Here’s another of my Historical Novel Society reviews – this one all about the Vikings and drowning, which seems to be a thing in publishing lately, for some odd reason.
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker. Harper Little Brown, 2017. ISBN 9780062563699; $27.99, Hardback.
It is 9th-century Norway, and the Vikings are sailing, raiding, battling, and attending the gathering of peoples known as the Thing. Ragnvald Eysteinsson, a young warrior, finds himself betrayed by the very men he fought alongside, and left to drown in the cold waves of the Viking seas. His sister, Svanhild, faces challenges of her own back home, where she must navigate the social waters of suitors. The mercurial Solvi juggles political alliances and personal attachments deftly, and the warrior Harald of Vestfold—King Harald—comes to claim the loyalty of Ragnvald in a move that will change the course of each character’s lives.
A first novel, this title is also the first book of a trilogy. The author can trace her own lineage back to King Harald and, inspired by this family history, she has studied Norse history and literature for many years. Her attention to detail is the most enjoyable aspect of this book, which does an excellent job of evoking a vibrant society from years past. The opening scene, which finds young Ragnvald dancing across the oars while his ship sails, is evocative, dreamlike, and overwritten. The rest of the book follows this pattern.
This is the kind of book to sink into and enjoy for its beauty and atmosphere, not the kind to read for thrilling adventures or a complicated plot. The characters spend a lot of time debating things in their heads, and this trait serves to slow the narrative. However, if you are patient and in the mood for a period piece that brings to life a bygone era, you may find this volume satisfying reading.
When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.
We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”
There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.
A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.
Earth has been miraculously created out of earth Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing Earth has fixed all his thoughts On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth
Earth wants to be an earthly king But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell
Remember, o man, that you are ashes And into ashes you will return
Earth conquers castles and towers on earth Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us” When earth has built up his defences on earth That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth
Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold As though earth won’t really have to return to earth Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it
I really wonder why earth loves earth Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven
In Middle English:
Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte
Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting
Memento, homo, quad cinis es Et in cenerem reverteris
Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres” When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres
Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde
Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke
You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.
We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.