Thursday, April 8, 2010

“Unshaken on his rocky throne above the bleak fjords”: A review of H. Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes

The default setting for most fantasy is a faux late-Middle Ages, generally ascribed to the period from the Norman conquest of 1066 to roughly the end of the 15th century. Hence we get novels whose characters live in sprawling, lavishly decorative castles, answer to a high king in a monarchical society, embrace chivalric ideals, and speak in an ornate language of high culture. In comparison, the coarse, rough mine of the early Middle Ages and in particular the Viking Age is relatively untapped. I enjoy the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War as much as the next guy, but I prefer the song of spear and axe, the smoke of the burning hall, and the sight of the dragon-headed longship against the backdrop of the ruins of ancient civilization.

This disparity is unfortunate, because although the number of novels set during the Viking Age is relatively low, I have generally found them to be of exceeding high quality. Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga and The Broken Sword are among the best of this smallish genre (though I’m not sure if the latter can be properly classified as set during the Viking Age, heavily Nordic-influenced though it may be). Bernard Cornwell’s ongoing historic fiction series The Saxon Stories is similarly great, devoid of ant overt references to magic but with all of the poetry of the age. I would add to that mix Harry Harrison’s The Hammer and the Cross, a fun, if savage and bloodthirsty read, while Nancy Farmer’s young adult work The Sea of Trolls is quite good and entertained me as a full-grown man. I have also heard praise from many quarters for E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong, which I have not read (it’s out of print and not easy to acquire).

It’s hard to say which of these Viking Age-inspired works would win a theoretical Holmgang amidst hazel rods, but having just now read H. Rider Haggard’s 1889 novel Eric Brighteyes, I can now state that any previous order I had established is deeply in doubt, so mighty is this book. In fact, I would unhesitatingly declare it among the finest works in the genre, better than Cornwell and at least as good as Anderson’s best. It may not be as much a household name as Haggard’s more famous works King Solomon’s Mines and She, but it’s nevertheless rightly considered a classic in some quarters and one of Haggard’s best.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Cimmerian Web site.

9 comments:

David J. West said...

I am going have to work harder at tracking this down-sounds awesome. All I have at the moment is the pastiche "Eric Brighteyes:A Witch's Welcome" that a Sigfriour Skaldaspillir did in 1979.

Can't say yet if it carries on "in the tradtion of what we expect out of pastiches" yet or not.

But now I'm anxious to read yet another of Haggards Icon's.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I'm a huge fan of King Solomon's Mines and She (in fact I was just thinking of writing a scholarly essay on the influence of She on author Henry Miller, if you can believe that!). However, I have never picked this one up. My mistake!

Brian Murphy said...

Hi guys, although I'm not a fan of reading on the computer, you can actually get the entire text of Eric Brighteyes on Project Gutenberg, here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2721

I guess the copyright on the book has expired. Even if you can't read it in its entirety, online, you can at least see how it reads.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Thanks for the tip! But I think I'll root it out through interlibrary loan. There's something about reading on the computer that flattens the prose (for me, at least).

davidf said...

Mighty praise indeed! I'm adding this to my reading list -- sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the rec, and keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

what a coincidence... here in Spain a blogger write about just that book a week or so ago... and even with the same picture...
Francisco...

Brian Murphy said...

David: No problem, thanks for stopping by. You won't regret reading Eric Brighteyes.

Francisco: Do you have a link you can share? And is the review in Spanish? I don't read that language, unfortunately.

Rowdy Geirsson said...

Informative post! Another I will add to my out-of-print--but-must-track-down list (I also prefer not to read on computer screen)...I'm still on the look out for Anderson's Hrolf Kraki or Broken Sword but did manage to find an old copy of his Demon of Scattery recently (apparently a Norse/Irish fantasy...maybe you know it).

Enjoyed today's post too. Pressfield is excellent.

Anonymous said...

http://rescepto.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/eric-ojos-brillantes/
a bit like yours... it speaks about the fate and predestination in the nordic sagas and in this book and said about finding it in spanish... used books libraries... and in english in the net...
Francisco...