18 July, 2006

Viking: Odinn’s Child, by Tim Severin. Book review

Edition reviewed: Pan, 2005, ISBN 0-330-42673-7

Odinn’s Child is the first in a trilogy, set in 11th-century Iceland, Greenland, Vinland (the Norse name for North America) and Ireland. The central character, Thorgils, is mentioned in the Norse sagas but little is recorded about him, so he is probably best described as a real but shadowy historical figure. Many of the other figures in the book are also recognisable from the sagas and/or from history, such as Freydis daughter of Eirik the Red, Kari Solmandarson the peerless hero from Njal’s Saga, King Sigtrigg of Norse Dublin, etc.

The novel is framed as Thorgils’ autobiography, supposedly written in extreme old age in a Christian monastery. Thorgils is part Norse, part Irish, and his wanderings take him over much of the 11th-century Norse world, from the Norse settlement in Vinland (North America) to slavery in an Irish monastery.

Odinn’s Child is a smorgasbord* of incidents taken from the Norse sagas and/or from history. The first 130 pages are a faithful retelling of the Vinland Sagas - so faithful, in fact, that I found myself wondering at times if it was a translation rather than a retelling. After that, the scene shifts to Iceland and then Ireland, where I recognised snippets from Njal’s Saga and Orkneyinga Saga. There is little in the way of a plot, more of a series of events that happen to Thorgils and that are recounted in roughly chronological order. Though as this is Volume 1 of a trilogy, it is possible that it represents a lengthy scene-setting and that a story will get going in Volume 2.

The pace rarely varies, jogging along at a steady tempo whether the subject is a single combat at the Battle of Clontarf, a haunting or a description of the finer points of ship design. There is little action and less dialogue. Thorgils is a passive narrator, a spectator at great events rather than a participant. Try to disregard the ridiculously misleading cover, which promises a Viking military epic and really should be actionable under the Trade Descriptions Act - this is a cross between a travelogue and a memoir.

As such, it has considerable charm, as period journals and memoirs do, where unconnected incidents and mundane details of everyday life are rendered fascinating because they speak of another time and place. And there are a great many delightful details of 11th-century life in Odinn’s Child. Prepare to be told about sailing routes and prevailing weather conditions in the North Atlantic; pagan Norse baby naming traditions; Icelandic domestic life, including details of clothes, furniture, diet and agriculture; Norse witchcraft (seidr) and prophetesses (volva); Norse ship design; Irish social structure, monastic organisation, medicine and law. And that isn’t a comprehensive list. Of course, as this is fiction and not a genuine contemporary account, it shouldn't be automatically accepted as authentic. However, with that caveat in mind, I can say that I know something about Norse history and culture, and I recognised many details that matched the historical sources. This tends to increase my confidence in the likely veracity of the material that was unfamiliar to me, though of course readers who want to know the facts should verify the details for themselves. Readers who are prepared to take the novel on trust, on the other hand, will find it a pleasant and painless way of obtaining a picture of Norse and Irish life in the 11th century that is certainly a great deal more realistic than the stereotype of hairy savages in horned helmets and probably more accessible than reading the original sagas.

A meandering memoir, rich in period detail but short on plot.

*For once, this over-used term seems quite appropriate. What else would you call a collection of Scandinavian titbits?


Alex Bordessa said...

Thanks for this Carla. It's currently languishing in my TBR pile, and not close to the top either due to it being Viking and there being plenty of Roman and Late Roman stuff to read first :-)

Sarah Johnson said...

Nice review. It's in my TBR pile too. I found the author's website and see he's written quite a few travelogues/memoirs. Hm, with little plot, action, or dialogue I'm not sure how well I'd enjoy it as a novel, but the setting sounds intriguing.

Carla said...

Alex - hopefully you now have some idea what to expect if it ever reaches the top of the list?

Sarah - Tim Severin has reconstructed several famous historical journeys and written first-rate non-fiction accounts of them. My favourite is The Brendan Voyage, in which he and three others built a seventh-century leather boat in Ireland and sailed to North America in it, to prove that the legendary journey of St Brendan was actually possible with the technology of the time. Amazing man. (Though I think Susan Hicks/Elizabeth Chadwick argues that he got some of the details wrong on his Crusader journey). I almost wish he had written this one as non-fiction, because the research looks as if it is probably pretty solid, but because it's got the label 'fiction' you can't be sure.
I rather think that translations of the original sagas work at least as well as stories as this one does, and they have the merit of being 700 years closer to the events, but they're a bit of an acquired taste.

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla, thanks for the info. It's interesting, I'd read about his "Brendan voyage" but hadn't realized it was the same person who wrote the Viking series.

Bernita said...

So he's the same one who did St. Brendan in the Heyerdahl tradition.
Quite fascinating, particularly his observation that the modern substitutes tended to fail but the historically authentic did not.
Was always interested in the volva and their cat-skin boots.
Does he go into much detail about their roles?

Carla said...

Yes, he's the one, and I found that interesting too. Especially the bit where they sewed a patch on the boat after having it holed by an iceberg. He concluded that modern materials were fine as long as you had a factory to make them in and could throw them away when they failed, whereas the authentic materials were repairable.

There's a detailed description of a volva and a prophecying session held to ask for advice about a famine (pp 70-76 of the paperback). The idea of seidr magic runs through the whole book. Thorgils is supposed to have inherited the ability from his mother and sees visions and things.

ali said...

You keep reviewing all these books that I tried to read and gave up. I just found it quite slow. I think I'd rather read a history book to find out the period details, and another novel to get a good plot. This just didn't grab me; I tried, but my attention span quickly moved on.

Carla said...

That would probably be a very good approach, Ali.
The next book on the review list might be more to your liking. I've not finished it yet but so far it's shaping up to be a pretty good story.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, thanks for the review. This is the sort of book I'll probably borrow from the library rather than dash out and buy. I did enjoy Severin's book about his journey to Jerusalem, even as you mentioned, I did grumble about him doing it on the wrong sort of horse from the start, but the journey itself was well written and interesting. I wonder if he's a better travel writer than he is a novelist.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Since I enjoy the original sagas (even in the original language, sometimes) I think I'll stick to them.

Thanks for the review. I had the book on my focus for eventual purchase but waited for your review. There's a lot more 'urgent' books on my To Buy-list. :)

Carla said...

Elizabeth - The wrong sort of horse, that was it. Yes, I think he's a much better travel writer than novelist, on a random sample of one novel. The reconstructed journey books of his that I've read are excellent, but this one sort of falls between two stools, it isn't billed as factual, but it doesn't have a strong enough story to hold up (for me) as a novel. I saw an interview with him in the Independent, I think it was, where he said that he wasn't going to be able to do the explorer/travel thing for ever and was turning to novel writing an alternative. I may give the later books in the trilogy a go to see if they improve.

Gabriele - if you can read Njal's Saga etc in the original, there's no contest.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, I don't read Old Norse as fluently as English or Swedish, so I prefer the new German translations (which are so much better than the 19th century ones, only the series isn't complete yet) but I reread my favourite scenes in the original. It's a beautiful language.

Føgr er hlíðin, svá at mér hefir hon aldri jafnføgr sýnizk, bleikir akrar en slegin tún ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi.

Wanna guess that one? :)

Carla said...

Over my head, Gabriele. I think the last part (ok mun ek ríða heim aptr ok fara hvergi) is something like, "I will ride home and not travel away". Is that anywhere near?
If so, it sounds like Gunnar of Hlidarend changing his mind and refusing to go into exile, even though he knows it will mean his death.
Enlighten us, please!

Rick said...

I'm a bit surprised that this book could get published commercially as a novel these days, since it doesn't sound like it would fly off the shelves. From your description it would appeal to serious history buffs, but not at all to readers who just want some good old thud and blunder with the horned-helmet (sic!) gang.

Perhaps the target here is the audience he's built up from his non-fiction work? It sounds as if it's more like a nonfiction account (with a mildly fictional frame) than a conventional novel.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Good guess, Carla. It is Gunnar's monologue from the Njáls saga.

Beautiful is the slope and never has it appeared so beautiful to me, the golden fields and the harvested meadows; and I will ride back home and travel nowhere.

Carla said...

Gabriele - thank you. Your translation is beautiful.

Rick - Spot on. It reads more like narrative non-fiction. Tim Severin has an established name from all his non-fiction books, what they call 'platform' these days, so I expect this was sold on the back of that. Sales must have been acceptable because Macmillan brought out the rest of the trilogy and apparently have signed him for a series of novels on corsairs (pirates are evidently hot). Though I think it may be significant that our local library bought 72 copies of Odinn's Child but only 9 of Book 2 and only 4 of Book 3 - which suggests that it didn't exactly fly off the library shelves at least. Which is why the cover surprised me, it seems guaranteed to attract the blood-and-thunder readers who won't like the contents, and not to attract the serious history types who perhaps would. Mysterious ways.

Rick said...

The cover doesn't bother me, if it's the one you showed. No mighty-thewed ruffians hacking and hewing away. (There are some small figures below the helmet who might be fighting, but I can't tell for sure from the image.) I don't know how accurate the helmet is, but it doesn't have horns, so it passes the first test.

I'm not sure what else you could put on the cover of a book entitled Viking, except maybe a ship, and any identifiably Norse ship (even a trading knorr) would have warlike connotations to most readers. That is pretty much the Vikes' reputation, after all!

(My verification word, logwi, sounds a bit Norse itself!)

Carla said...

Rick - that may well be where the cover designer was coming from, too. I'd have preferred an object from the period that was less overtly military than a helmet, for example the British covers of Manda Scott's Boudica novels show a sort of enamelled medallion that says 'Celtic art' to me but which isn't military (example).
BTW, the little figures are in a running battle line but there's no enemy shown. The helmet is reminiscent of the Coppergate helmet from York (though not exactly the same), which I thought was great because the Coppergate helmet predates the Viking invasions by about 50 years and so isn't really Norse. Though maybe Norse and Anglian helmet designs were very similar - after all, I should think both cultures were in fairly regular trade exchange across the North Sea - and the helmet may be taken from a genuine Norse original that I haven't seen.

Alex Bordessa said...

The helmet on the front of my paperback cover is a Viking 'Spectacle' helm (which is earlier in date than the Viking nasal helm) but with figures and the ridge from the Sutton Hoo helmet. There are also running figures on the paperback cover which look like they are based from a photo of re-enactors.

Alex Bordessa said...

PS There are theories about the Sutton Hoo helmet being a gift from Sweden (or at least made by Swedish craftsment) due to similar decorative pattern dies being found in Sweden.

Carla said...

There you are, Rick, the answer to your question from an expert archaeologist. Thanks, Alex! What's the approximate date for a spectacle helm?
I wondered if the figures might be re-enactors as they look too lifelike to be Photoshopped.
I've heard that suggestion about the Sutton Hoo helmet. Some people argue it implies cultural and/or trade exchange, and others have argued that it shows the Wuffing dynasty of East Anglia might have been an offshoot of a Swedish dynasty and/or Swedish immigrants. The jury seems to be still out, as ever.

Rick said...

Well, the helmet's date sounds wrong in any case, if Sutton Hoo even comes into the discussion - the story is set in the 11th century, right at the end of the Viking era.

Totally an aside, but it's interesting how Scandinavia fall off the edge of the earth after 1066 so far as anglocentric popular history is concerned.

Carla said...

You need Alex back to comment on the date of the helmet, she knows more about that than I do. The Sutton Hoo connection was, I think, vis a vis the possibility of cultural interchange bewteen Anglian and Scandinavian cultures - the Sutton Hoo helmet (and the custom of boat burial) parallel Scandinavian practice and so suggest some connection in the 7th century at least.

Good point re the disappearance from popular history. I can think of a couple of possible reasons. First the parochial one that Harald Hardrada was the last Scandinavian to have much impact on the history of England (as opposed to Scotland, which was happily making Norwegian alliances at least up to Robert Bruce's day, and the Largs sea battle was, what, 12-something?). And what an impact he had - arguably, without Harald and Tostig's invasion of Northumbria, Harold Godwinsson might have repelled William and English history might have developed rather differently. Second, there does seem to be a general shift in European political history around 1066 and Scandinavia seems to lose the ability to stamp its will on the rest of Western Europe. I'm not entirely sure why. Anyone care to comment?