To go a-viking . . .,
This review is from: The Eye of Odin (Paperback)
At a time when current literature seems surfeited with either fantasy or self-indulgent whingers, it's a delight to encounter a good fictional account of historical figures. Larson, reaching deep into the past, retrieves the Norse hero, Erik the Red. In school we learned of Erik's Atlantic journeys, but were quickly switched to Columbus as the conveyor of European culture to the Western Hemisphere. When later evidence emerged of Norse settlements in Newfoundland, the old myths gained new status. Now, Larson has brought these distant hints to full life with an engaging tale. Fraught with plots, feuds, exiles and viking raids, this is a fine book to take up on long winter nights.
The story opens with Erik as a teen-ager in 10th Century Norway. The Christians are making inroads on traditional faith. The king, although a Christian scorning pagan beliefs and rituals, is constrained from forcing conversion. Always threatened by Denmark's competitive forces, Hakon must lead his warriors in confronting invasion. Thus, he keeps peace with his nobles, lest they rebel. In the midst of these political and religious confusions, Erik's father, condemned for a killing, is exiled to Iceland, fairer than its name. Maturing on the island, he becomes caught up in feuds typical of the era. One of these conflicts, stretching back to Norway itself, brings Erik to Greenland to found the Norse colony there. Greenland thus becomes the stepping stone for Norse landings in Newfoundland.
Larson panders to no "modernisation" demands in his stirring tale. Viking raiders sought slaves, treasure and the power these brought on return home. Christian monks were slain out of hand and coastal towns ravaged mercilessly. He doesn't gloss over these incidents - they were the norm of the age. Far more significant is Larson's depiction of Christian incursions against the ancestral faiths. Most conversion was by fiat - convert an earl or a monarch and the population must follow. The alternatives were death or exile. Larson points up the tolerance of the "pagan" faith of Odin [or Wotan] in contrast to the absolutism of Christianity. There is a subliminal call for liberality of views here. The call should strike a chord with American readers whose forebears founded colonies to escape religious persecution.
Larson has obviously delved into the available material to underpin his narrative. We are given details on shipbuilding, navigation, trade practices and making war. He's careful not to let the information overwhelm the reader. He provides enough information to set the environment, then smoothly continues the story. And the theme is less the old image of the ruthless Vikings than it is the clash of faiths. Odin speaks through the runes cast by the holy man Ragnar. Ragnar, to his dismay, reads that Christianity will perservere in the Norse lands, leaving him helpless to prevent it. Larson weaves this motif through the text lightly. Neither Christian nor pagan are judged by this author, but only the characters themselves.
There's little to fault in this book. Maps would have helped, but the atlas was at hand. In an historical work these days, a reading list is an added bonus. Even science fiction writers now point to additional information. These are sins of omission, hardly glaring and not something detracting from a stirring tale, well thought out and thrillingly told. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]