Category Archive: Literature
In a recent blog entry, Doug Wilson pondered the potential significance of some coincidences that cropped up recently in his reading. I’ve had the same experience more than once, though, like Doug, I don’t know what weight or significance to attach to these experiences. They’re certainly not all profound or obviously meaningful.
The other day, just for the fun of it, I was reading a book about the old pulp magazines, which generated a blog entry on westerns and another on the amount of writing some pulp writers did and how much they were paid for it.
In a chapter on the pulp hero named Operator # 5, there was a discussion of the novels in this series about the invasion of the United States by the Purple Empire, headed up (of course) by the Purple Emperor. There’s a picture of the first of those pulp novels to the right.
I set that book down and picked up Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (a dud, by the way; stick to his The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon) and what should I find at the end of an essay on getting a bookbinder to put expensive bindings on your books? These words: “For these purple emperors are not to be read in bed, nor during meals, nor on the grass with a pipe on Sundays; and these brief periods are all the whirling times allow you for solid serious reading. Still, after all, you have them; you can at least pulverise your friends with the sight; and what have they to show against them?”
Two occurrences of the phrase “purple emperor” in the space of a few minutes. I’d understand that if either of these books was about butterflies (and I suppose Grahame may be making a metaphorical allusion to the purple emperor butterflies, though the allusion is not entirely clear to me). But what are the chances of finding that precise and unusual combination of words twice in two very different books, neither of them about butterflies, in the space of fifteen minutes? A big coincidence, certainly, but intimating … what, exactly? Probably nothing. Certainly nothing clearly. But then, why the noticeable coincidence?
In my last post, I mentioned The Waltons, a show that comes easily enough to my mind because I’m working my way through Season 4 right now with my family. Speaking of Season 4, in the fourth episode (“The Prophecy”), John-Boy is confronted by a professor who tells him that he’ll be very lucky if he can make a living as a writer. He says something like “There are only half a dozen writers in the United States right now who are able to do it.”
Perhaps he was referring only to what might be termed “serious literature,” which seems to be what John-Boy wants to write. (The creator of The Waltons, somewhat disappointingly, seems to have turned out only about three novels himself.) But if John-Boy had wanted to write for the pulps, he might just have been able to make a living. If he had been fast enough.
“Come now,” you say. “Surely the pulps didn’t pay that well.” Granted. They might pay a penny a word (as with the Texas Rangers series I mentioned in my previous blog entry) or perhaps $500 for a novel. Lester Dent, working under the house name Kenneth Robeson, started writing the Doc Savage novels at $500 a month and later received $750. The magazines themselves didn’t cost very much — maybe a dime — but some of them had a lot of readers. Within a couple of years from its first issue, The Shadow “was selling more than 300,000 copies” (Hutchison, The Great Pulp Heroes, 20). At a dime an issue, that’s $30,000 per month. Not bad, considering it was the Great Depression.
What kind of wages might a writer earn? That would depend on how many stories he sold, and that might depend on how fast he wrote. According to this site, wages in the early ’30s ranged from $0.35 an hour to $1.50 an hour (e.g., for a doctor). At an average of 21.67 working days a month and assuming only eight working hours a day, that’s $60.68 to $260 a month. Lester Dent’s $500 a month looks pretty good in comparison, doesn’t it?
But then consider a guy like Walter Gibson, who wrote The Shadow novels under the name Maxwell Grant. At first, he was writing only one novel a quarter, but soon it was a novel a month — and then the magazine started to come out twice a month: “he was to produce twenty-four adventures per year, one 60,000-word novel every two weeks for as long as the popularity of The Shadow continued. That figure totaled more than 1,440,000 words per year” (20).
If you do the math, that’s 692 words an hour, every hour, eight hours a day and 21.67 days a month, every month. Not 692 first draft, sloppy, “I’ll write them fast and edit them later” words. That’s finished product, ready to go. And that’s not 692 words per hour, after taking some time to think about your plot. If Gibson took some time for plotting, the actual writing was a lot quicker.
And, in fact, it was: “Keeping two dozen yarns ahead of publication, he sometimes turned out a fresh book in four to six days, often working all night to meet self-imposed deadlines. Behind a typewriter, he was as superhuman as his own creation. He worked on a battery of machines. When one began to “get tired,” he’d move on to another, and then to a third (20).”
And he kept it up for eighteen years, for a total of 283 Shadow novels … among other things. Hutchison notes that the published guide to Gibson’s writing “is, in itself, a staggering 328 pages long” (29), and included “149 other books of all types, thousands of newspaper and magazine pieces, comics, radio shows, puzzles, mgic tricks, and other material under various pen names” (29).I don’t know what his income was per story. If he was paid a penny a word, that comes to $1200 a month. Maybe, like Dent, he received $500 a novel, but that still comes to $1000 a month — and that at a time when many doctors were making less than $300 a month.
Serious literature, John-Boy? No, you couldn’t likely have made a living writing that in those years of the Great Depression on Walton’s Mountain. But if you’d been writing for the pulps your father liked to read and if you wrote fast enough and well enough, maybe you could have. Apparently some people did.
It’s hard to imagine, but according to pulp magazine historian Don Hutchison, from the 1930s into the ’50s, there were at least “184 separate magazines devoted exclusively to Western fiction”:
In magazines with titles like Blazing Western, Wild West Weekly, and Western Round-Up, legions of dusty Galahads blasted six-gun trails to pulpwood glory. Vast and forbidding, the landscape of the American frontier produced one of the most alluring blank canvases in popular culture. Pulp Westerns, with their visions of high adventure and idyllic romance set in that perilous dream world, gloried in the nostalgic appeal of the uncivilized — total escape from anything that might be crowding you. They spoke beguilingly to the homebound reader of men and women with civilization at their backs who were never afraid and never bored” (The Great Pulp Heroes, 149).
Consider what sort of demand there must have been to make it worth a publisher’s while to put out just one of these magazines every week or even every month, year after year.
Then imagine how many voracious readers there must have been to gobble up 184 different magazines. (One of them was John Walton; true to real life, in many episodes of The Waltons, you see him reading a pulp Western magazine.)
Granted, some of those magazines probably folded after an issue or two. But others of them lasted for years. There were, for instance, Texas Rangers magazine published 206 novels about Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield in a series that lasted from 1936 to 1958 — and that, mind you, in spite of the dialogue, of which Hutchison says, “Some Western writers of the twenties and thirties considered it necessary to inflict painful cowboy slang and dialect on readers, as if their characters had studied under Gabby Hayes’ demented speech coach. Apparently, this was the way you were supposed to talk if you lived west of St. Louis” (151).
Mind you, the magazines that were most successful were not necessarily the ones you might have expected:
Despite his radio and comic strip fame, The Lone Ranger’s own magazine lasted but eight issues while his blatant pulp clone, the Masked Rider (who wore a mask and palled around with an Indian companion named Blue Hawk), galloped on for over one hundred numbers. Go figure (149).
In a recent essay (“Tragic Worship“), Carl Trueman claims that the modern push for “entertaining” worship isn’t actually entertaining enough because it neglects tragedy, which is one of the highest forms of entertainment. He writes:
Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.
From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.
What strikes me is that, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, everyone listed here as a great tragedian is a pagan or an unbeliever: Homer, Aeschylus, Williams, Hardy, and Conrad. In fact, the close link between paganism/unbelief and tragedy is so obvious that one of the proposed paper topics in one of my English classes in university years ago was on the possibility of Christian tragedy. One answer might be that when Christians, including Shakespeare, write tragedies, theirs are different: Shakespeare wasn’t writing Aristotelian tragedy, nor did he share the bleak despair of a Hardy, and even in the deaths of his characters, beauty shines out, the beauty in particular of virtue, the beauty of what’s good. While paganism is characterized by tragedy and despair, Christians embrace what Peter Leithart calls “deep comedy.”
But what puzzles me in this essay is what this tragic strand in Western literature has to do with the character of the church’s liturgy. Trueman writes: “Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken.”
But what Trueman seems to overlook is that the Lord’s death is precisely not tragic. The gospel of the cross doesn’t share in the “can’t fight the gods” fatalism of Aeschylus or its modern Hardyian form, nor is Jesus’ death like the deaths of Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. We don’t feel good about Jesus’ death because in it we see man’s hubris being punished (Aristotle); we rejoice in it because in it man’s sin was dealt with and because, having death with sin, Jesus rose again. Remembering the Lord’s death in the Supper and remembering the death of Tess Derbyfield are two very different things.
Furthermore, while Trueman is correct in saying that “Death remains a stubborn … and inevitable reality” (I question his use of the word “omnipresent”), I don’t grant that “human life is still truly tragic.” Even in great western literature, not every death is tragic. When Aragorn kills an orc, there’s nothing tragic about the death of that orc. When Boromir rescues Merry and Pippin and then dies of his wounds, his death is sad but not tragic. When your grandmother falls asleep in Jesus, her death is sad, but not tragic — and beyond her death, there is the certainty of her bodily resurrection in glory, because in Christ death is swallowed up in victory. (And unlike Trueman, it seems to me that while the emphasis of the funeral ought to be on Christ’s triumph over death, there’s nothing wrong — let alone “most ghastly and incoherent” — with “the celebration of a life now ended.”)
Certainly, there is sorrow in this life. I agree with Trueman that Christians can and should lament. Paul tells us to sing psalms, and many of the psalms are full of lamentation. I’m all in favor of restoring the psalms to the Christian life and to the church’s liturgy, though I would add the caveat “as appropriate.” Why? Because it’s not appropriate for lamentations to predominate in the liturgy.
Trueman praises “the somber tempos of the psalter, the haunting calls of lament, and the mortal frailty of the unaccompanied human voice” of his Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but those adjectives — sombre, haunting, unaccompanied — hardly seem to fit with, say, Psalm 150 or with the descriptions of the Levitical choirs that David established or the heavenly choirs in Revelation. God apparently delights in accompanied singing (indeed, the word “psalm” itself implies accompaniment!), and apparently he likes it loud and vigorous, at least much of the time.
Trueman claims that “traditional Protestantism” connected “baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection.” That’s as may be — washing is certainly as valid a connection as death and resurrection — but again, the death associated with baptism, linked so closely with resurrection, was far from tragic. He points to the reading of the law every Sunday: “Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ.” Leave aside the question of whether the reading of the Ten Commandments before the confession of sin tends to emphasize the so-called “first use” of the law instead of its primary use as a rule of life and even grant the questionable assertion that the reading of the law “pronounces the death sentence” and apparently carries it out (so that believers are in “their graves” after it!), we still have a progress from death “to resurrection life in Christ” — so why should the rest of the service be sombre as if we were still dying or dead?
Is there room for sorrow in the Sunday service? Perhaps, in measured doses. It’s not inappropriate to sing Psalm 51 in connection with the confession of sins. On occasion, it may be right and fitting to sing a lamentation. But what ought to be the dominant note of our worship, even when we’ve been deeply convicted of our sins? It certainly isn’t tragedy. Nehemiah 8 points the way:
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
Last year, I must have been exceptionally industrious. I see that I managed to post my list of favorite reads from 2011 already in January 2012. This year, I’m a little behind. But here it is, at last, listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.
* Louis Berkhof & Cornelius Van Til, Foundations of Christian Education. Great essays; often outstanding insights.
* Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Fascinating and very helpful stuff on, e.g., the effect of praise on children, children’s intelligence tests lacking validity, how kids learn to speak, the importance of sleep for children.
* Walter R. Brooks, The Clockwork Twin. Read to kids. The fifth Freddy the Pig novel; some passages had me howling with laughter.
* John Buchan, The Three Hostages. One of my favorite authors.
* G. K. Chesterton, The Collected Works, vol. 27, The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907 and The Defendant. Wonderful essays.
* Elizabeth Coatsworth, Away Goes Sally, Five Bushel Farm, and The Fair American. The first three in a series of books about a young girl in Maine in the late 1790s. Read to Theia and Vance, with much enjoyment.
* Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain: The Ten Commandments in Terms of Today. Insight after insight.
* Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. A masterpiece.
* Stanley Hauerwas, Carole Bailey Stoneking, Keith G. Meador, and David Cloutier, eds., Growing Old in Christ. Very helpful essays, many of them rich with insights.
* C. J. Hribal, Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis. Stories that can break your heart.
* Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches. Not just for mothers; I need to read this one every year.
* Walt Kelly, Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Yonder: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, Vol. 1. I grew up reading these in books my parents had collected. It’s great to see them coming out in a nice hardback edition. There has never been another comic strip like Pogo.
* C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. Great stuff … though I’m glad the eschatology Lewis presents for Narnia isn’t the eschatology of Earth.
* C. S. Lewis, Miracles. I remember trying to read this when I was much younger (a teenager?) and not getting very far. Loved it this time through.
* Richard Lischer, Open Secrets. An enjoyable memoir of the first year of a Lutheran pastorate in southern Illinois; some very good passages on pastoral work, including an interesting and helpful chapter on the often positive function of gossip — “speech among the baptized” — in a church community, as it sorts out people and relations and evaluates them.
* Eloise Jarvis McGraw, The Golden Goblet. Read to Theia and Vance at the same time I was teaching Theia about ancient Egypt.
* A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Read them to the kids … again. There were times I could hardly stop laughing. I ought to read these every year.
* E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Hilarious. Why didn’t I read Nesbit when I was a kid? Especially puzzling, given that I loved C. S. Lewis and Edward Eager.
* Patrick O’Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute, The Nutmeg of Consolation. The thirteenth and fourteenth in a series that never gets stale.
* Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. Slow but deep.
* P. Andrew Sandlin & John Barach, eds., Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd. I first met Norman Shepherd when I was in seminary and he was a member of the board, and it was an honor to be able to edit this volume for him. There are some very good essays in here.
* Lynn Stegner, Because a Fire Was in My Head. Very realistic and very sad.
* Victoria Sweet, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Very interesting account of a doctor at the last almshouse in America and the change from “inefficient” to “efficient” medicine, with some interesting stuff on premodern medicine, medical politics, etc.
* Hilda van Stockum, A Day on Skates. Very enjoyable.
* J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit. Second time through with the kids. Maybe I’ll tackle The Lord of the Rings this year.
* Lars Walker, Erling’s Word. Blogged about it here.
* Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years. Read to the kids with as much enjoyment myself as they received.
* N. D. Wilson, Leepike Ridge. Had the kids on the edge of their seats a lot of the time. Or their beds. Wherever they were sitting, it was the edge. Someday, they’ll read The Odyssey and remember this story.
* N. T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary. I find Wright’s approach to the so-called “Colossian heresy” quite persuasive.
If there’s one thing to learn from this list, I guess, it’s that most of the best books I read last year were the ones I read with the kids.
I know: You would never have dreamed that I would blog about pony books. But I am the father of a girl who loves horses, dreams about horses, thinks about horses instead of math or does math only via horse word problems, and whose attention can be grabbed immediately by seeing the words “horse” or “pony” on the cover of a book. And that explains why, one afternoon, in the midst of reading some literary criticism, I started laughing.
Geoffrey Trease’s Tales Out of School is an opinionated, fun, and often quite insightful survey and critique of young adult fiction up until the 1960s. Along the way, Trease points out certain elements that show up too often in children’s literature and urges authors to try something new instead of trotting out the old.
Have you ever noticed how many twins there are in children’s literature? Trease has. More than that, he has wondered why — and the answer he gives I find entirely convincing: Though the author has probably never even thought about it, he or she likely wanted to have two children — frequently two girls — who are exactly the same age (which means they can’t be non-twin siblings, of course) and who get to share a bedroom or take vacations together (unlike neighbors or friends).
In the midst of surveying what are often called “holiday books” — books that center on activities that take place outside of the school year — Trease again urges authors to greater creativity. Where should an author turn? Well, says Trease, not to the stables, at any rate.
Let me say quickly, before the riding-crops of indignant enthusiasts rain upon my shoulders, that I have nothing against the pony story as such. It is pleasant to see a generation transferring its enthusiasm from high-powered machines to some of the most attractive of the domestic animals…. That the fantasy of possessing a pony (or two, or three) had become something like an obsession in many children’s minds could in those days be seen from any book department. Typical titles were Wish for a Pony, I Wanted a Pony, I Had Two Ponies, Three Ponies and Shannon, A Pony for Jean, Another Pony for Jean, More Ponies for Jean, and (highest bid so far) Six Ponies. The main thing was to get the word into your title — even if, like the ingenious Mary Treadgold, you called your book No Ponies. (The young hippomaniacs knew perfectly well that the ponies would turn up somewhere in the book.) Almost any book, irrespective of quality, was sure of a considerable sale if the title included that magic word. Some children would have demanded Shakespeare’s Richard III if had been put in the right dust-jacket and renamed A Pony for Richard (142).
In an enjoyable survey and critique of young adult novels, the historical novelist Geoffrey Trease touches on what he calls “imaginative biographies,” those fictionalized accounts of a person’s life in which whole scenes and conversations are invented by the author:
We may feel that the imaginative biographer is a doubtful ally of history when he writes for adults. There has been a great vogue for his books in recent years, for there is a class of intellectual snobs (mainly feminine, it must be pointed out with more candour than chivalry) who declare that they do not waste time on novels but read only biographies and memoirs. Such readers have no interest in footnotes, appendices and authorities. They want dogmatic statement, garnished with salacious innuendo. They are duly catered for. As the late John Palmer said of them, in that masterly life of Moliere, which demonstrates that wit and a respect for truth are not incompatible: “It is a poor biographer who allows himself to be defeated by lack of evidence.” It would not be so bad if these writers would acknowledge, in a foreword to their fancies, that they lack complete omniscience; if they would emulate Froude’s candour, who completed his contribution to Newman’s Lives of the Saints with these words: “I have said all that is known, and indeed a good deal more than is known, about the blessed St Neot” (Tales out of School, 57).
Yesterday, I quoted John Updike’s marvelous put-down of Paul Tillich’s theology from his book review in Assorted Prose. Also valuable in that collection is Updike’s review of Karl Barth’s Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum and of Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World and Love Declared. His lengthy essay on parody is helpful, too. But here’s something else that stood out, though I’m not done turning it over in my mind yet, let alone express agreement. I present it here for your consideration. It’s from Updike’s “Foreword for Young Readers,” introducing three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde:
These are called fairy stories. Why? The word “fairy” comes from the Latin word fata, which means “one of the Fates.” The Fates were the supreme gods of the Roman world whose architecture survives in post offices and railroad stations, whose language lingers in mottos, and whose soldiers and officials may be glimpsed in the background of the New Testament. In fact, fairies and all such spirits and tiny forest presences are what is left of the gods who were worshipped before Christ.
Imagine a forest, and imagine the forest overswept by an ocean. The forest is drowned; but along the shore twigs and sticks, dwindled and worn and soaked with salty water, are washed up. These bits are fairy stories, and the ocean is the Christian faith that in a thousand years swept over Europe, and the forest is that world of pagan belief that existed before it. So, when you pick up a fairy story, the substance is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is Christian salt (Assorted Prose, 300-301).
There are things you don’t find in children’s books written in the last few years. First, a passage from the book I just finished reading to my kids, Arthur Catherall’s Ten Fathoms Deep, an exciting story about a salvage tug boat off the shores of Singapore in the 1940s or so:
“Hudson rolled a cigarette. One thing he had forgotten when he had returned to Singapore was to get in a further supply of cheroots, so he was reduced to smoking native tobacco, and making his own cigarettes” (p. 135).
Second, a page from the great Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain:
The other day, I requested a copy of a book by C. S. Lewis’s good friend, Charles Williams. And what did the library end up giving me? Not only a first edition of the book, somewhat frail and held together with a rubber band and stuck in an envelope for safety, but the autographed copy that Williams himself gave to the well-known British publisher, Victor Gollancz.
And they sent this to me, a total stranger, with no idea how trustworthy I might be or (apparently) how valuable the book might be.
I’m the kind of reader who, having once started a book, feels an almost-moral sense of compulsion to finish the book, even if I’m not enjoying it or benefiting from it. But today, I took the plunge. I decided to stop reading a book that I was at least two-thirds of the way through. Yes, part of me insists that it wouldn’t take me long to finish the thing and so maybe I should. But there really isn’t any should about it. Life is short. It’s time to put some books away.
But what was so bad about this book? In a sense, nothing. The book itself was innocuous, a mildly helpful book on the importance of thankfulness, which is certainly a subject I could benefit from. And the book had some good things to say. So why am I giving up on it now?
Because most of the book strikes me as padding. Yes, there are good things here and there, but I have the feeling that they could all have been summed up in, well, a medium-length essay instead of a book. To make the thing book-length, numerous illustrations and stories have been added, a few of which are quite helpful but many of which seem unnecessary.
Here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean, which I’ve made up for this occasion. Suppose an author says something like: “The Christian life is difficult.” Suppose then that the author goes on to tell the story of a classical pianist, tacking an extremely difficult piece. Suppose that story goes on for a page, maybe even two or three pages, describing how the pianist had to practice, how she failed to master the piece, how she had to work at it for years until finally she had trained herself well enough so that, at last, she could play it … and even then found it extremely taxing. All of that to make what point? Well, no point, really. It was all just an illustration of what it means for something to be difficult.
That’s the kind of thing I found in the book I was reading and it’s why I’m closing the covers. It’s padding, not an illustration that really helps make the point.
I can’t recall how I discovered him, but I recently read Lars Walker’s first novel, Erling’s Word with great enjoyment. It’s a fantasy novel that comes close to historical fiction: some of the characters were real, including the ruler Erling Skjalgsson, but there are also elements from Norse mythology including the very real (and false) gods. But what I found particularly gripping was not just the twists of the plot but its presentation of the spread of the gospel among the Norse.
Perhaps it doesn’t surprise us that Vikings became Christians, but surely it ought to. Or perhaps we’ve never thought about what that transformation must have involved, not only personally but also socially and politically. Lars Walker has. What he describes ought to remind us that history, including the history of the church, is often very messy. But at the same time, the messiness doesn’t mean that Christ wasn’t at work or that the people involved in that messiness were not, in their own flawed way, striving to be faithful to him.
As with Constantine or Charlemagne or Alfred the Great or Brian Boru, so with the Vikings. Rulers who become Christians do not suddenly do everything right. They do not hear the gospel, believe, and then immediately make all the right changes in their public policies and their country’s laws. Nor do they immediately stop their own personal immoralities. We can look back at them and see their flaws and their on-going corruption. But at the same time, we ought to be struck by the courage of, for instance, a ruler who risks the murderous rage of most of his subjects by refusing to dedicate a meeting to the old gods but opens it instead in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a time of darkness, Jesus reminds us, “he who is not against you is for you.”
Here’s one passage to whet your appetite, though there are several others that I appreciated so much I had to stop and read them to my wife. In it, the main character, the priest Ailing, who is plagued by doubts (to put it mildly), is speaking to Erling:
“How did you become a Christian, my lord? What keeps you firm? I’ve heard of your king Haakon the Good. He tried to live as a Christian, but the lords made him sacrifice and he was buried as a heathen, they say.”
“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 horseflesh. 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 saw 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.”
“And you’re sure our God doesn’t need to see our pain?”
“Not in the same way. I serve a God who will not have human sacrifice. You’ve never believed in human sacrifice, but I did once, so I can tell you it makes no little difference.”
This is a first novel and there are some flaws, but I highly recommend it, though I’ll add that it doesn’t soft-pedal the sins of its characters, let alone sugarcoat the sins of pagan Norse culture. Erling’s Word has been revised slightly and is now included, together with a second novel that I’m itching to read, in the volume The Year of the Warrior.