The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allen French

The story is one set in Christian Iceland, in the years when still the heathen Vikings were a living memory, and life was much the same, save for the new faith. And it is this time and what exactly the new faith meant for these people with the legacy of Viking civilization that Allen French wants to explore in his story. Not in a didactic or moralizing way, but in the sense of wanting to show one of the interesting possibilities this circumstance created.

Viking society was a society of laws, and because of that it was litigious. Wherever there is the rule of law, there is going to be the arbitration of law through litigation. So they gathered at their quarter gatherings and the Allthings and brought cases and disputed. Allen French shows in the story how it worked: how they called each other out, named witnesses, connived and fretted about this or that in the law, needed lawyers and counsel. If you read the sagas you will soon see how honor and law not only dominated their disputes but were also used to prolong them, making the cycle vicious and in the end endless and dispiriting. Christianity ended the Viking age, and some of what is was—its glory and greatness—is admirably lamented in Beowulf. There is another saga retelling that laments the passing of the Vikings, but from a pagan point of view: E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong, a good tale. But what Allen French does so admirably is to show how Christianity subtly solved the problem of unending cyclical revenge by giving honor, shame and the rule of law their proper place in a system that includes repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life.

The telling is in the manner of Sagas, so it isn’t so much about visual appeal and interior states externalized in dramatic settings. It isn’t about drama you picture as a result of voluptuous description as much as it is about bare suggestions of feelings and crucial action, for which the terse style in which Sagas are told is admirably suited. It is minimal and Scandinavian, and for that matter Hebrew too. The situations are dramatic enough, but French doesn’t really play the drama of atmosphere up as he might. Even the scene in a barrow with a ghost is not at all hair-raising. What he focuses on are states of mind, motives and purposes, bits of dialogue. We’re not used to that in a society of visual story telling. But I think it is still compelling if your tastes can extend beyond what the movie theater crowd expect. It’s a bit more like short poetry—on the small scale and living in a few details. And so the lore of the setting shines forth: the manners and customs, the situations, weather, sunlight and rain, the food and clothing.

And what an appeal to the moral imagination! I do not think, once you understand what he’s doing, and how (not that it isn’t obvious, it’s just some people don’t judge books as literary artifacts all the time, oddly), that anybody could fault him. French is much to be praised here for having produced a satisfying, interesting, and just tale.

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