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.”