My impressions of
"a thrall's tale"
(See the link to the offical website for this book at the bottom of this page)
AND BACKGROUND THOUGHTS
I thoroughly enjoyed the historical novel “the thrall’s tale” by Judith Lindbergh (Plume/Penguin, 2006). The book is a masterfully told tragedy, overall, but with heart-thrilling triumphs along the way. A good book tugs at your emotions, a great book grips your emotions. I was gripped. Emotionally enthralled, so to speak.It is a heart-rending story with heart-warming moments, woven with richly imagined, richly lovable yet deeply flawed characters, pegged to historical events in a very credible way. The evocation of the locale, and the ways of the people of that place and time, were very convincing. The clash between the new and the old religions that took place during this time provides an undertone at the beginning of the story and becomes a central theme later in the story.
With respect to this changing of the gods, the story does not take sides. The author, Lindbergh, is very honest about the two religions that clashed there, showing both in terms of the positive and the negative inherent in them and allowing human nature to prevail in the culture as it transitions from the Norse Gods to Christianity’s God. With that transition comes a freeing of the thralls (slaves), and yet this new freedom is an illusion under the feudal rearrangement of society. All are free now, but survival demands they work even harder than before with no help from former owners who have turned into landlords expecting their rents without lifting a hand or making any investment in producing crops or livestock.
The one place I felt the book let me down, but only just a little, was in this religious transition. Lindbergh had the magical aspects of the Norse religion replaced very rapidly with a more cerebral, less magical, Christian world view. It is no doubt true that all of the blood-sacrificing to influence the gods was stopped, forcibly stopped even. But the sacrificing to influence the now single god did not stop. The sacrifices were not any longer animal parts sent up into heaven in smoke, but instead they were a share of the production that kept the people alive, now sent to the church to keep it alive, and to keep its leadership enjoying a rather privileged lifestyle. This was enforced by imposing yet another magical world view, a view of an unseen world just as full of good and evil (but perhaps not capricious) inhabitants as before.
Lindbergh does gently hint at this in some of the observations made by her main character, Katla, who lives Christianity in a completely magical way until she becomes a real Christian, and then with experience becomes a bit disenchanted (dis-enthralled?). I would have made more of this transition from one magical world view to another just as magical, and would have shown it to have consisted of a redefinition of the inhabitants of the supernatural realm it, not a denial of that realm. But maybe that is why I have penned no bestseller? To Lindbergh’s credit, she did not grind this sort of ax, and told a most credible tale of this painful and life-disrupting transition without editorializing through her characters.
One thing that really, really impressed and pleased me is that I never saw the word “love” in this whole book. A great story evokes emotions in its readers. In me, love was strongly evoked for the main and many secondary characters, regardless of their flaws, and most were flawed in the serious and classically tragic sense. Each was lovable, each loved, each acted from motivations that could be called love today, but were not at that time, and were not in this book. Marvelous!
It would have been easy to translate the self-sacrificing devotion shown by some to others as expressions of love, but that was not part of the vocabulary or thought of that day. In one heart-warming honeymoon-like scene the love is so richly described that the reader co-experiences it like a warm blanket on a cold night. The emotion of love is described fully by its symptoms, by the resulting inner feelings in the participating characters, but is not named. The scene where two become one in the Biblical sense, with copious mists rising into the frigid night air amplifying the magic of the moment, is a sublime description of the healing and life-affirming power of love, but it is not cheapened by an anachronistic use of the word.
Judith Lindbergh is described as saying she was not a Vikings fan. I am not either, I am appalled by mayhem for gain. But she was fascinated, enthralled perhaps, by the thought that there must lie something deeper under the veneer of horned helmets and blood-lust and total male domination. She discovers this deeper layer, true humanity, and shares it with us in this tale. I have had a fascination with Greenland ever since I was able to take a few photos of the isle flying over it, in a commercial jet coming from Europe, about 5 miles up. It looked totally inhospitable from that height, yet attractive. Then I found out it is inhabited along its fringes, and has been for much more than a thousand years by the Inuit peoples that inhabit much of the Arctic regardless of national boundaries imposed on them later. And then I found out that the Norse had been there for about 500 years, and then inexplicably disappeared. I found that interesting as well, and read just a little bit more about it, and was intrigued by the historical puzzle that their leaving presented and all the speculation that surrounded that puzzle. Then along came Lindbergh’s book on that very time and place and of course I devoured it in just a few days and nights.
Curious about the disappearance of the Norse from Greenland, I looked at several theories on the internet and in some travel guides. I was not surprised that the Inuit had survived there for more than a thousand years, given where else they, then and now, live(d) and survive(d) in the Arctic. But the little bit of Norse history I read made me wonder how these people, who tried to maintain a certain lifestyle to which they were accustomed in their lands of origin, could have survived in this land as long as they did.
Greenland, I believe, is colder and less blessed with agricultural opportunity then Iceland and Norway (let alone Denmark, which has abundant arable soils). Now that I have read “the thrall’s tale” I have a very good feeling for how they did survive for as long as they did. I found the epilogue of “the thrall’s tale” and its speculation about the 14th century’s “little ice age” quite a satisfying explanation of why the Norse finally gave up on Greenland. The lowering of overall temperature would have had a large impact on the little agriculture that sustained their livestock, moving them from marginal to impossible when it came to supporting their lifestyle.
The Inuit survived because they had a different lifestyle, I presume from what I have read elsewhere, being more completely focused on hunting and not on maintaining herds of livestock. I did not realize, until this little bit of pseudo-research on my part, that some parts of marine animals hunted and eaten by the Inuit provided vitamin C. Amazing.
Ever since learning Greenland was inhabited, I have wanted to go there. Now I know where I want to go: the south-southwest. I want to see where the people described in this book lived, to get a more personal impression of how they lived.
One thing I find fascinating about being alive is what people do and think of in their “spare” or leisure time. Spare time, in this case, is time not spent either working or with family and friends in social situations. Personally, I read, write, watch movies, spend time on the internet, etc, and I think, feel and in a sense meditate on what it really means to be alive and self aware. What a luxury!
Then I look at previous generations I have known, my parents and grandparents, and how they had much less spare time, since surviving for them meant always being engaged in some activity (making and repairing clothing seemed to have taken up a lot of my mother’s spare time in her younger married years with little kids underfoot and little money at hand, for example). But still, my parents had time for thinking and reflection, it was during the darning of sox or other repetitious activity, and they always made time to read, even if just a little.
In the case of Lindbergh’s characters it was very different. They (or if they were at the very top of their social ladder, their slaves) spent almost all their time engaged in activities that allowed their survival and the maintenance of their (meaning their leaders’ if they were ‘thralls’) lifestyles.
But this did not mean they had no time to think on their condition and place in the universe. While working they engaged in exchanges of experience with each other, a mutual sort of speculation, and imagined and taught each other a very rich and complex reality outside of what was their known physical world. These people were convinced they were living within an unseen, but real and daily experienced world of magical powers, including very human-like gods and goddesses and many lesser powers, some beneficial, some malevolent, and some capricious. These beings reflected their very real and not often pleasant daily experience of nature’s forces. They spent a lot of resources trying to influence these gods and powers to do them good, and believed that their survival and well-being was a direct result of such activities.
The fact of their well-being proved to them that their sacrifices designed to influence these perceived powers were well spent and necessary. Perception is reality for the perceiver. This is well illustrated in Lindbergh’s book, and feeds some of the fear shown by those resisting a changing of the gods.
With us, the printing press, television and the internet are our modern tools that can enrich or destroy our imagination. We can’t live without these tools it seems, we are afraid of the quiet that would come if all of them disappeared. But there is no need for such fear. Historically, and for the peoples who live without these tools today as well, imagination was and is alive and well. Imagination fills the moments when a person is not engaged in intensely demanding activities that survival often requires in more primitive situations.
IMPRESSIONS FROM READING THE STORY
But let’s get to my impressions from reading the story itself rather than its physical and historical settings. I thought the book was magnificent for the way the author tragically flawed the characters but still had us (well, me, anyway) love pretty near all of them. There was one whom it was very hard for me to love, so I didn’t try. If you read the book it will become obvious to you who that is. The main character, Katla, feared and hated him, and I felt she was justified in her uncharitable feelings.
The coming of Christianity into this wonderfully well-developed Norse religious (“pagan”) culture was also very well done, with the main character embracing it idealistically at first and then detecting flaws as her longing-fueled infatuation began to wear off. This is a very realistic telling of the conversion process and the inevitable maturation and sobering that follow no matter what the religion in question (in my opinion, that is). Of course, in Katla’s case, Christianity was also her only link with her Christian mother, hence her eagerness in embracing it when given the opportunity.
As I already said, a great book is one that causes emotions to flow in its readers along the way, and mine did. I was quite sad much of the way, but this made a great backdrop for making the contrast very sharp when there was, for example, a sense of a guarded euphoria upon the main character’s becoming a real Christian. I approached being ecstatically happy reading the very tastefully done telling of Katla’s positive marriage experience, and especially her magically rich honeymoon experience. It was the happiness highlight of the book for me. The author shows that love, a word not appearing in this book, can make blood-red into a romantic hue.
Thorbjorg is another main character and was a great reflector of local perceptions of unseen reality along the way. She was a very credible description of a wise woman, a healer, priest, prophet, magician or sorceress (depending on your point of view) from that time and religious tradition. In the very end when she rises out of the story and out of history looking down from Valhalla at the world continuing to spin below, comforting the waning gods, I felt like I was rising away out of the story and out of history with her.
Having her comfort her gods was a precious twist! A nice way to pull the reader back into the present, and also a nice way of reminding us all that shortly we will be history too (and so will our gods).
The third main character is Bibrau. There could be a real temptation to see her as a personification of evil but the author weaves her with sufficient complexity to not make such a classification easy.
Her mother anticipates, then looks for and expects, her father's evil nature to manifest itself in her. That ought to immediately send the reader's heart out her since at this juncture she was just a baby.
Naturally she lived up to that expectation and eventually it lands her in very serious trouble. Then a case is made for her, that she did much good in society practicing her healing and midwifery skills. The appeal was not a success. Bibrau was a strange girl that did not fit in her own society. She was much more at home in the company of the otherworldly inhabitants, natural forces personified as per her belief system. These personifications of nature accepted her and empowered her. They were her reality, her world, and where her loyalties resided.
Bibrau dominates the story near its end. She personifies part of the difficult transition in religion that took place at this time in this palce. When the new religion threatens her only source of personal power, she attempts to defend that source with a multipurpose sacrificial act that settles several personal scores and at the same time would be a counterrevolution restoring her gods’ and spirit-allies’ ability to exercise their powers in the world. Bibrau’s internal allegiance lay with these personified natural forces who were her daily companions, accepted her and empowerd her. I can't bring myself to think of her as evil at her very core when I understad her and her motives so well. And I understand them so weel thanks to the author of the book letting me into her mind, just as she had let me into the minds of the other main characters.
Lindbergh wove a very complicated story. It is a remarkable achievement. I liked
it very much.
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