by Tim Severin
Edition reviewed: Pan, 2005, ISBN 0-330-42673-7
Odinns Child is the first in a trilogy, set in 11th-century Iceland, Greenland, Vinland (the Norse name for North America) and Ireland. The central character, Thorgils, is mentioned in the Norse sagas but little is recorded about him, so he is probably best described as a real but shadowy historical figure. Many of the other figures in the book are also recognisable from the sagas and/or from history, such as Freydis daughter of Eirik the Red, Kari Solmandarson the peerless hero from Njals Saga, King Sigtrigg of Norse Dublin, etc.
The novel is framed as Thorgils autobiography, supposedly written in extreme old age in a Christian monastery. Thorgils is part Norse, part Irish, and his wanderings take him over much of the 11th-century Norse world, from the Norse settlement in Vinland (North America) to slavery in an Irish monastery.
Odinns Child is a smorgasbord* of incidents taken from the Norse sagas and/or from history. The first 130 pages are a faithful retelling of the Vinland Sagas - so faithful, in fact, that I found myself wondering at times if it was a translation rather than a retelling. After that, the scene shifts to Iceland and then Ireland, where I recognised snippets from Njals Saga and Orkneyinga Saga. There is little in the way of a plot, more of a series of events that happen to Thorgils and that are recounted in roughly chronological order. Though as this is Volume 1 of a trilogy, it is possible that it represents a lengthy scene-setting and that a story will get going in Volume 2.
The pace rarely varies, jogging along at a steady tempo whether the subject is a single combat at the Battle of Clontarf, a haunting or a description of the finer points of ship design. There is little action and less dialogue. Thorgils is a passive narrator, a spectator at great events rather than a participant. This is no military epic, more of a cross between a travelogue and a memoir.
As such, it has considerable charm, as period journals and memoirs do, where unconnected incidents and mundane details of everyday life are rendered fascinating because they speak of another time and place. And there are a great many delightful details of 11th-century life in Odinns Child. Prepare to be told about sailing routes and prevailing weather conditions in the North Atlantic; pagan Norse baby naming traditions; Icelandic domestic life, including details of clothes, furniture, diet and agriculture; Norse witchcraft (seidr) and prophetesses (volva); Norse ship design; Irish social structure, monastic organisation, medicine and law. And that isnt a comprehensive list. Of course, as this is fiction and not a genuine contemporary account, it shouldn't be automatically accepted as authentic. However, with that caveat in mind, I can say that I know something about Norse history and culture, and I recognised many details that matched the historical sources. This tends to increase my confidence in the likely veracity of the material that was unfamiliar to me, though of course readers who want to know the facts should verify the details for themselves. Readers who are prepared to take the novel on trust, on the other hand, will find it a pleasant and painless way of obtaining a picture of Norse and Irish life in the 11th century that is certainly a great deal more realistic than the stereotype of hairy savages in horned helmets and probably more accessible than reading the original sagas.
A meandering memoir, rich in period detail but short on plot.
*For once, this over-used term seems quite appropriate. What else would you call a collection of Scandinavian titbits?