Tuesday, December 6, 2005

God's Hammer: A Story From the Dark Ages

Eric Schumacher’s novel, God’s Hammer, is based on the fascinating true story of Hakon Haroldsson, king of Norway during the 10th century. King Harold Fairhair of Norway sent his youngest son, Hakon, to the court of King Athelstan of England (then called “Engla-lond”), where Hakon was raised and educated as a Christian. Several years later, Harold died and left his kingdom to his eldest son, Eric (known as Eric Bloodaxe). Eric killed his other brothers and ruled cruelly and recklessly. Harold’s friends thus sent messengers to England, to bring young Hakon (now a youth of about 16) back to Norway. Hakon became king and ruled for 25 years (935 – 960), introducing reforms with great success except in one area; Hakon was unable to bring Christianity to the Norse pagans.

The brief account above can be readily learned through online encyclopedias, though with few details. Schumacher brings his great research and knowledge of the Dark Ages into this novel, expanding on the known story with a wonderful “coming of age” account of young Hakon. Taking as its subject Hakon's earlier years, the story is well written and easy-to-read, with a character we can easily relate to--whether as a young, frightened 8-year-old sent far from home, or the teen who would have preferred to stay in England yet recognizes his destiny to rule his own people. We see how the Christian faith was then practiced, though the author makes no external comments, good or bad—the events speak for themselves. Yet in spite of the bad aspects—an official baptism declares someone a Christian, rather than a pagan, regardless of whether the person has even heard the gospel message—the moral and civilizing aspects of Christianity in England clearly strike a contrast with the monstrous, barbaric acts of the pagan Northmen. Through young Hakan’s experiences, we witness his maturing from a rebellious, if sheltered, child, to someone with a tender heart of compassion, truly horrified and sorrowful, when he sees firsthand the barbaric deeds of his own people.

God’s Hammer especially brings out Hakan’s own struggles of conscience: the desire to “fit in” and be accepted by his people, versus his Christian repulsion at the pagan rituals such as wishing on the Yule log, and human sacrifice. As he once tells his young friend, Toralv, he “will not change” his beliefs. Yet time and again he faces a new political reality and must admit the truth of (his counselor) Sigurd’s political savvy.

The historical research clearly shines through, in both the secular and religious aspects of life for the English and the Northmen. God’s Hammer has a good narrative flow, including action and dialogue, with the political / historical backdrop of the time and place: the English, Danes and Northmen. I highly recommend this historical fiction novel, both for its entertaining story and historical information about specific events from a time little known and studied today, the Dark Ages.

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