A short pause for the Long Ships

Today I got a little translation work to do. Not a lot, but there are reasons to hope things may pick up a bit.

And I did a little housework.

And I have nothing to write about. I’m blank. In lieu of an actual intellectual contribution to the world wide web, I offer the opening titles from a truly mediocre Viking movie, The Long Ships, with Richard Widmark.

This film, beyond its general inaccuracy and implausibility, commits the great sin of being unworthy of its source material — the fine novel The Long Ships, by Fran Gunnar Bengtsson.

You may note that the ship’s rudder is (properly) on the starboard side in some shots, and occasionally on the port side. This is the result of a cheat on the film editors’ parts. They just reversed the print. For some reason.

I owned a 45 rpm vinyl disc of this song — a cousin had it and didn’t want it, and she gave it to me. I think I listened to it once — somehow I left it sitting a car window and it melted.

Only the first of many disappointments connected with this movie.

‘The Last Straw,’ by Paul Gitsham

I was in a mood for a change of pace from intense crime thrillers, and thought I’d look for a good, old-fashioned police procedural. I found it in The Last Straw, Paul Gitsham’s first in a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Warren Jones of the (fictional) Middlesbury police force, in England.

Professor Alan Tunbridge of the (also fictional) University of Middle England’s biology department was a genius and, by all accounts, a pretty vile man. He abused his colleagues, exploited and sabotaged his student assistants, and pursued any pretty young woman who came his way.

Nevertheless, he didn’t deserve to have this throat cut. Which is what happened, in his office, on a day when the laboratory building was nearly empty.

A suspect is quickly identified. A figure on the building’s closed circuit TV is readily identifiable as a former student of Tunbridge’s, an Italian man with good reason to hate him. When bloodstained clothing is found on the man’s property, it follows naturally he must be arrested and charged.

But DCI Warren Jones, newly promoted and transferred in to Middlesbury, is a stickler for “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts,” as he repeatedly says. And he and his subordinates begin to have doubts about the evidence. Looking more closely, they begin to uncover a ruthless conspiracy, one which will not stint at committing further murders to keep its secrets —  and even cops are not safe.

To be honest, I found The Last Straw a little dull at first. I’ve grown accustomed to angst-ridden detectives, bedeviled by alcoholism, PTSD, bad marriages and ingrown guilt. DCI Jones is another kind of policeman altogether. He’s healthy, well organized, and generally cheerful. And when personal conflicts appear on his team, he handles them in a manner that’s an example to us all. I do worry about his marriage though – his wife is remarkably patient, but the pressure is heavy.

The book grew on me. It didn’t hurt that a couple of the characters identified as Christians and church-goers. I recommend The Last Straw for a more leisurely read than common in the genre, with only a mild caution for language.

‘Another Kingdom,’ by Andrew Klavan

I’d been told that Hollywood was where you went if you wanted to sell your soul to make movies. I went, but I never sold my soul. No one would buy it. I just got tired of carrying it around.

As a fantasy writer myself, I resent the way an interloper, like thriller writer Andrew Klavan, can just waltz in and write a compelling fantasy without (apparently) breaking a sweat or learning the secret handshake.

I comfort myself by finding a few nitpicks in my generally enthusiastic reception.

The hero of Another Kingdom is Austin Lively, a lowly Hollywood “story analyst.” A story analyst reads unsolicited scripts, and novels under consideration for script development, for Hollywood studios. Austin wrote a very good script once, but it died in development purgatory. Now he just gets by, a Hollywood drone, the despair of his high-achieving family.

But one day he has an impulse to re-read a book he “analyzed” a while back. The author withdrew it from consideration, but it stuck in his mind. He can’t find it on Amazon, and no bookseller seems to have it. On his way to check out another possibility, he walks through a doorway…

And finds himself in a tall castle window, teetering over the edge. He has a bloody dagger in his hand, and a beautiful woman lies dead, stabbed to death, on the floor behind him. Armed men break in and arrest him, dragging him off to a dungeon. There he nearly loses his mind with fear, until the guards come to take him away for torture. As he passes through the door again, he is transported back to Los Angeles…

Where he soon finds himself being hunted by a sexually ambiguous hit man, who works for a billionaire – who just happens to be the man who employs his father, his mother, and his brother. Who also owns the studio where Austin works.

Somebody will be killed, and Austin will be blamed. And all the while, at uncontrollable intervals, when he least expects it, Austin will be dropped back into the world of Another Kingdom, where he is now part of the resistance to a tyrannical government, fighting to bring back the rightful queen.

Each time he passes into Another Kingdom, he learns something – something that helps him survive in the “real world” of Los Angeles. And gradually he matures, becoming the man he always wanted to be, but never believed he could be.

Because this is Klavan, I assume Another Kingdom is Christian fantasy. But it’s not like your ordinary Christian fantasy (not even mine). There’s foul language, and sex scenes without any reference to Christian morality. I’m expecting the lessons to be deeper, and to become apparent later in the trilogy.

I had a few quibbles, as I mentioned. The medieval fantasy world of Another Kingdom seems to me pretty much pro forma, a city boy’s imagination. It lacked verisimilitude, for me. I don’t expect a medieval manor house to have glass doors (too expensive and fragile). A horse is lent to the hero, and all he does with it is ride it – he doesn’t feed it or unsaddle it or rub it down or check its feet. It’s just there for his use, like a car.

But the trademark Klavan storytelling delights are all here – the action never lets up, and one deadly peril follows the other in breathtaking style. This book will not bore you, not for one moment. I recommend it (with cautions for adult stuff) and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

Have Journalists Connected Dots that Do not Add Up?

Despite the connect-the-dots graphic in its other story, and despite the astonishing, emotion-laden editorial the paper also ran suggesting “We don’t need to read the Mueller report” because we know Trump is guilty, Baker at least began the work of preparing Times readers for a hard question: “Have journalists connected too many dots that do not really add up?”

. . .

There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included. Honest reporters like ABC’s Terry Moran understand: Mueller coming back empty-handed on collusion means a “reckoning for the media.”

Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is). But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.

From a chapter released today of Hate, Inc. by Matt Taibbi

‘Song of the Vikings,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The famous phrase, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” was inspired by this book [Heimskringla]: Snorri is indeed a deft biographer.


Any Viking aficionado can’t help being aware of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic chieftain who penned Heimskringla, the sagas of the Norwegian kings, and the Prose Edda, which tells us almost everything we know about Norse mythology. He is an essential figure in the lore – Tom Shippey called him “the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.”

And yet, although he has a saga we can read, most of us don’t know a lot about his life (the saga is rather sad and bloody, and was written by a relation who disliked him. I confess I haven’t read it). So Nancy Marie Brown, who wrote Ivory Vikings, which I reviewed not long ago, has done us a service by writing his biography for a modern audience in Song of the Vikings.

Song of the Vikings follows Snorri’s life story, and integrates it with commentary on his important works (some of the attributions have been questioned, but Brown seems to accept them). Thus we get insight on the events of his life through considering the things he wrote that appear to have been informed by them. For instance, the content of Heimskringla bears witness to Snorri’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution of kingship – he was somewhat star-struck by kings (and may have collaborated to subvert the Icelandic republic for a Norwegian king), but he had bitter experience of royal capriciousness. His narrative of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, may relate to some bad years Iceland suffered following devastating volcanic eruptions, and also the violence that accompanied the breakdown of his own (somewhat cynical) schemes to make himself “the uncrowned king of Iceland.”

The book begins with an anecdote about J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and we learn much about the amazing influence of Snorri’s work throughout the world’s literature and art – for better and worse. This is all the more remarkable because his books weren’t even known outside Iceland until around the beginning of the 17th Century.

I was very impressed by Song of the Vikings. Any reader interested in Norse history or myth will gain many new insights. Author Brown is a good writer and an impressive scholar. I recommend this book.

Personal Libraries

When asked about their personal libraries, these writers said this.

Richard Brookhiser: “The Brookhiser Decimal System depends on memory. Why is volume 2 of My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausgaard) next to Churchill, Roosevelt & Company(Lewis Lehrman)? Because I put them there, and I know that is where I can go to find them. (Sometimes I am distracted by ghost memories of the locations of books I have given away.)” He also loves Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child.

Joseph Epstein: “One [bookcase] contains the works of the authors I most admire along with books about them . . . A bookcase alongside it contains exclusively Library of America books, which look, if I may say so, better than they read (the typeface and leading leave much to be desired), a number of which I’ve not read, and a few more of which I have no wish to read. “

Micah Mattix on his library’s disorganization: “I have developed an attachment to the inefficiency of trying to find that damn Sophocles or godforsaken Gregory Corso. Plus, it reminds me of life — disordered, exasperating, but punctuated by the momentary thrill of finding just the thing you’re looking for. “

Terry Teachout: “Unwealthy New Yorkers can’t afford homes large enough to amass libraries, and while degenerate city collectors keep books in the oven, I’ve never been reduced to that pitiful extremity. ” (via Terry Teachout)

Of conservatives, progressives, and Christians

My Close Personal Friend Gene Edward Veith posts an interesting meditation today on the differences between the ways conservatives and progressives think — and how Christians are (or should be) distinct from both.

It would follow that Christians, while tending towards conservatism, would also be sensitive to some of the evils that bother progressives.  But they would see them as violations of God’s design, rather than as an excuse to violate that design further.  Christians would have at best modest hopes for what human governments and “nation-states” can accomplish, avoiding all utopian thinking–whether of the conservative or the progressive variety–in a spirit of realism and skepticism, even while they do what they can to advance the common good.  The Christian’s hope is fixed not so much on this world, which will soon pass away, but on the world to come–on Christ who has atoned for the sins of the world and who will reign as King over the New Heaven and the New Earth.

From this perspective, Christians must sometimes be progressive, sometimes conservative, in relation to changing conditions.

I’m sure (because they keep saying it) that my progressive friends truly believe that we are on the brink of a fascist takeover. That we must all run to the port side of the boat right away, lest we tip over to starboard.

I can’t see that. We have an (imperfectly) conservative president, and one house of Congress that’s sort of conservative on a good day. Our educational system, our government bureaucracies, our news media and our entertainment media are uniformly progressive — and at the moment they’re competing with one another to prove who can be the most like Mao.

I’ll continue to sit over here on the starboard side, thanks. Wake me up when the president closes down a newspaper.

‘A Parting In the Sky,’ by Mark W. Sasse

In the book of Daniel, there’s a reference that’s always intrigued me to a being called “a Watcher, a Holy One.” I think such beings are usually explained as some kind of angel. I suspect – though I’m not sure – that some characters in Mark W. Sasse’s Forgotten Child Trilogy may be meant to be the same kind of creatures, though here they’re not exactly angels.

A Parting In the Sky is the third and final book in the trilogy. Our protagonist, Francis Frick, a repentant arms merchant, does not actually do a lot in this volume, being confined to a hospital bed. The main characters are Ash, a “watcher,” and Hatty Parker, a young black woman who has become Francis’s friend and ally.

Another main character in the previous books, “Bee,” a sort of giggling fairy who loves pomegranates and blithely disregards the rules by which Watchers operate, also plays a diminished role. Bee is beloved both by Francis and by Ash, but she is banished from our world for her insubordination. However, in her absence Ash finds himself restored and strengthened, and he carries on her program for Francis and his friends, to the anger of his superior.

The wicked arms merchants against whom Francis and Hatty are now working are planning a major act of terror before fleeing the US with their ill-gotten gains. Hatty willingly surrenders herself to her enemies, trusting that the powers watching over her will use her to stop the evil. Things will work out in a way beyond anyone’s hope.

The Forgotten Child trilogy is as strange a series of books as I’ve ever read. I can’t claim that the writing is elegant or precise – Sasse doesn’t know how to use the word “myriad,” for instance, and he makes other errors of diction.

But I enjoyed the books immensely. There’s an innocence and simplicity there (worked into a very complex, globe-hopping plot) that pleases and delights.

They’re the kind of books that might be Christian, but the Christianity is obliquely expressed. There seems to be an argument about theodicy embedded in the story. I recommend these books.

‘Worth Killing For,’ by Ed James

Yesterday I reviewed Ed James’s interesting first entry in his DI Fenchurch series, The Hope That Kills. I said I wasn’t sure what I thought about the series yet. But now I’ve read the second book, Worth Killing For, and I know what I think.

Detective Inspector Simon Fenchurch is an obsessive policeman in tough east London. His daughter Chloe was kidnapped ten years ago, and he’s been killing himself on the job, hoping that somehow he’ll find a clue about her fate.

In Worth Killing For, he has kept a promise to his ex-wife. He’s given up the search for Chloe, and they’ve moved in together again. He’s honored the letter of his promise, though he can’t avoid thinking about the mystery, especially since his father, working as a volunteer on cold cases, is keeping the search up.

This time out, Fenchurch and his wife are on their way to a restaurant when they see a young woman stabbed to death in the street, before their very eyes. Fenchurch pursues the suspect and finally catches him. But fingerprints on the weapon prove he got the wrong young man.

The victim was a journalist, and shortly after her death, a colleague of hers is similarly murdered – again in front of Fenchurch’s eyes.

There’s a conspiracy here – and it goes beyond street gangs. Very rich and powerful people are manipulating young black men in order to further big business and political schemes.

And that’s where the author lost me. I finished the book, but I won’t be reading any more.

What we’ve dealing with here is Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo Syndrome. The books are written from a Marxist perspective, so that all crime ultimately emanates from the dark machinations of the Evil Rich and the Evil Conservatives. A major bad guy here is a pro-Brexit politician, and the opportunity is taken to link him to Trump, who is Worse Than Hitler.

I’m sure author James doesn’t want my filthy conservative money, so I won’t read any more of the Fenchurch books. I regret that I’ll never learn what happened to Chloe – we’re bound to find out eventually – but I already know that she was the victim of some vast Right Wing Conspiracy, so I can save the money on further details.

‘The Hope That Kills,’ by Ed James

I thought it was time to try another British crime series. Ed James’s DI Fenchurch novels are going cheap right now, so I thought I’d start with the first, The Hope That Kills.

Simon Fenchurch is a police inspector in east London. He’s a hollow man, ruined by a family tragedy. Ten years ago, his little girl Chloe disappeared, and has never been seen again. On top of his regular case load, Fenchurch is constantly running down leads on Chloe – missing persons cases, unidentified bodies. No luck. His marriage has broken up, and he’s always at odds with his superiors.

When a young prostitute is found stabbed to death in the streets, Fenchurch is electrified. The victim isn’t Chloe, but she could be. Right age, similar appearance. This motivates him into a frenzied, sleepless investigation in which he violates all the rules and lines of command. The trail leads to the rich and powerful, and to a criminal scheme almost incredible in its degeneracy.

I’m not sure about this series yet. There’s no charm in it. Just passion. And it’s depressing. Probably pretty realistic (except for Fenchurch’s scenes physically chasing criminals, which seem cinematic and repetitive). Also the final solution, which I just described as “almost incredible,” does seem a little over the top.

But the ending of the story was somewhat hopeful, and I’m giving the second book a chance. I’ll let you know.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing situations.

Egyptian Ship Discovered, Herodotus Triumphant

From the Sunday Guardian: “In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders ‘cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks.’ He added: ‘On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…'”

Scholars haven’t known how to handle Herodotus’s description of this ancient ship built for navigating the Nile River, because archaeologists had not uncovered any evidence of one or similar construction. Now they have, and they are saying the historical description is accurate in every way. (via Prufrock News)

Personal appearance advisory

I will be speaking at Union University, Jackson, Tennessee on Tuesday, April 9, on the subject: “When Christianity Came to the Vikings.” More information here.

Thanks to Ray Van Neste, Dean of the School of Theology and Missions, and Hunter Baker, Dean of Arts and Sciences, for putting whatever pressure was necessary on the right people to allow this event to happen.

A Little Irish

St. Patrick’s Day is Sunday, so here are some numbers and facts on Ireland and the Irish.

1.76 million = Irish who say they speak Irish on occasion, when filing an affirmative action claim, or when they’re drunk
73 thousand = Irish who claim to speak it daily (source)

Irish does not have yes and no as words. Instead they respond affirmatively or negatively, such as “Sure, we do,” or “I wouldn’t say that.” Many of them follow this pattern in English too. (source)

6 = Number of times more likely you will be murdered in Ireland than in England or Wales. (source)

“It would be great then if the Americans and the Germans who come to Dublin in large numbers, and claim to love the city, had [Karl] Whitney’s book in hand rather than, say, Ulysses, or some official guide book, and began to pay attention to the city’s underground rivers and its great unfinished estates, not to speak of the strange bus routes and the many holes in the ground, the hidden and essential life of Dublin.”

All Irish can sing; many can dance. “Most – if not all – people I’ve met can do at least part of the original Riverdance. They bring it out at nightclubs, weddings, funerals. They also stand on tables and sing the national anthem at the end of the night. In Australia this only happens at sporting events, school assemblies and anti-immigration rallies but here it’s just the bar’s way of telling you to bugger off home. “

Death is a big deal. “I’ve been to better Irish funerals than Australian weddings. ” (source – cautions)

And from 2017 Port Music Series on Trad Tg4 Irish Music Channel comes this marvelous piece of singing.

Photo by Diogo Palhais on Unsplash

Book Reviews, Creative Culture