War of the Gods
Poul Anderson

Morality: C-
Writing: A-

In retelling the legend of King Hadding of the Danes (found in the annals of the Danish early medieval writer Saxo), this book conveys a very Northern story in Northern style. The life of Hadding, raised by giants to overthrow a usurper and become king of the Danes, is told from beginning to end, as he fights foes both natural and supernatural, including, eventually, his own kin. The book is less plot-focused than mood-focused, developing a lyrical Norse tone, enhanced by the author’s use of language. In addition to writing tolerable imitations of northern verse, Anderson avoids Romance-language derived words like the plague, using a Germanic substitute whenever possible (kine for cattle, lich for corpse, thews for muscles, etc., as well as many less noticeable substitutions). His writing is very distinctive: delayed adjective placement and subtly metaphoric wording make for a poetic yet spare style which I found quite pleasing. For example, this paragraph: “This was a mighty fleet. Hulls in their scores decked the waves. Prowheads reared above gleaming shields and spears. Oars walked spidery, creaking, water aswirl aft of the stroke, now and then casting foam white into sunlight. When hills hove blue on the rim of sight, a whoop went skyward. The startled gulls whirled and mewed in clouds.” Pretty, clean, and not a Latinism in sight.

Morally, the book is typical Norse — straightforward telling of a story without a lot of positive or negative message. There is some emphasis placed on justice (although a good measure of shrewdness, even trickery, is also praised as exemplary), and of course a lot on courage, but the book doesn’t preach anything at all. Sleeping around is countenanced as ordinary in the cultural context (and Hadding sleeps with his foster mother, which I found disgusting), and suicide by hanging is apparently viewed as a noble sacrifice to Odin. Otherwise, the content is mostly just pagan, and therefore not especially harmful, although obviously not Christian and often not morally acceptable.

Content warning: As one might expect, there’s a lot of violence in this story, although it seemed to me only moderately graphic. There are also a fair amount of sexual references, although these are even less explicit than the violence.

Posted by Sasha | May 4, 2005

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