Skip to main content

The Hammer And The Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

Now I have made him who is greatest
among the Swedes root like a swine!
I had no high hopes of this book. Perhaps from such low expectations comes a truer appreciation, but maybe not. The author has written a great deal, some of which I like, some I don't. It's a work of historical fantasy, which I generally avoid. It takes a mythological character in Ragnar Lodbrok, himself likely an amalgam of other Nordic and Icelandic heroes, and wraps a new mythology around his death and the lives of his avenging sons, which makes me tut and sigh, patronisingly. And yet, serendipity smiles upon it and upon me. 

To explain, I live in South Wales, a largely ex-industrial area in what some might consider to be a small adjunct to the United Kingdom. It's a beautiful place, with a broad and interesting history, and because it can't be trusted to govern itself fully, is slave to the whims of right-wing, petty mindedness that passes for a Conservative government in England. Thus, its libraries, once hubs and hearts of communities, are left to moulder and collapse, their stocks sold off surreptitiously at first but then overtly, to pay for 'upkeep' or to clear space for 'development' which is code for being sold off.

Now, I ordered this book from a bookseller in the United States as a result of Googling 'Ragnar Lodbrok', as a result of watching the History Channel series Vikings. This trilogy came up, and, lo! it's author was a familiar name. The hardback arrived, and, lo! on the title page was the library stamp to the right there. Rhondda. From the South Wales valleys to the States and back. And as I say, such serendipity cannot be ignored. My mind was open and accepting, and it was duly repaid.

Of course, the story of a young English thrall named Shef, and his pseudo-magical ability to read the course of history and tap the unrecognised barrel of historical knowledge and from whence draw plans for mighty war machines not to be seen on these shores for a good few hundred years in reality smacks somewhat of old Slippery Jim's ability to magic himself out of any situation. Fortunately, again, Harrison's reliance on generous suspension of disbelief has been tempered by the contributions of John Holm, a.k.a Tom Shippey, medievalist and renowned Tolkien scholar whose diligence and research shines through in places where Harrision's boundless enthusiasm threatens to run amok. Perhaps this is why it takes three novels for Shef to traverse his parabola from thrall and bastard son of a Viking invader to... Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn't it.

And so to the conclusion. I was rapt, enthralled (in the good, non-indentured way), and eager to read through to the end as fast as I can, and that can only be an endorsement. It might be down to my receptiveness of the currents of fate, engendered as they were by my own reasoned if nonetheless irrational biases, but at the death it's close enough to the historical tales of the invasions of these isles by the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians of old to be believable, if you can discount the visions of and interventions by the Gods of Norse mythology, and to boot it's fast paced, thoroughly bloody and battle-filled, and of course we win! Sort of...

Comments

  1. Is it worth the £80 from Amazon UK?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. E.g.
      https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0099868202/ref=sr_1_1_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1491478231&sr=8-1&keywords=harry+harrison+hammer+and+the+cross

      Delete
  2. Er, I'd look a little further afield. I got mine for £3.80 including postage from a second hand bookshop in New York.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

How's about that then?

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …

And The Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave

Someone told me this novel, now nearly thirty years old (holy crap), Nick Cave's first and, possibly, his best, began life as a screenplay when he was still touring with The Birthday Present. That seems equally plausible and implausible. It is a wildly cinematic novel, narrated in flashback by the hermetic mute boy Euchrid Eucrow, who slithered into the world as one of a pair of damaged twins, the only one who survives the neglect of their first day on earth, and is vividly, viscerally visual. But it's also complicated, wildly imaginative, and at heart, finds a safer and more permanent berth in the gently revered world of literature than in the ever-changing and perfidious zeitgeist of cinema.

The story goes that Euchrid, after throwing himself into a bog into which he slowly sinks as he narrates his tale (to whom? and how?), was born, mute and unloved, into a truly Southern Gothic existence, mother a moonshine drunk, father a mean, bitter animal trapper, his community a severe…

Absolute Pandemonium by Brian Blessed

As soon as I began reading this, I immediately regretted buying the hardback and not the audio book. Blessed starts with an instruction on how to read this, his sixth book and the first in twenty-two years that hasn't been about mountain-climbing, and it's to imagine sitting opposite Brian and having him yell his life story at you as a series of long, rambling but gently themed anecdotes. Which as I understand it was how this was written–James Hogg, Blessed's ghost-writer, must be a brave man of renowned endurance.
And it certainly helps to have this framework in mind when you read it. With his sonorous bass-baritone booming in your mind's ear you can't help but chuckle when he describes punching Harold Pinter, who was 'in a heightened state of celebration,' down some stairs, or telling his co-stars on The Trojan Women that rather than make love he'd prefer a big shit. I can't help but imagine that hearing him boom these tall tales directly into my a…

The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

It might be twelve years since I first read this novel, drawn to it as I was at the time by the obvious and, I thought before reading it, gimcrack gimmick of having a mythical beast as the protagonist in a story about love, loss, rage, impotence, hope in the dust-bowl of Raymond Carver’s middle America. I picked it up again recently because of the confluence of two events – one, I found my first naive review of it in a stack of old clippings from a newspaper for which I wrote nearly ten years ago, and two, because of the unexpected loss of my friend’s brother, a man who despite his own issues, once pushed me to explore new horizons (both personal and chemical) and whose favourite novel, he told me in 2007, paraphrasing the microcosmic line “Maybe he sleeps, maybe he doesn’t”, was this very book.
It feels a very American novel, if I can put it thus and betray my own prejudices, given it borrows from European myth (M is not alone – there’s a nymph working in a truck stop, playing Ms Pacm…