Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Higher Virtues of Erling’s Word

Christian fiction -- the phrase alone is enough to set most bibliophiles’ teeth on edge. Gone are the days of C.S. Lewis and Walter Miller, Jr. publishing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, of Flannery O’Connor penning the perfect Southern Gothic, of Dorothy Sayers introducing Lord Peter Wimsey to the world with a combustible “Oh, damn!” That is to say, gone are the days when Christian authors penned narratives that went beyond pabulum, narratives that mainstream readers might actually, well, read. But if conservative Lutheran author Lars Walker’s first novel is any indication, their spirit still lingers.

That novel is Erling’s Word, and its Dark Age-era story begins with a failed monastic candidate watching his parents be slaughtered by Vikings and his sister gang raped. His name is Ailill, and he ends up stolen from his native Ireland and sold as slave in Norway. Noting his clerical training, his captors offer him up as a priest, even though he possesses only a little education, less Latin and no faith. He’s bought by Erling Skjalgsson, a Norse lord and Christian who offers him freedom in exchange for helping turn his people from their barbarous rites to true worship. Ailill gladly agrees, but soon finds himself in over his head. The old gods are very much alive in the land and none too pleased to have a priest of the white Christ about -- even a false one.

Count complex, sympathetic characters and a willingness to do unexpected things with them among the virtues of Erling’s Word. One moment Ailill is catechizing and constructing a church, the next bedding a concubine and craftily planning a rival’s murder. Walker often tempers such interludes with sardonic wit and fine turns of phrase. When considering Erling’s offer, Ailill thinks, “I knew enough of the offices to be priest for his purposes. God wouldn’t care -- how could He, not existing as He did?” Later he looses a hilarious, page-long imprecatory prayer against Erling’s enemies, intoning, “May their stomachs be filled with squirming piglets, and swell, and burst, so that they trip on their guts. May their kidneys and rumps let loose together, and the waste fill the ship, so they drown in it. ” While Ailill doesn’t stay stuck in his duplicity, his character advances in unexpected ways, as do the lives (and deaths) of those around him. A disappointing denouement can’t spoil the fact that this is a novel both doubters and the devout will likely enjoy. Believing authors, take note: There are higher literary virtues than inoffensiveness.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Cindy Funk)


Loren Eaton said...

Unfortunately, Erling's Word is out of print. In the spirit of sharing, I'm offering up my copy to the first person who emails me at ISawLightningFall (at) gmail (dot) com. Good reading to one and all!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

You know...I wish I'd seen the comment before I ordered my copy at Amazon.

In any case, if it's as good as you say I'll see how much loaning I can do.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, there are still some folks trying to foster Christian literature that goes beyond inoffensive self-congratulations or kid friendly Sunday School lessons.

One might point to Coach Culbertson's "Relief" journal, for example.

Loren Eaton said...

The book was a very pleasant surprise. I don't typically like historical fiction, but Walker does a good job at incorporating fantastic bits, many of which are nicely surreal.

Yes, Coach Culbertson does good work, but I'm still nursing my grudge for being turned down for Coach's Midnight Diner. [/tongue in cheek]

Ori Pomerantz said...

If you don't mind reading off of a screen, you can get it (and the sequel) at .

Loren Eaton said...

Good tip, Ori! Many thanks.

FYI, I've been informed that The Year of the Warrior contains not only an improved text of Erling's Word, but -- as Ori said -- it's sequel, too.