The holmgang duel, part 1


Two “Vikings” (me and my friend Ragnar) face off for a duel. Photo credit: Emily Chesley.

[I recently wrote a series of articles on the Viking judicial duel–the holmgang–for the newsletter of my Sons of Norway lodge. I offer them now for you here, in three installments. lw]

“By law shall the land be established, and by lawlessness laid waste,” says the title character in the Icelandic Njal’s Saga. Historian Magnus Magnusson writes, “I can never resist reminding my sceptical friends that it was these allegedly pitiless savages [the Vikings] who introduced the word law into the English language.”

Anyone reading the sagas will soon realize the extreme importance of the idea of law to the Norse. And it’s in the context of this importance that the judicial duel, the holmgang, must be understood.

The Vikings had laws and courts, as we do today. What they did not have was a police force. Delegating the use of force to someone else would have seemed shameful to any free Norseman. Continue reading The holmgang duel, part 1

Looking for the Beautiful

Mr. Silva is blogging about seeing beauty in life.

The current state of publishing has me thinking about the future.

It’s hard not to these days. Everywhere you look there’s another announcement of the electronic squashing print. I imagine this big trash-can-head robot stomping books into the mud and I have to set down my quill and cry a little into my ink-stained tea mug.

(Imagine people wanting to move to the space station on Mars just to get away from the disturbing technological society we’ve created on Earth. It isn’t so far fetched to consider–the sci-fi writers are all wondering why I’d even bring it up.)

Your government at work

Above is a facsimile of the new United States Postal Service “blank stamp,” which is set to go on sale on April 1, 2010.

“There has been considerable criticism from several quarters against the tradition of printing images on stamps, images which necessarily offend certain members of the community, since there’s no image that doesn’t offend somebody,” said a spokesperson for the USPS at a press conference in Washington D.C., earlier today. “As giving no offense has become a primary objective of government policy, we’ve decided to nip the problem in the bud. The blank postage stamp was an obvious solution.”

When asked why there are also no words or numbers on the stamp, the spokesperson answered, “In order to respect the feelings of the growing American illiterate community, the decision was made to omit all words and numbers, in order to bolster the self-esteem of that valued citizen group. If you wonder what the value of a stamp actually is, a toll-free number will be available where inquiries may be made.”

One reporter noted that, without the traditional “simulated perforation” die-cutting of previous self-adhesive postage stamps, the new stamp is actually indistinguishable from the Avery self-adhesive labels anyone can buy at an office supply store.

“There is no truth at all to the internet rumor that claims the Post Office has just bought a supply of labels from Staples, and is selling them to the public for forty-four cents a piece,” said the spokesperson. “These are genuine U.S. Post Office stamps, designed with great care by a noted conceptual artist who has asked to remain nameless, and backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.”

“What’s to prevent people from just sticking Avery labels on their letters?” one reporter asked.

“In order to prevent that kind of unconscionable counterfeiting,” the spokesperson answered, “we have been authorized to require every U.S. citizen to buy a supply of these stamps, whether they plan to use them or not. It’s the only way to insure fairness.”

Longfellow’s Weariness

O little feet! that such long years

Must wander on through hopes and fears,

Must ache and bleed beneath your load;

I, nearer to the wayside inn

Where toil shall cease and rest begin,

Am weary, thinking of your road!

O little hands! that, weak or strong,

Have still to serve or rule so long,

Have still so long to give or ask;

I, who so much with book and pen

Have toiled among my fellow-men,

Am weary, thinking of your task.

O little hearts! that throb and beat

With such impatient, feverish heat,

Such limitless and strong desires;

Mine that so long has glowed and burned,

With passions into ashes turned

Now covers and conceals its fires.

O little souls! as pure and white

And crystalline as rays of light

Direct from heaven, their source divine;

Refracted through the mist of years,

How red my setting sun appears,

How lurid looks this soul of mine!

“Weariness” by H.W. Longfellow

The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

At one point in The Long Way Home, the second volume (just released) of Andrew Klavan’s Young Adult series, The Homelanders, Charlie West, the hero, reminisces about talking with his school buddies about various geeky subjects, such as why the second part of any trilogy is never as good as Parts One and Three. I can’t say how The Long Way Home stacks up against the third book, coming this fall, but I’d say that it definitely lives up to the promise of Volume One, The Last Thing I Remember.

Nobody does literary chases better than Klavan, and fully the first quarter of this book is a hot chase, with Charlie fleeing both terrorists and the police on a motorcycle and on foot. Like the masterful chase that played such a major role in the author’s book True Crime (which became a Clint Eastwood movie), this one would strain credibility pretty tight, if the author gave you time to think about it. Fortunately, he doesn’t, and the young males who are its chief intended audience will eat it up like nachos. I can’t guarantee your nephew will like it, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell you it was boring. Continue reading The Long Way Home, by Andrew Klavan

The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

I’ve been enjoying television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell’s novels recently, as you may have noticed. The Devil’s Workshop did not disappoint me in terms of story or character (I found the ending especially moving), but I’m glad I didn’t read it first, because it might have turned me off his work from the outset. Continue reading The Devil’s Workshop, by Stephen J. Cannell

The Hypatian fallacy

One of the enduring legends of the West is that of Hypatia of Alexandra, immortalized by authors as far separated in time as Edward Gibbon and Carl Sagan as a humanist martyr, a scientist who was murdered by 5th Century Christian fanatics for the “sin” of inquiring into the mysteries of the natural world.

Our friend Ori Pomerantz directed me to this entry from the blog Armarium Magnum, concerning a recent movie about Hypatia. The author, who identifies himself as an atheist, points out that there is zero historical evidence for the idea that Hypatia died for science. According to the record, she got caught in a political crossfire and was killed by a mob that didn’t care (if it even knew) a bit about her scientific activities.

German Resistance to Hitler

Danny Orbach’s book, Valkyrie: German Resistance to Hitler, focuses on the people who fought The Third Reich from within, people like Georg Elser, who bombed a beer hall just after Herr Hitler left. Reviewer Tom Segev writes:

Danny Orbach believes in the myth of German resistance. He rightly admires the courage of the few who dared to put their lives at risk for the sake of their country. Nonetheless, this young Israeli historian tends to assign them an exaggerated role in the history of the Third Reich. Yes, the Nazis used concentration camps and other means of suppressing resistance and intimidating would-be opponents of the regime, but the truth is that most Germans supported Hitler until the very end of the war.

More dark humor: Future recruitment ad

Today would appear to be Parody Day here at Brandywine Books.

This morning I was listening to a National Guard recruitment ad, one of the kind where one character raves about how much money she’s saving on college by joining the Guard, and the other ends up saying, “I’m gonna call the recruiter today!”

And I started to wonder about the kind of recruitment ad we can expect to see a few years down the line, once our military has had its consciousness fully raised by a progressive administration…

JENNIFER: Hey, Stacey, guess what? I joined the National Guard! With the Guard’s great education benefits, I can afford to go to college, and skip that great big debt!”

STACEY: You joined that National Guard? Jennifer, don’t you know they’re a tool of American hegemony, exploiting indigenous peoples around the world, and promoting racist and corporatist national interests?

JENNIFER: Boy, are you behind the times, Stacey! That was the old National Guard! Today’s Guard encourages its members to think for themselves, and provides lots of opportunities for revolutionary action! I plan to be a communications specialist, and I’ll be using the new privacy rules to funnel military secrets to our enemies abroad! There’s even an elite Jihadist unit, where you can be taught to participate in human-caused disasters right here in our own country!

STACEY: Wow! I didn’t know that! I’m gonna call the recruiter today!

Orcas: A Little Dark Humor

Perhaps you’ve heard that a trainer at Sea World was drowned yesterday when an orca took her off the platform and held her underwater. Dawn Brancheau was a 16-year veteran trainer. The killer whale, Tilikum, has been involved in human deaths twice before.

Authorities are reassuring the public that this is an isolated incident. There is no evidence the orca or any animals being held captive at Sea World are part of a larger terrorist organization.

A spokesperson for the Orca Labor Union in Orlando has released a statement saying that while killer whales are very intelligent and capable of planning to drown a human, Tilikum did not do that in this case.

“Unfortunately, it is part of human nature to keep wild animals in small spaces and train them to do tricks. I’m against it because I think it humiliates the animals,” said Richard Ellis, a marine conservationist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Officials at Sea World have refused to responded to our repeated inquiry into rumored plans for selling whale blubber and orca sausage in their gift stores.

My personal stake in Hiroshima

JAPAN: BOMBING, HIROSHIMA ATOMIC BURST. At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20

I mentioned that I went to a friend’s fathers’ funeral a couple weekends ago. While there, I had a pleasant time reminiscing with three old friends from my musical group days.

At one point, one of them said, “You know we (the three other guys) talked about this the last time we were together. All three of us had fathers who served in the Pacific, and who would have had to be part of the invasion of Japan, if it had happened. So three out of four of us here might not have ever been born, if the atomic bomb hadn’t been dropped.”

I said, “You’re one short. My dad served in the Occupation forces, but he trained for the invasion.” Continue reading My personal stake in Hiroshima

Reader Advice to Writers: Start with Story

Laura Miller does not plan to write a novel, but she reads plenty of them. “More to the point, I’ve started 10 times the number of books that I’ve finished,” she says, and in this post on, she offers pointers on what readers look for. Here’s a good point: “Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can’t recognize “good writing” or don’t value it that much. Believe me, I wish this were otherwise, and I do urge all readers to polish their prose and avoid clichés. However, I’ve seen as many books ruined by too much emphasis on style as by too little.”

Fantasy Book Cover Art

Jeffrey Overstreet shares his fears on what the cover art for Auralia’s Colors would be. “Take a stroll through the fantasy literature section of your nearest bookstore. If you’re like me, you’ll cringe. For every great book cover, it seems there are three or four that seem desperate for attention, pandering to our basest appetites. It’s like an art gallery of the cheesy, the lurid, the grotesque, the painfully derivative, and the weapons upon which people can impale themselves.”

But the artist working on the covers of his novels, Kristopher K. Orr, did a superb job.

Ancient times and elderly people

Did Agatha Christie suffer from Alzheimer’s at the end? U of T Magazine reports on a Canadian study intended to use computers to find out.

Avid Christie fans had the unsettling feeling that there might have been: the plot wasn’t as tight, the mystery not as carefully conceived. In 2004, the English academic Peter Garrard argued that evidence of Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s disease appeared in her written work even before her doctor diagnosed it. So Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, decided to analyze a selection of Christie’s novels.

He teamed up with Graeme Hirst, a professor in the computer science department. After digitizing copies of the books and developing their own analytical software, they examined the first 50,000 words of 16 of Christie’s novels. The earliest one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was written at the beginning of her career, when she was in her mid-twenties. The last one, Postern of Fate, was penned when she was 82. She died at 85 of natural causes.

Tip: Mirabilis.

Most historical studies, operating on an evolutionist/materialist model, are written from the point of view that people first organized towns and cities (the beginnings of civilization) for economic reasons, developing religious institutions, as a sort of afterthought, later on.

But a German-born archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt is challenging that assumption, on the basis of a discovery in Turkey.

Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.

Tip: First Thoughts.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture