BOOK REVIEW A News Weekly
Christian-themed Viking epic
, December 24, 2011
A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure and Faith
by Lars Walker
(Ventura, California: Nordskog Publishing)
Paperback: 296 pages
Reviewed by Hal G.P. Colebatch
West Oversea, by Lars Walker, is a fine tale set in the days of the first coming of Christianity among the Vikings.
Because it is not a fashionable story of inner-city metrosexuals, drug abuse or existential angst, it may well slip under the radar of the literary judges who promote books today, not to mention those Parnassian jurists who awarded a $50,000 literary prize to Malcolm Fraser (though whether this was for his poetry or his prose I am in no position to say).
West Oversea is that apparent rarity today, a good story, skilfully told, with, as well as attractive and believable characters, the right human values and an important theme.
West Oversea also has the rare quality of the best epics — The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Norse Atlantic Saga, or, to take a modern example, The Lord of the Rings — a quality of entering into a fresher world.
The colours are brighter, the men and women straightforward in their heroisms or villainies. It is a story, like the great sagas, not exactly simple but with a profound and wise simplicity which makes reading it a refreshing experience. It reminds me also of the atmosphere of largeness and magnificence evoked by a line in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “A bowl of wine for the noble Centaur!”
I have written on a number of occasions that modern Christian writers have failed, apart from C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and a very few others, to create a Christian-oriented (as distinct from a Bible-bashing) popular literature and art, and that this is one of the reasons for our civilisation’s present desperate malaise.
Lars Walker shows the task is not hopeless. West Oversea is not just a good story of rip-snorting adventure, what with the uncanny dwellers of the Hollow Hills, the clash of sword and axe-blades, and the conflicts in the ancient north between the followers of Odin and Christ, it is also a serious and often beautifully-written description of what it meant to be both an adventurer and a Christian in those spacious days.
It is the story of a Christian priest, Father Aillil, in Viking Scandinavia, just after the first millennium, in a society which is just leaving the pagan world and in which pagan powers are still very much present. (Belief in them in Norway and Iceland has not died out even today).
Father Aillil falls in with Erling Skjalgsson, a real character from Norse history, who may well have journeyed to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland (North America) and known Leif Eriksson.
The narrator-priest, Irish by birth, travels in search of his sister to Norway; to Iceland (perhaps the most extraordinary of cultures in the ancient world, where literature and poetry flourished in the long, dark, volcano-lit winter nights); to Greenland; and to North America (Vinland the Good), where in actual fact a Viking settlement was planted and nearly survived, although it was doomed to be defeated in the end like the Greenland colony, a victim of technological overreach. The winters were too terrible, the distances too great.
Lars Walker knows not only his Norse history, but Viking society, manners and technology as well, making the book a painless education in the ancient world’s ways of living and thinking.
“Viking” means literally “pirate hiding up a creek”, and we are so used to thinking of the Vikings as one-dimensional rape-and-pillage merchants that we often forget their other aspects, as great traders and explorers, with certain highly-developed arts, for all that they scorned and used as a term of insult a “straw death” — that is, dying on bed rather than in battle.
A Viking under a great debt to another man tells him: “You may ask anything of me. Anything at all, save my honour.” That last qualification is of supreme importance.
It would be their descendants, the steel-clad ranks of Norman (“Northman”) and medieval chivalry who, in the following centuries, saved Europe by providing the backbone of the ranks of the Crusaders. Indeed, we may see here the Crusaders’ valour and chivalry in embryo.
Lars Walker shows brilliance in taking us into the skulls and skins of those incredibly daring, but often cruel and treacherous, men and women of the ancient world, battling not only the elements and hostile natives, but all the manifold bogies of paganism, with nothing but sinews, courage by the ship-load, a little dawning technological knowledge and a partly understood Christianity, to which they cling — or some of them do — with a childlike, touching faith, in a world where supernatural terrors are embodied all about them.
As one would expect with seafarers of such a time and place, there are touches of theological discussion, but these never become heavy or boring.
The priest, in temporary possession of Odin’s Eye, is granted occasional visions of the future, including a chilling vision of our own future — whose omens we can see in any daily paper — when Christians have once again become a persecuted minority, and the wonderful achievements of Christianity-based science and technology — “houses as big as mountains, ships that sailed to the moon” — have been allowed to come crashing down (though even in this dark vision, a saving remnant remains).
The many battles and slaughters are described with the bare, laconic, stoic style reminiscent of the real Norse sagas and skalds as well as the Homeric epics.
Yet within this the author has been able to delineate real and memorable characters, with real and varied strengths and weaknesses.
I await Lars Walker’s next work with impatience. I am glad to learn this is one of a series.
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.