Tag Archives: Vikings

Book Review: Sword of Clontarf by Charles A. Brady

Sword of Clontarf : Charles Brady : 9780976638681

Whew! After that streak of Star Wars reviews, some of you might have been worried that I had no other books to talk about. Fear not, hardy readers! There are a couple of different novels which I have up my sleave, one of which we will discuss today. Since we are only a few weeks from December (where did the year go?!?!), however, I will have time for just one more book review this year. That slot is going to another Dean Koontz book, as promised to Mr. Bookstooge. All others will have to wait until January of 2019.

There will be more Star Wars reviews next year, though, so stay tuned for them! I have had to postpone one of my promised Spotlight! articles – the one I described as rollingly entertaining here – until January, too. This is on account not only with the focus of the upcoming Spotlight! post, but of the last article discussing Wedge Antilles. Still, he had to do a lot of rolling in his X-Wing, so maybe we can count him as the promised Spotlight! discussion. Next year’s first two Spotlight! foci will be different, however. Trust me. 😉

All right, with that out of the way, let us turn to today’s subject. This would be Sword of Clontarf, by Charles A. Brady. Sword is a children’s book, obviously, centered on a fictional character who shows us a piece of history. Originally published in 1960, the reprint I have came out in 2006, so you can buy a good copy of this story new if you desire, readers.

The book begins with Niall (pronounced like “Neil”) Arneson being shaken awake by his Irish, Christian mother. Taken to Iceland after being captured by Vikings during a raid on Ireland, Etain the Fair is known throughout Eaglewaterheath, Iceland, as the Dumb Woman. No one means disrespect to her with this title – especially since she is the second wife of the steading’s master, Arne Helgison. Etain is known as the Dumb Woman because she can’t speak.

Only, now she suddenly is speaking to Niall. And she is speaking in Irish!

Finally on his feet, Niall learns from his mother and his uncle, Hjalti, that his father has been murdered. Clearly, this is bad, but on it’s own it is not enough to warrant such an urgent wake up call. Nor is it cause for Niall to flee his home all of a sudden. By rights, Niall should be out with his three older half brothers hunting his father’s murderers.

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But you see, that is where the crunch comes. Niall is a Christian. His older half brothers are pagan, just like his father. Arne allowed Etain to keep her faith and have Niall baptized, but he retained his pagan views. His first three sons followed his example, but they have never liked Etain or their kid half brother. With Arne gone they are likely to seize the chance to murder Niall themselves before chasing down Arne’s killers.

Etain, naturally, does not want that for her son. While Hjalti would be happy to offer Niall protection and care, being fonder of him than of his other nephews, the idea of having to kill his brother’s other sons to defend the youngest does not appeal to him anymore than it does to Etain. Thus the two have come at this early hour to prepare Niall either to flee or to fight. It is his choice.

Seeing the reason behind their arguments (eventually), Niall accepts their plan and dresses quickly. As he is preparing to leave, his mother drops another bombshell on him. Through her, he is related to the former high king of Ireland, who now serves as the current High King’s chief advisor and friend.

Who is the High King – the present Ard Rhi – of Ireland in this year of 1000? The answer to your question is Brian Boru.

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Brian Boru

Unlike King Arthur, Brian Boru is confirmed to have lived. Around the year 1000, Brian united all the clans of Ireland under one banner, becoming the High King of the island. Traditionally, the position of Ard Rhi didn’t mean what we would think today. The head of every clan in Ireland had a king; becoming Ard Rhi or High King wasn’t like becoming King of England or King of France. It was a somewhat temporary position and it didn’t have a lot of power attached to it.

Biran Boru changed that. For ten years he ruled a united Ireland, keeping the peace and making it the safest it had ever been. There is a legend that, during Brian’s reign, a well dressed young lady with a solid gold ring walked the length of Ireland (35 miles) completely unmolested. That is the type of peace Brian brought to the country.

In the year 1014 the pagan Norsemen – known better to modern audiences simply as “Vikings” – tried to invade Ireland. They raided the country pretty regularly prior to Brian’s reign; I believe he might have become Ard Rhi mainly to drive them from the Emerald Isle’s shores, though it is possible that I am remembering my history incorrectly. Either way, in 1014, on Good Friday, the Norsemen tried again to take Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf.

It was a pitched battle, and if the Norsemen had won, Western civilization might never have risen as quickly or as well from Rome’s ashes. As it is, the Irish turned the assault aside when the tide went out, taking the Norsemen’s boats with it. Some might say this was coincidence, or good planning on the part of the Irish. It was neither; it was Providence, pure and plain and true.

The Battle of Clontarf was a great engagement, and the Irish distinguished themselves well there. But the fight had a cost, too. During the battle Brian Boru was slain in his tent, where he was praying for victory. His death ended Ireland’s unity, though not her civilization, nor her contributions to the West. But it was a sad loss nonetheless.

Before all of this happens in the novel, however, Niall receives something precious and deadly from his mother. Etain didn’t feign dumbness when she was captured by the Norsemen. Not on purpose, anyway. The reason she did not speak when the Norsemen captured her was because she had something in her mouth. It was a talisman they valued highly called Thor’s Ring.

Now the Thor you encounter in this novel isn’t the jovial, knightly, Christianized hero of Marvel Comics’ fame. (Yes, I said ‘Christianized,’ readers. What is more, I meant it; let the new Marvel hierarchy gnash their teeth about it if they like, but the truth is that Stan Lee Christianized the old Norse myths. That includes Thor Odinson.) The Thor in this novel is like the original Norse interpretation: fierce, bloodthirsty, and dangerous. And the Norsemen worship him and his fellow Asgardians accordingly.

Whether one believes such a talisman ever existed or that it had some kind of power does not matter. What matters is that the Norsemen believed it had power. As long as the Irish held the Ring and two other talismen of import in the novel, they could force a truce on the Norsemen. But if the heathen Northmen ever got their hands on the three talismen, it would mean all out, open war between the two factions again.

In order to protect the Ring and her people, Etain hid it in her mouth during the raid. She couldn’t speak without giving away her secret and, when the Norsemen came to the conclusion that she had been born dumb, she kept up the charade out of fear for her life. This fear extended to her husband, whom she came to love deeply. Eventually she felt guilty for keeping him in the dark about her ability to speak. She kept trying to work up the nerve to tell him the truth, but put it off every time. Now, of course, it is too late to set the record straight for him.

Anyway, that is the set up for the first chapter. After saying his good-byes, Niall sets out from Eaglewaterheath with an Irish thrall his mother and uncle have freed. After a series of adventures, he reaches Ireland and joins his mother’s kin…..

….And that is the last of the spoilers you are getting, readers! If you want to know what befalls Niall in Sword of Clontarf, pick the novel up today. A good read that is full of history, it is well worth the purchase price. Enjoy it, readers!

‘Til next time!

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The Skeleton in Armor by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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The Skeleton in Armor

“Speak! speak! thou fearful guest!

Who, with thy hollow breast

Still in rude armor drest,

      Comest to daunt me!

Wrapt not in Eastern balms,

But with thy fleshless palms

Stretched, as if asking alms,

      Why dost thou haunt me?”

Then, from those cavernous eyes

Pale flashes seemed to rise,

As when the Northern skies

      Gleam in December;

And, like the water’s flow

Under December’s snow,

Came a dull voice of woe

      From the heart’s chamber.

“I was a Viking old!

My deeds, though manifold,

No Skald in song has told,

      No Saga taught thee!

Take heed, that in thy verse

Thou dost the tale rehearse,

Else dread a dead man’s curse;

      For this I sought thee.

“Far in the Northern Land,

By the wild Baltic’s strand,

I, with my childish hand,

      Tamed the gerfalcon;

And, with my skates fast-bound,

Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,

That the poor whimpering hound

      Trembled to walk on.

“Oft to his frozen lair

Tracked I the grisly bear,

While from my path the hare

      Fled like a shadow;

Oft through the forest dark

Followed the were-wolf’s bark,

Until the soaring lark

      Sang from the meadow.

“But when I older grew,

Joining a corsair’s crew,

O’er the dark sea I flew

      With the marauders.

Wild was the life we led;

Many the souls that sped,

Many the hearts that bled,

      By our stern orders.

“Many a wassail-bout

Wore the long Winter out;

Often our midnight shout

      Set the cocks crowing,

As we the Berserk’s tale

Measured in cups of ale,

Draining the oaken pail,

      Filled to o’erflowing.

“Once as I told in glee

Tales of the stormy sea,

Soft eyes did gaze on me,

      Burning yet tender;

And as the white stars shine

On the dark Norway pine,

On that dark heart of mine

      Fell their soft splendor.

“I wooed the blue-eyed maid,

Yielding, yet half afraid,

And in the forest’s shade

      Our vows were plighted.

Under its loosened vest

Fluttered her little breast,

Like birds within their nest

      By the hawk frighted.

“Bright in her father’s hall

Shields gleamed upon the wall,

Loud sang the minstrels all,

      Chanting his glory;

When of old Hildebrand

I asked his daughter’s hand,

Mute did the minstrels stand

      To hear my story.

“While the brown ale he quaffed,

Loud then the champion laughed,

And as the wind-gusts waft

      The sea-foam brightly,

So the loud laugh of scorn,

Out of those lips unshorn,

From the deep drinking-horn

      Blew the foam lightly.

“She was a Prince’s child,

I but a Viking wild,

And though she blushed and smiled,

      I was discarded!

Should not the dove so white

Follow the sea-mew’s flight,

Why did they leave that night

      Her nest unguarded?

“Scarce had I put to sea,

Bearing the maid with me,

Fairest of all was she

      Among the Norsemen!

When on the white sea-strand,

Waving his armed hand,

Saw we old Hildebrand,

      With twenty horsemen.

“Then launched they to the blast,

Bent like a reed each mast,

Yet we were gaining fast,

      When the wind failed us;

And with a sudden flaw

Came round the gusty Skaw,

So that our foe we saw

      Laugh as he hailed us.

“And as to catch the gale

Round veered the flapping sail,

‘Death!’ was the helmsman’s hail,

      ‘Death without quarter!’

Mid-ships with iron keel

Struck we her ribs of steel;

Down her black hulk did reel

      Through the black water!

“As with his wings aslant,

Sails the fierce cormorant,

Seeking some rocky haunt,

      With his prey laden, —

So toward the open main,

Beating to sea again,

Through the wild hurricane,

      Bore I the maiden.

“Three weeks we westward bore,

And when the storm was o’er,

Cloud-like we saw the shore

      Stretching to leeward;

There for my lady’s bower

Built I the lofty tower,

Which, to this very hour,

   Stands looking seaward.

“There lived we many years;

Time dried the maiden’s tears;

She had forgot her fears,

      She was a mother;

Death closed her mild blue eyes,

Under that tower she lies;

Ne’er shall the sun arise

      On such another!

“Still grew my bosom then,

Still as a stagnant fen!

Hateful to me were men,

      The sunlight hateful!

In the vast forest here,

Clad in my warlike gear,

Fell I upon my spear,

      Oh, death was grateful!

“Thus, seamed with many scars,

Bursting these prison bars,

Up to its native stars

      My soul ascended!

There from the flowing bowl

Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,

Skoal! to the Northland! skoal!”

      Thus the tale ended.

Book Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

Here again I speak of a favorite author just lately mentioned, readers. G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse was recommended to me a long time ago, but only recently did I download a copy of the Ballad to read it.

I enjoyed it immensely but found that my Gutenberg.org edition lacked footnotes to clarify some of Chesterton’s poetry. So I hunted up a hard copy of the book (I usually prefer hardcopies of books or papers anyway) and bought it, determined to better understand what I found to be such joyful reading.

The Ballad of the White Horse, by G. K. Chesterton, tells the story of King Alfred’s battle against the Danes who had invaded England. Alfred was a king dispossessed and in hiding; should the Danes find him, England’s only hope of driving the enemy from her soil would vanish.

It is unimportant how historically accurate The Ballad is to both the author and to me; suffice it to say that Alfred was a king of England and he did drive the Danes from his kingdom – quite heroically, too. Chesterton shows us Alfred hiding from the Danes on the island of Athelney, feeling despair creep over him. His people are scattered or under the yoke of the Danes, his armies destroyed, and his remaining chieftains hold their own territory free of the Danes – but that is all they can do. His situation is looking grimmer by the day.

Then he sees a vision of the Virgin Mary who tells him, “I tell you naught for your comfort/Yea, naught for your desire/Save that the sky grows darker yet/ And the sea rises higher.” Mary adds to her warning: “Do you have faith without a cause/ Yea, faith without a hope?” In other words, Alfred is not told whether he will fail or win, only that he must try to defeat the Danes.

Thus inspired, Alfred heads out to find and rally his chieftains: Mark the Roman, Eldred the Franklin, and Colan the Gael.

On a personal note, of the three chieftains I like Colan best – primarily for the reason Chesterton states here:

“For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad,

For all their wars are merry,

And all their songs are sad.”

I myself have Irish lineage, though I will say no more of that. But I will take this verse – and others in The Ballad – as compliments high and fair to that race of which I claim a small part.

The final battle against the Danes goes hard; all three chieftains are lost but Alfred does gain the day, and becomes king of England once again. I would recommend to anyone who desires to read the poem to buy a book with footnotes – reliable footnotes – so that they can better understand the Ballad. Apart from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Ballad is one of the few works of fiction I will not part with.

A last word, readers. The white horse geoglyph, which does exist and lies carved into a mound in England, is mentioned throughout the Ballad as a recurring theme for the story. During the course of the Ballad, the white horse is used to suggest the transcendent.

As Alfred points out to the king of the invading Danes, Guthrum, destruction is not as wonderful as the Danes make it out to be. Things naturally rot away or crumble back into the earth. Even the White Horse geoglyph disappears under weeds and thorns every year. And it would stay there, lost to history, if it were not scoured annually. Therefore, which is the greater power? he asks. Destruction or preservation?

The answer is pretty obvious; with decay a part of nature, the fact that anything can be preserved through millennia is astounding.

But preservation is no easy task. As Alfred says near the end of the poem:

“Will ye part with the weeds for ever?

Or show daisies to the door?

Or will you bid the bold grass

Go, and return no more?

“And though the skies alter and empires melt,

This word shall still be true:

If we would have the horse of old,

Scour ye the horse anew.”

So, readers, if we would have the good of old, the good we know and love today, in order to keep it tomorrow and into ever after – “If we would have the horse of old” – then we must “scour the White Horse anew.” Time after weary time, battle after exhausting battle, we must fight the “Long Defeat” as Tolkien named it, if we wish to see the victory.

I have a scouring brush. Feel free to join me and the others fighting the “Long Defeat” whenever you wish. 😉

Later,

The Mithril Guardian

Spotlight: Hiccup and Toothless – Rider and Dragon

Without a doubt, Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon films and television series have been unmitigated successes. For myself, I absolutely love the scenes that show Hiccup and the real star of the films/TV series, Toothless, in flight. The movies make me wish I was born with wings – or that I had a dragon of my own (preferably a Night Fury, but I could take a Stormcutter if no Night Fury presented himself/herself on the spot).

One of the films’ strong points is the friendship that forms between Hiccup and Toothless. While Hiccup starts out in the first movie as a veritable outcast in his own Viking tribe, Toothless similarly stands apart from the other dragons in the Red Death’s nest. He is the only Night Fury known to exist, and for that reason seems as out of place in the dragon world as Hiccup does in his village. Also, where Hiccup is smarter than your average Viking, Toothless is smarter than the average dragon. Whether that is a talent all Night Furies have in common or whether it is a special gift Toothless himself possesses, we cannot be sure.

These likenesses between the two characters are what lead to their extraordinary (for their world, that is) friendship. Hiccup’s higher intelligence means that he is naturally curious. This leads him to make inventions to help him in his work around the village, and thus he begins to learn how the world around him works.

Perhaps because of his curiosity and natural compassion, in the first How to Train Your Dragon film, Hiccup spares Toothless’ life when he could easily kill him. In return, Toothless neither eats nor kills Hiccup – though he does let the young Viking know he is not pleased with the previous night’s events. Later, Hiccup realizes that he may have spared Toothless and allowed him to live, but without a tail the dragon will be easy prey for other creatures – dragons and Vikings in particular. Feeling bad for putting the Night Fury in such a desperate situation, Hiccup designs a new tail to help the dragon survive on his own. However, the new tail does not work properly, prompting Hiccup to try again.

And again … and again.

Before either Toothless or Hiccup realizes what has happened, their work together on eliminating Toothless’ vulnerability has led to a friendship, or brotherhood, forming between them. Toothless knows that he would not have survived without Hiccup’s help, and Hiccup learns that dragons are not monsters hell-bent on destroying the Vikings. And if it is possible for one Viking to become friends with a dragon, why cannot other dragons and Vikings become partners?

Why, in short, should there be no dragon trainers – or dragon riders?

The friendship between Hiccup and Toothless is the heart of both How to Train Your Dragon films and is the underlying basis for the TV series. Without that friendship, there would be no story, and we would not know how to train our own dragons. ‘Cause let’s face it – some of the people we like could probably be dragons in another world. In this world, they just happen to be human!

Later,

The Mithril Guardian