Blogger Mary J. Moerbe continues her series of reviews of my work. This one is West Oversea:
The thing that makes me so enamored with Erling Skjalgsson is that he is a man with a real chance of being honorable and lordly. His pagan setting and background highlight how difficult it isto do the right thing and cut through expectations in pursuit of a higher wisdom and trust. All of which makes him a really powerful Christian figure!
Day One of the Festival of Nations is done. This was the easy day – 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tomorrow and Saturday will be roughly 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday wraps it up for good at 6:00 p.m.
Today and tomorrow morning were/are student days. The place
rings with the laughter of children, and the ennui of teens.
When I say “rings,” I mean it. The River Centre is part of a complex (adjective) complex (noun) comprising the Excel Energy Center, the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, and probably a couple other institutions I never noticed. What the River Centre appears to be – mostly – is the basement of the whole thing.
I am not a sun worshiper. I wear a hat for shade when I go
outside, and never wear shorts. In general, I prefer to spend my time indoors,
away from the sunburn and insect bites.
But a day in the River Centre drives me to consider nudism.
It’s not only the artificial light – I expect they replaced
all the fluorescents with LEDs long ago – but the sound of the place. The
reverberations of noise off the bunker walls. I’m too old for this.
However, I recently invested in a stock of Viking Legacy (the paper version is available from Saga Publishing, even though Amazon only carries the Kindle version. For some reason). I’m eager to recoup my expenses. Even at the expense of voluntary incarceration.
Sold 3 copies today, plus one of West Oversea. I consider that OK for student days at the Festival. I don’t expect to sell a lot of copies to kids.
Tomorrow should, I hope, bring serious sales. I seem to
recall I’ve had good sales in the past (it’s been a few years).
One high school guy came by and told me he already owned the
book. And he hadn’t bought it from me.
I had a similar experience. I was raised to be a rational atheist, with the philosophy that truth had to be sought in the world. Evil was explained as mistakes that people made, that they could be educated out of. But the older I got, the more evil I saw, until I couldn’t accept that, and had to switch to nihilism and the idea that the world simply was meaningless and thus evil.
But reality occasionally showed me actual goodness, as well, and in a evil world there would be no goodness (hence the argument that everything is really done for selfish reasons, for example). And so I was troubled.
And then I saw an X-files episode where a character, trying to defend himself against the charge that he was selfish, said, “I have love in my heart!” And the reply given him was, “you have love like a thief has money.” And I realized that the love I saw in the world must come from outside it, and this led me to Christ, who reconciles the contradiction of an obviously evil world that yet contains love.
I’m always excited and gratified when authors show up themselves to comment on our reviews of their books. We just got a comment from Jeffrey Overstreet on my review of Auralia’s Colors. I fear he wasn’t entirely happy with what he found here, but it was nice to have a visit from him anyway.
In case you’re wondering how I’m doing on the Virtual Book Tour I’ve been working on for my publisher, I think I can say it’s been going well. I’ve finished one blog post and several interviews for various literature-related blogs. And yes, I’ll let you know where to look for them, once they appear (assuming I find out myself).
I’m nearly finished with the first batch of interviews. I understand more are coming. Today the publicist asked me how I felt about writing a food-related post for a blog that talks to authors about their favorite recipes.
Now on the surface that doesn’t make much sense, me being a certified microwave-dependent bachelor (though I do make a mean scratch chocolate chip cookie when the fit is on me). But the idea of writing about Viking food, and relating it to West Oversea (buy it here) is intriguing. I’ve decided to do it, and I’ve made arrangements to borrow a recipe from a reenactor friend.
(And yes, in case you wondered, I will give her credit for it.)
I feel confident I can produce a post unlike any this particular blog has seen before. A hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners exposé of genuine Viking cuisine, featuring such delights as rotten shark (a delicacy in Iceland which reportedly made that Chef Gordon Ramsey throw up), and sheep’s head (also popular in Iceland. The eyeballs, I’m told, are especially relished). Many is the joke that’s been made about lutefisk over the years, but the Norwegians’ beloved lutefisk is just a pale, ghostly remnant of the true Nightmare On Elm Street mealtime horrors of the Scandinavian past.
Because we’re talking about a marginal economy, where taste places a far distant second to survival.
People sometimes ask me whether I wish I had been born in the Viking Age.
My answer is no, for three reasons.
One, I was a sickly child who would in all probability have been exposed on a hillside for the wolves at birth.
Two, the plumbing was awful.
Three, the food was inedible to the modern palate.
I’ve written a time travel book (still unpublished at this date) in which a father and daughter get the opportunity to go back to Viking Age Norway and stay there. She points out that if they did, they’d never get to eat chocolate again.
I’m hesitating a bit on how to review Lars’ latest adventure. You’ve seen several other reviews both light and heavy on details, so a straight-forward review like the last one I wrote isn’t appropriate. It would not advance the storyline, as it were. I’m also tempted to write something very silly such as a long-winded ramble about my daily life, barely touching on the book itself, or a review promising full spoilers and offering none. I don’t care to write either of those.
If you are not already convinced by reading it yourself, Lars has written a darn good story in “Westward Ho” (see, I can barely stop myself). It begins strong; the conflict which prompts Erling Skjalgsson to sail west comes upfront. New problems emerge along the way, both small and large, and just when you start to wonder if the heroes will ever return home, the battle flames hot again. But this is what you already know. Let me write about other things, making this a review supplemental (though you already got some of that in the Q&A we posted before).
West Oversea is written within a beautifully rich framework. It is like an actor who does not break his character, even when everyone else goes off-script. Several decisions the characters make are not fully explained to the modern reader, making the story more believable and less of a teaching tool. So many Christian works of fiction seem to want to teach more than tell stories, but if they were to follow Shakespeare’s example, much as West Oversea does, their stories would be better and their readers may have more to talk about. I’m thinking of how Hamlet dies at the end of his play, not because it’s more dramatic for him to bite it along with the others, but for the sake of justice. He had murdered Polonius, therefore his life was justly forfeit—a life for a life unjustly taken, the essence of capital punishment. Does Shakespeare ever spell that out to us? No.
In a similar way, Lars’ tale has characters acting within their worldviews and not necessarily talking it through for the reader’s sake. That may be the narrative style. Father Aillil, who relates the adventure to us, does not wallow in his emotions, even when he is deeply stirred. He gives us no soliloquy on the merits of living as Hamlet does. Many times, he merely acts.
But the theme of the book is not at all opaque. Erling speaks it clearly in the beginning when he must decide how to deal with the overarching conflict of the book. “One kind of right is simple. You do what the law says. You keep your vows though it beggars you. The other kind of right is knottier. It means asking what action will bring the best fruit. . . . Looking at it that way, a man might persuade himself it was right to break the law; right to break his vows.”
Is there a good cause greater than one’s duty to the law? Yes, if the law is unjust, but how much does it take for a man to argue the injustice of inconvenient law? That is Erling’s position. He says, “I think any crime and dishonor might be justified” once a man allows himself to believe his desired end is the greater good.
West Oversea is a fantastic book and deserves to be one of many in a long series. Men like Erling Skjalgsson ought to spring readily to mind when men and boys think of heroes from the past. Let me close by quoting Erling from The Year of the Warrior, a passage which shows something of the man’s character:
“We went a-viking in Ireland,” said Erling, “my father and I. I saw a man—a priest—die for Christ. We were holding him and others for ransom, and some of the lads were having a lark and thought it would be sport to make him eat horsemeat. He refused, and the lads took offense at his manner. They tied him to a tree and shot him full of arrows. He died singing a hymn. I thought he was as brave as Hogni, who laughed while Atli cut his heart out. My father said not to talk rot, that a man who dies over what food he’ll eat dies for less than nothing.”
“I’ve never seen a true martyrdom,” I said. “I’ll wager it wasn’t like the pictures.”
“No,” said Erling. “It looked nothing like the pictures in the churches. Martyrs die like other men, bloody and sweaty and pale, and loosening their bowels at the end.”
“So I’d feared.”
“What of it? The pictures are no cheat. Just because I saw no angels, why should I think there were no angels there? Because I didn’t see Christ opening Heaven to receive the priest, how can I say Christ was not there? If someone painted a picture of that priest’s death, and left out the angels and Christ and Heaven opening, he’d not have painted truly. The priest sang as he died. Only he knows what he say in that hour, but what he saw made him strong.
“I saw a human sacrifice once too, in Sweden. When it was done, and my father had explained how the gods need to see our pain, so they’ll know we aren’t getting above ourselves, I decided I was on the Irish priest’s side.”
For those of you who waste your time on the Interweb playing on Facebook or doing who knows what, Lars had a great book published recently called West Oversea. I asked the author, Lars, who blogs right here if you haven’t noticed, a few questions about the book, which is also called “Westward Ho.” These questions may be more interesting to those who have read the book, “Go West, Young Viking,” but even if you haven’t, I hope the following will pique your interest a little more, assuming the strong reviews have not piqued it enough already. And if this introduction has just confused you . . . so let’s get to the questions.
One of the major tensions in West Oversea comes from a magical object called The Eye of Odin. Is that object entirely your creation or did you pull it from one of the old myths? If it was from a myth, did the story you give in the novel about it’s origin come from the same myth?
A: The myth says that Odin plucked out his own eye in return for a drink from Mimir’s well of foreknowledge. He dropped the eye into the well, and we know nothing more of its history. I suspect I may be the first person to wonder about it.
In both this novel and The Year of the Warrior, Odin or the power of Odin is a major villain or evil force. Is that just the way it worked out? Did you weigh Odin against other Norse gods when planning stories?
A: I find it impossible to think of heathen gods as having any real existence other than as evil spirits. C. S. Lewis hinted at some order of good daemons, at least in the past, but that’s kind of rarified for my ideas of the spiritual world. In any case, Odin has always been a sinister figure. He can look kind of noble and ethereal in a kid’s book, but in the poetry of the period he’s associated with corpses and hanged men and carrion-eating ravens. He routinely betrays those who put their trust in him.
Thor’s a little more sympathetic, and I treated him more kindly in THE YEAR OF THE WARRIOR. So I guess I’m doing the good daemon thing anyway. I imagine I’ll be sorry someday.
At one point in West Oversea, Father Aillil has a vision of the future with several distinct figures speaking from their viewpoints. Did you have specific people in mind for those figures? I tried to peg one of them as Sigmund Freud, but I’d have to study them a bit before making my final guess.
A: Some of them are meant to be well-known people, some are just representatives. But I’m not going to spell it out. That would spoil the fun. Or the irritation, as the case may be.
I could ask the same question of the American natives you describe later in the novel. Did you have specific tribes or people groups in mind there?
A: I did some research on pre-Columbian Eastern Woodlands tribes. But our information on their cultures that far back is limited, and I made a lot of guesses. I think I vaguely meant the “nice” Native Americans to be Algonckians, or their ancestors.
At one point, Erling, the hero of many and admired figure for many in that time, explains one of the things it takes to be a good leader. As a novelist, do you think you understand different types of people, at least academically if not more so, even if you couldn’t emulate them yourself?
A. I observe leaders and brave men with considerable interest. The novelist’s working question is always, “What would I be like if I were like this person?” We’re very different from one another, we humans, but we’re not so different as to be mutually incomprehensible–in most cases, at least.
Have you thought about writing a novel in the same time period with a different focal character, say Olaf Tryggvason or someone in his court or maybe St. Olaf after him?
A: I hope to extend the Erling series into the reign of St. Olaf, and to do a St. Olaf-only book to cap the series. And I hope to write a non-Erling Viking book sooner or later. Maybe several.