" '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!