Lucinda Elliot

‘The Viking’ by Eddison Marshall: One of the Few Cases Where I Prefer the Film Version

I seem to be making a habit out of disliking one or both of the main characters in the books I’ve read recently: I couldn’t stand the love interest in ‘Jamaica Inn’ and couldn’t stand the female protagonist of ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ and thought that the love interest was her (boring) anima. In this one, I can’t stand the hero and think he is boring at the same time, and the heroine, who is meant to be bold and independent and certainly, could be worse in a book written by a man in the 1950’s, comes across as shadowy to me.
I was interested to see that the Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis epic was based on a book by someone who’d fallen into obscurity called Eddison Marshall, and accordingly tracked the book down. I began to read it, but I was so horrified by the scene of the mutilation of the falcon, that I stopped and just skim bits of it to the end.
During the recent lockdown in the UK, with the price of second hand paper backs up to as much as £5 and the local library really inadequate, I went back to reading it.
Generally, I’d say that was a wasted effort. This was one of the few books where I thought the film was better ‘The Remains of the Day’ being another.
Sadly, I can’t say much that is positive about this book.
The researach was impressive, particularly given how difficult it must have been to unearth all the obscure aspects of Viking culture before the invention of the internet (I often think the same about Harrison Ainsworth, another sensationalist writer).
Obviously, Kirk Douglas was struck with it, and had his script writer turn it into an enjoyable epic.
Many of the readers who review on Goodreads seem to be really impressed with it. Obviously, it helps if you enjoy ‘sweeping epics’ full of macho values. I think I’ll stick the the film versions in future; they’re more enjoyable pieces of swashbuckling nonsense, even if this one did contain the ridiculous anachronism of castles in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Unlike many of those onlin e reviewers, I thought that it was badly written with all that purple prose. It’s also loosely plotted, full of detours that do nothing to further the main plot, with histrionics and wooden, unsympathetic characters the order of the day.
I thought that the author missed an opportunity in not developing the Hastings character more. The rivalry suddenly falls flat when Hastings at the end loses any interest in Morganna.
I never found the protagonist Ogier sympathetic, and the efforts of the author to make him seem a great leader by having so many other characters (even the ‘Einar’ character Hastings) proclaim him one fell flat with me.
The only thing I liked about him is that unlike his fellow Vikings, he isn’t a rapist..
That being so, he didn’t annoy me quite so much as Mr. B in ‘Pamela’, or Dominic Alistair in ‘Devil’s Cub’, or Theseus in ‘The King Must Die’, or various other rapist or would be rapist heroes.
Excuse me, but a ‘hero’ who prods his dying enemy in the side with the toe of his boot, and makes fun of him? Are we meant to admire this man? Why don’t any of the Christians looking on remonstrate with him?
Instead, they make obscure references to dragons and the curse hanging over him.
Well, it’s true that Alan quotes the line about ‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad’. Maybe this is meant to show that Ogier has temporarily gone off his head.
I suppose, it is arguable that he is taken over by the soul of the perviously horribly slaughtered falcon at this point, and revenge accounts for this piece of brutality. Certainly, he gives the appearance of ‘flying’ at his enemy.
However, this is all in line with the general obscure, portentious (not to be really uncharitable and say ‘pretentious’) style in which the characters speak in this book.
The Boot Prodding piece of gratuitious cruelty is only one among many: ie, that same enemy Hastings’ mutilation of the falcon after Ogier mortified him by showing off her superior prowess at hunting to that of his own birds of prey (thankfully left out of the film).
Ogier, who is so wonderful that even the haughty princess can’t resist him, pagan though he is, has unknowingly killed off his father and two half brothers.
His punishment is to go and seek out Avalon. I see.
As his love object is happy to go with him, plus his toadying bard and his slavish Laplander foster mother (whom he always jeeringly refers to as ‘yellow woman’), it doesn’t seem much of a punishment to me at all.
I bought an elderly paperback version ages ago and have only just got round to reading it. During that reading, the cover fell off. I’m off to stick it back on with glue and shove it in the charity shop box. Obviously, a lot of readers enjoy this a lot more than I did and weren’t as disgusted by the Boot Prodding of a Dying Enemy bit, and someone may well pick it up and enjoy it.

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