Friday, June 2, 2017

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French

After reading The Elder Edda, I wasn't quite ready to leave Iceland, and I decided the time was ripe for my long-intended re-read of Allen French's The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, which I'd read, once, about ten years ago and remembered liking very much.

The story follows a young boy named Rolf, the son of the landowner Hiarandi the Unlucky. When an act of mercy by Hiarandi leads to his being made an outlaw, and ultimately killed by a greedy neighbour, Rolf vows to prove that his father's killing was unlawful. But when he meets the son of his father's killer, Rolf can't help liking him. Will Rolf and Grani find a way to see past their own grudges, and lay the feud to rest?

One of the things I particularly remembered about this book was that it was somewhat more than just another standard vintage adventure story for boys. Set in medieval Iceland shortly after its conversion to Christianity, The Story of Rolf is written in a rather good imitation of actual Icelandic sagas. And this goes further than thees, thous, and the occasional lapse into present tense. It also includes a tense, laconic writing style, a very arm's-length treatment of the characters' thoughts and emotions, characters bursting into the occasional skaldic verse, some crazy and unexpected (yet totally fun) fantasy elements, and a subject matter (the tension between blood-feuding and Christian forgiveness) that is also to the forefront of one of the few Icelandic sagas I've actually read, The Saga of Burnt Njal.

Looking back, I'm stunned by how well this style works for this story. The Story of Rolf  was first published in 1924, so it comes after the worst of the Victorian literary excesses, but I can't imagine that writing historical fiction in a style so spare and laconic must have seemed like an obvious decision. And to be honest, French isn't unaffected by the literary fashions of his time. Still, he was trying something pretty unprecedented in his day, and the result is a story that fuses the best of the delicious drama that characterises vintage lit, with the best of Icelandic terseness, adventure, and sheer epic awesome. There's a depth to the characters' emotions and motivations that can be somewhat lacking in the old sagas, and yet the very straightforward storytelling style strengthens what could be a shortcoming in vintage fiction.

And there are so many things to love about the book. The plot operates at a slow, tense simmer that takes you through many twists and turns, but it's always building toward a specific goal, which is how this blood feud is ultimately resolved. And I loved the resolution. One of the marks of a truly great story is a resolution that lifts it beyond itself into something higher, and The Story of Rolf has one of these. I won't spoil it, but I will say that it left me with a lump in my throat.

And also that I loved the theme. Since finishing the story, I've been chewing on one particular aspect of it--just a minor aspect--that I think this book gets wonderfully right when it comes to the concept of forgiveness. It's common to assume that forgiveness is something unconditional and unilateral. In fact, forgiveness cannot be accomplished without repentance on the side of the wrongdoer. It is the victim's duty to be ready to offer forgiveness if it is sought, and that means killing anger and bitterness and resentment; but this does not mean treating a professed enemy in every respect as if he is your friend. One must be ready to forgive, but there is no true forgiveness possible for an unrepentant enemy. I won't say more, but I will say that I was stunned and encouraged by how well (and beautifully) The Story of Rolf discusses this truth.

There were lots of other things I loved about this story. I loved the female characters--this is, of course, a solidly manly adventure story for boys and so the female characters are definitely in supporting roles--but what characters they are, fearless, determined, and wise. I loved Frodi, the peaceful smith, who winds up with a string of nicknames referring to his undeniable awesome. I loved that epic deeds are done, and narrated with such dry understatement. And I loved the characters cropping up out of old sagas.

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow isn't a perfect book. I would have liked to see Rolf himself have a greater character arc, for instance, and one plot device near the end was a little unbelievable. But overall, I loved this story. A brilliant bit of vintage young adult fiction.

Find The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

2 comments:

cleopatra said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one who had read and enjoyed this book ..... the only one who even knew about it. Thanks for the excellent review. I need to re-read it myself one day soon!

Suzannah said...

Oh, you read it too? That's great! It definitely deserves to be more well known.

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