brand must have thought he was getting money for nothing when they paid him for the film rights, because very little of his work made it to the screen. (There was an earlier 1932 version with Tom Mix, which is said to have been closer to the book.)

The story of the movie, briefly, is this. The town of Bottleneck needs a new deputy sheriff, so they call in young Tom Destry, son of a legendary former sheriff. Only when he shows up, he’s a disappointment. He’s meek and quiet, and does not carry a gun. The toughs of the town, led by the local saloonkeeper, laugh at him. The saloonkeeper is behind a scheme to buy up all the properties on a strip of land that cattle drives need to cross. Then he can get rich off exorbitant watering fees. Destry employs his charm and disarming manner to defuse violence for a while, but eventually things get out of hand, and he at last straps on his pistol and meets the saloonkeeper for a showdown. There’s also a love triangle involving Marlene Dietrich’s saloon girl and a virtuous girl, both in love with Destry.

The book Destry Rides Again could hardly be more different. Harry Destry is the hero, and he’s a wild, tough, uncivilized young man, even a bit of a bully. He’s convicted of a robbery he did not commit, and comes back a changed – and darker – character. Each man on the jury had a personal grudge against him, and Harry has a plan to get revenge on each and every one of them. However, he does not guess his true enemy, a purported friend who in fact set him up and profited by it. The pure faith of the girl who loves him, and a boy who idolizes him, combine to help him begin to see the futility of his ways.

One can discern certain points where moments of the book might have suggested the film plot. When the story begins, Harry doesn’t have a gun – but that’s because he lost it in a poker game. When he returns from prison, he at first makes out to be a broken man, and appears unarmed – but that’s only a ploy. Also, there’s an idol-worshiping boy in both versions.

Otherwise they’re entirely different stories, in entirely different spirits.

What kind of a writer was Max Brand? I’ve read one of his novels before, and this one impressed me less. The term “purple prose” might have been coined for this book. Here’s a snippet:

There was no answer from Cleeves. He never again would answer any man. His lips were cold. Until Judgment Day, a thousand trumpets might blow, and Hank would never reply. He whom a hundred thousand eyes had seen now had vanished. He was gone. He was away. Deeper than the seas he was buried, and deeper than the mountains could hide him. The impalpable spirit was gone, and only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear….

And it goes on. Brand originally wrote this story as a magazine serial, and here you see the unmistakable traces of an author being paid by the word.

He also helpfully provides exclamation marks at the ends of narrative sentences on frequent occasions – so we’ll know when to be excited!

Destry Rides Again was amusing to read, but only as an artifact of its time. It is simplistic, overwritten, and improbable. Cautions for the occasional racial slur, too.

Big Men’s Boots, by Emily Barroso

Prayer is like that fire causing the pot to boil. God does nothing unless we pray. He has chosen us to be his co-workers on the earth. Prayer moves His divine hand. You need to remember to listen to what God is saying when you pray–he gets bored with lists. If you listen He will talk back.

What drew me to start reading Big Men’s Boots was the setting of the Welsh revival in 1904-05. What could be more exciting on its face than a historic outpour of the Holy Spirit?

According to Barroso, Wales was primed for change. English landowners clashed with common Welshmen on every front. Labor unions were taking up arms. Welsh Nonconformists chafed against Anglicans, who spoke another language and seemed to have all of the power. Would rising up against the English businessmen bring equality and justice to the Welsh, or would it drive all jobs out of the country?

The story begins with three men praying over the body of a young man who had passed away three days prior. They hold nothing back in urging God to act, even calling the boy to rise in Christ’s name, believing their earnest faith will produce the miracle they require. Outside the window, the boy’s friend Owen Evans, 13, also prays. The whole community must reckon with their grief and what they believe as social trouble begins to brew. Owen’s growing faith and what appears to be a prophetic gift frame up the rest of the story.

I want to praise this book and recommend it without reservation. That’s what I want to do with every book. But I have to be honest and say I didn’t finish reading it. Because I didn’t finish it, I delayed reviewing it until now. It feels overly long. Historical novels have their own pace as do readers. Perhaps you would enjoy it more than I did.

‘Missing Lies,’ by Chris Collett

Sorry I didn’t post the last couple nights. I was having trouble with myinternet connection. Still not sure the problem is solved. It seems to work fine in the mornings, but in the evenings it freezes up like an old man’s knees.

My plan was to review another Inspector Mariner mystery, byChris Collett. Missing Lies is the seventh book in the series, concerning abachelor police detective in Birmingham, England.

In the previous book, Tom Mariner became the guardian of anadult autistic man. This gives author Chris Collett (who is a woman) a chanceto teach him a lesson about what working mothers go through. (Personally,unreconstructed Victorian that I am, I think it just proves that mothers shouldstay at home, if they can). Anyway, Mariner now has to structure his lifearound his dependent, and it’s an annoyance and an education – through it hasits satisfactions too. On top of this, his most valuable subordinate, a newmother, is on maternity leave, and his second most valuable, a man, is on aspecial assignment. Another male subordinate appears to be less than diligentat his work – but is doing more than Mariner thinks (this character, interestingly,is a born-again Christian). A new member of the team, very promising, is yet another single mother.

In Missing Lies, a young woman, daughter of a prominent citizen, has disappeared. She started out along a city street to a party and never arrived at her destination. The case gets headlines, and corresponding pressure from superiors. Then a package arrives at police headquarters, containing most of the young woman’s clothing, all meticulously laundered and pressed.

Then another woman disappears. And another package arrives.

The mystery will spread far afield, and then spiral back in close to home.

I liked Missing Lies. Mariner is a solid character,believably solitary, carrying old scars. He is skittish withrelationships, but we are given reasons to understand him.

Recommended, with only minor cautions for what you’d expect.

Unable to refuse Babette’s Feast

Luminously realistic and profoundly intricate, Dinesen’s stories all celebrate physicality as something deeply spiritual. “Babette’s Feast” does so in excelsis. In style it is stark but shining; in plot it is unpretentious—indeed nothing more than one long anecdote—but also a complex interweaving of characters and years. A simple story about a dinner, it is also an expansive story about the interplay of art, time, destiny, failure, and gratitude. What is more, it is a tiny masterpiece of grace.

Leta Sundet writes of the powerful grace in Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast.”