June 14, 2012

Erling’s Word

Category: Literature :: Permalink

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.

Erling's WorldPerhaps 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.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:17 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Erling’s Word

  1. Lars Walker Says:

    Thank you for the review. I might mention that there’s also a third novel, West Oversea, which was published a couple years ago by Nordskog Publishing, and which remains in print. I also hope to have another Erling novel out as an e-book early in 2013.

  2. Kata Iwannhn » Books I Enjoyed Most in 2012 Says:

    […] * Lars Walker, Erling’s Word.  Blogged about it here. […]

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