Monday, May 13, 2013

The Cross and the Sword, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis

       People may know that Evangeline Walton is one of my favorite authors.  I set out some time ago to write analyses of the four volumes of the Mabinogion Tetralogy and so far I've succeeded in covering only Prince of Annwn, the First Branch.  Now I've read a book of Walton's that I had missed earlier, The Cross and the Sword, a historical novel that deals with the conflicts between the English and the Norsemen in the 10th and 11th centuries -- events leading up to the reign of the Danish King Knut. It was a tempestuous period, when Christianity was trying to establish itself in the world of Odin-men, feeling its way along a tentative path and not doing such a good job of living up to its own principles. 
       This tale is every bit as powerful as Island of the Mighty, but it's far less well known.  I was puzzled to find a whole slew of 3-star rankings on Goodreads (and even one 2-star) because I can't imagine giving it less than 4 and of course personally I give it 5.  However, I think that's because this isn't an easy book.  People may buy it expecting it to be light bedtime reading or popular entertainment -- airheaded sword-and-sorcery with romanticized, plastic heroes and heroines, simplistic villains, and maybe even knights fighting dragons.  If that's your preference in reading matter, don't bother with this book.
       In fact, it's a dark, meaty tale that requires the reader's full attention.  It's fraught with profound themes, its style is strenuous, and its diction is not easy.  It has enough violence to please the most calloused aficionado of barbaric battle tales, but underlying the brutality is a question:  Why does such violence have to exist?
       One thing that makes reading this book difficult is the names.  There is a plethora of characters and most of their names begin with the letter "E"!  The author had no control over this -- she's writing about real historical figures, and all the English kings and warriors of the period had names like Edmund, Edgar, Edwy, Ethelred, Edric, Edward -- and women ... Edith, Elfgiva, Emma, Elfryth ... well, you get the point.  Then there are the Danes.  There are two different Sweyns -- our protaganist Sweyn Haraldsson and Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish King -- and at least two different Olafs.   Even the surnames can be confusing --  Sweyn Forkbeard and Harald Firebeard, for example.
      Fortunately, the author provides a genealogical table of the English Kings and also a list of characters at the beginning of each of the three sections of the book.  Prepare to consult these frequently!  This is a surmountable difficulty, however, and shouldn't deter you from relishing the book.
        A second problem the casual reader might encounter is the pithy style.  The dialogue is written in a semi-archaic, slightly formalized style that could be off-putting if you aren't prepared to pay attention.  Personally, I found it highly effective.  I get annoyed at period fiction or high fantasy where the characters talk in 21st-century colloquialisms, and I think by adjusting word order and attending to diction Walton achieves an appropriate archaic effect.  Let me give an example.
       " 'And so he is enraging them by raising up kinless men like this duke Leofsy of Essex?  Stirring up trouble in his own house while I am knocking at the door?'  Forkbeard yawned.  'The more fool he.  When I am King of the English I will love those great lords like brothers until the land is quiet -- then each will find himself a head shorter.'
       " 'Glad I am to have only the love you give a foster-brother, King!'  Palli laughed shortly."  (p. 146 of the Ryerson hardback edition)

       One additional word concerning language, something I generally think about.  The languages being spoken in this book are never discussed -- everyone speaks the same.  Actually, the English have to be speaking Anglo-Saxon and the Norsemen Old Norse or some variation thereof.  I really don't know what lingua franca the Norseman and the English used to communicate during the period of invasion -- surely not Latin -- but Walton chooses not to make it an issue.  I agree with that -- such pedantry would have merely been a distraction from the serious intent of the book.

       So now we get to the heart of the book, its themes and purpose.  It is a study in the Christianity and culture of the time, and to some extent a commentary on the Christianity and culture of today.  But it's also a study in what it means to be human, revealed through the main character and narrator, the Norwegian Sweyn Haraldsson.  Walton took a few terse references from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and weaves a credible fictional tale around these bare-bones remarks, building a fully developed character who fits seamlessly into the larger context.  We follow Sweyn on a quest from his beginnings as the son of Harald Firebeard in a culture of Odin-worship, which could be brutal and violent but which was honest, true to its beliefs, and decent to its own people, if not to others.   We follow him to England where he encounters Christianity and isn't impressed, especially by the doctrine that dooms all men to burn in hell if they don't accept Christ.  The Christianity of the time was fraught with hypocrisy and had not yet learned how to live what it preached.  Sweyn converts (becoming Edwy the Dark) but not with any spiritual conviction -- it is merely that if he wants to marry the woman he has fallen in love with, he has to have been baptized.  We see the results of Christian hypocrisy when some of the few Christians who are sincere in their beliefs in loving and caring for their fellow human beings are brutally murdered in the St. Brice's Day Massacre.  Afterwards, Sweyn becomes Black Thrym, one of the worst marauders and slaughterers of the English, even while hating himself for his own dark deeds.  He sees those deeds as the only means to gain vengeance on the man who perpetrated the massacre.  Ultimately, an act of sacrifice -- the martyrdom of Elfeah -- causes him to experience an almost miraculous revelation of what God is really all about.

       "This man was good, so goodness was.  He was dying as he said his Master had died, to save others.  Such goodness could be.  It was.  No mistake in men's minds, that were too small to understand it, no doctrine, or folly or ugliness, could cloud it.  What were mistakes, or suffering, in the goodness that was eternity?  For eternity must be, because goodness was, and therefore justice must be." (p.281)

       It's interesting to contrast the presentation of Christianity in this book with that in Prince of Annwn.  In both books the consignment to hell of anyone who does not profess faith in the Christian god forms a major discussion point.  But where the treatment of Christianity flounders in Prince of Annwn and keeps being restated as if the author is never quite satisfied with her rendition, the pithy style of The Cross and the Sword serves the subject well.  Frequent striking, almost aphoristic remarks encapsulate the attitude toward Christianity, and character development serves to give the depiction flesh.

       I must say a word about Chapters 10 and 11, which present what has got to be one of the most mesmerizing descriptions of horrific slaughter ever written.  When you read about Evangeline Walton, she seems like such a mannerly, sensitive, kind, and compliant person and yet she was able to write about such visceral violence with only the barest modicum of sentimentality, never pulling any punches.   It's an absolute tour-de-force.  We see the destruction of the characters whom I consider to be the true heroes of the piece, as they live out a brutal affirmation of their beliefs.

       Unfortunately, this book is out-of-print, but maybe that's a good thing.  I have occasional correspondence with Douglas Anderson, the current editor of Evangeline Walton's works (she left a quantity of unpublished manuscripts) and he told me that The Cross and the Sword was hacked up by the publisher, who chopped out whole paragraphs and pages.  The publisher also changed the author's title, substituting this generic phrase The Cross and the Sword that could fit anything from a Roman gladiator tale to a Crusader novel to a story of the Knights Templar.  (Why publishers insist on doing that is beyond me!)  A new edition is in the works and it likely  will appear under the author's chosen title: Dark Runs the Road.  That phrase appears near the end of the book, as part of a cautionary statement:

       "I have nothing to complain of.  I have lived my life; known goodness as well as evil, joy as well as sorrow.  I wish for nothing save that I might have made the world a little better place before I left it.  Such a world as men like Elfeah and Eric might have built.  But it is the Knuts and the Olafs and the Ethelreds who get to be rulers of men.  Dark runs the road ahead of mankind and womankind that are yet to be; dark as it ran before me." (p.300)

       If in its present garbled state this book is still such a treasure, imagine how great it will be when it can be read the way the author intended it!


  1. Norse and English probably understood each other, more or less, most of the time, each speaking their own language (as Spanish- and Italian-speakers do today, as well as Scandinavians of all sorts). Here's Tom Shippey on the subject:

    Consider what happens when somebody who speaks, shall we say, good Old English from the south of the country runs into some body from the north-east who speaks good Old Norse. They can no doubt communicate with each other, but the complications in both languages are going to get lost.

    So if the Anglo-Saxon from the South wants to say (in good Old English) ”I’ll sell you the horse that pulls my cart,” he says: “Ic selle the that hors the draegeth minne waegn.” Now the old Norseman - if he had to say this - would say: “Ek mun selja ther hrossit er dergr vagn mine.” So, roughly speaking, they understand each other. One says “waegn” and the other says “vagn”. One says ”hors” and “draegeth”; the other says “hros” and “dregr”, but broadly they are communicating. They understand the main words.

    What they don’t understand are the grammatical parts of the sentence. For instance, the man speaking good Old English says for one horse “that hors” but for two horses he says “tha hors”. Now the Old Norse speaker understands the word horse all right, but he’s not sure if it means one or two because in Old English you say “one horse”, “two horse”. There is no difference between the two words for horse. The difference is conveyed in the word for “the” and the old Norseman might not understand this because his word for ”the” doesn’t behave like that. So: are you trying to sell me one horse or are you trying to sell me two horses? If you get enough situations like that there is a strong drive toward simplifying the language.

    (end of quotation)

    Indeed, in the primary sources there is never any mention of translators or interpreters when Norse and English talk together, and the Old English word wealhstod 'translator, interpreter' has the same root as 'Welsh', showing that the English primarily needed translators when talking to Welsh-speakers. In Gunnlaugs saga Ormstunga, the title character, a poet, says: "Ein var þá tunga á Englandi sem í Noregi ok í Danmörku. En þá skiptust tungur í Englandi, er Vilhjalmr bastarðr vann England", which is still fairly easily interpreted as "Once the tongue of English [was the] same [as] in Norway or in Denmark. But then shifted [the] tongues in England, when William Bastard [i.e. the Conqueror] won England".

    1. Fascinating! Thank you for taking the trouble to formulate this comment. I do something the same with the various branches of my alien termite languages (conlangs), although not in such detail. Here is a comment from the Appendix to the novel The Valley of Thorns, which I'm about to publish:

      Language had begun to evolve before the two ethnic groups (plains Shshi
      and nasutoids) split. The three languages (Shum’za, Nasute, and Shei’kwai) are now comparable to widely diverse Indo-European tongues. Each has dialects, with some dialects being mutually comprehensible, as, e.g., Da’no’no and Shum’za (the native speech of Ki’shto’ba and Di’fa’kro’mi, respectively). Northern Nasute and Shkei'akh'zei are mutually comprehensible dialects of a Nasute sublanguage, while Southern Nasute (the Sta’ein’zei and the At’ein’zei) and Desert (Wei’gwai’mi) Shshi are mutually comprehensible dialects of a second Nasute sublanguage. The Shei’kwai (or Tramontane, or Yo’sho’zei/Gwai’sho’zei) language is distinct and is probably closest to the archetypal form.

  2. It's always nice to find other Evangeline Walton fans, her Mabinogion is gorgeous. Regarding the mutual intelligibility of the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon languages, Chapter 98 of King Harald's Saga details the escape of Harald's marshal after the failed Norse invasion of 1066 (which was a major factor in the defeat of Harold Godwinsson, who had to march the length of England from York to Hastings):

    Styrkar, King Harald Sigurdson's marshal, a gallant man, escaped
    upon a horse, on which he rode away in the evening. It was
    blowing a cold wind, and Styrkar had not much other clothing upon
    him but his shirt, and had a helmet on his head, and a drawn
    sword in his hand. As soon as his weariness was over, he began
    to feel cold. A waggoner met him in a lined skin-coat. Styrkar
    asks him, "Wilt thou sell thy coat, friend?"

    "Not to thee," says the peasant: "thou art a Northman; that I
    can hear by thy tongue."

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Big Bad Bald - I'm always happy to meet new people, and particularly Evangeline Walton fans. Check out some of my termite saga - I think you'd like it!