30 January 2009

Holland Takes On Norway

I've had a frustratingly unproductive week -- I've only produced only about 700 words of a sample chapter. The rest of the time I've been waiting in for building contractors, journeying fruitlessly into town and arsing around on the internet. Not a good set of outcomes, although the 700-odd words do seem to me to be rather good ones.

Meanwhile, I've finished two books written (presumably rather faster) by other people, both of which I've been meaning to blog upon. I've probably only got time for one now, so I'll pick Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom by Tom Holland.

Like its predecessors, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic and Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (both of which I wrote a little about here), it's a chatty, pacy, well-written narrative of a turning-point in western history. If you want a clear sense of the turmoil in European thought of the 9th to 11th centuries which led to the eventual revolutionary idea of the separation of Church and State, this would be the book to read.

Unfortunately, that wasn't really what I was after. What I most admire in Holland's work is the way he makes cultures which are radically foreign to any modern worldview seem familiar and sympathetic, and in this book the distance wasn't really there to start off with. Our western Anglophone culture is of course post-Hellenic and post-Roman in the same way as it's post-Christian... but it was christian an awful lot more recently than it was either of those other things. The machinations of kings, popes, knights and even emperors (of the "Holy Roman" variety, at least) seem rather banal and mundane, in a way which even republican Rome, despite its familiarity, never does.

Inevitably perhaps, my favourite parts of the book are those which deal with the borders of christendom -- the Islamic Caliphates (whose appearances are sadly brief) and heathen-turning-christian Viking nations. Somehow the Vikings -- who are almost certainly prominent among my actual ancestors -- seem "alien" in that ancient-history way, whereas their contemporaries of the Romance and Saxon cultures simply don't. This despite the fact that the contemporary history of Britain at the time (which Holland fortunately covers extensively) is largely a power-struggle between different Viking factions for control of these islands.

As Holland points out, the Normans (who were of course of Viking descent, "Norman" being a rather unconvincing romanisation of "Norseman") didn't conquer an England that was still ruled over by Saxons: both Harold Godwinson and Edward the Confessor had Viking mothers, and had in any case inherited the throne from a bunch of Norwegians. The last King of England of pure Anglo-Saxon heritage (which is to say, of course, that he was descended from an ethnically slightly different bunch of Odin-worshippers) was the ill-remembered Edmund Ironside, who died a full 50 years before the Conquest.

The Viking stuff was fascinating, and brought home to me the extent of their cultural influence -- which extended from Vinland to Kiev, and as far south as Byzantium itself -- in a way I'd never realised before (despite reading Henry Treece's splendid Viking Saga trilogy as a lad). If only someone had been able to unite them so that they stopped spending most of their history chopping one another up with axes, the Vikings could have built an empire spanning the Northern hemisphere from America to Russia -- something which has never been achieved in our history.

(I suspect this may in fact be what Harry Harrison and John Holm were writing about in their own trilogy, beginning with The Hammer and the Cross, none of which I've never read. Certainly it's an occupational hazard of being an S.F. writer that reading actual history always diverts one into alternatives.)

Unfortunately, the Viking material accounts for barely a third of the book, the rest being taken up by the aforementioned pope-jockeying. There's a certain amount of entertainment to be had from the shocking corruption, quick succession and occasional startling simultaneity of the contemporary popes, but it palls quickly.

Holland has also developed an irritating verbal tic which I didn't notice in either of his previous books: the construction "[X amount of time] later, and [Y event happened]" is repeated on average once a page, and the repetition of all those needless "and"s quickly becomes tiresome. A canny editor could have cut nearly half a thousand words just by excising them. If I'd been more involved in the narrative I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed it -- indeed, it's entirely possible that this is what happened with Rubicon and Persian Fire. Ah well.

I did at least learn that the Olympic year of 2012 will be the 1100th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's great-to-the-32nd-grandfather converting to christianity from the worship of Odin One-Eye, All-Father, Victory-Bringer, Master of Ravens and Wolf of Battle, the Hanged God. Which is nice.

Vikings are cool. Fact.

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