Given my enjoyment of the works of authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and so forth, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed a book that's over a hundred years old, but I'm amazed at what a good time I had reading The Saga of Eric Brighteyes (first published in 1889) by H. Rider Haggard. Really, I don't know why it took me this long to get around to it. I mean, it's Haggard and it's about Vikings. Duh.
H. Rider Haggard, in case you're unaware, is the author of such Victorian classics as She and King Solomon's Mines. He is credited with starting the whole 'lost race romance' sub-genre in fiction and was a major influence on writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. In fact, it was while researching the post about Haggard's possible influence on REH's James Allison tales that I was reminded of Eric Brighteyes. I promptly ordered a copy from a friendly Ebay seller and he shipped it out in time for me to read the book over the weekend.
As it turned out, it was a Zebra paperback and it had an introduction by Lin Carter, making it sort of a bastard child of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. An added bonus for me.
Basically, The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is what the name implies, an attempt at a modern version of a Norse saga. Long before J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would become fascinated by 'the Northern thing' and use it in their fiction, Haggard attempted to write a book that mimicked the feel of the original sagas, but written in more contemporary language. I've read quite a few of the Norse sagas, including the Saga of Grettir the Strong, King Harald's Saga, the Volsung Saga, and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (both the original and the version by SF writer Poul Anderson), and I can say that Haggard did a fine job of pastiching the style and feel of the sagas.
The book is about Eric Thorgrimursson, nicknamed Eric Brighteyes, and his adventures in 10th century Iceland. Eric is the object of affection of two women, the golden haired Gudruda the Fair and the raven tressed Swanhild. Eric loves Gudruda but Swanhild, being the daughter of a witch has certain supernatural powers and she uses these to try and win the handsome Norseman for herself. This causes all kinds of problems for everyone involved.
The book is full of epic battles on land and sea, and heroic deeds aplenty. Eric fights men, monsters, and sorcery. In fact I'd be willing to term The Saga of Eric Brighteyes proto-sword and sorcery, as it contains many of the elements that would eventually make up that particular sub genre. I found myself grinning ear to ear during a pitched battle between Eric's long ship and two other Viking ships. (At one point in the book Eric is outlawed for three years and so goes a-Viking.) Just an amazing action scene.
One of my favorite characters in the book is a berserker named Skallagrim who almost runs away with the narrative. I get the feeling that Haggard was very taken with this crusty, hulking ax man. Skallagrim becomes Eric's blood brother and they often fight back to back against armies of foes.
If it sounds like this is a manly book, well it is, but I have to admit it has a great deal of heart too. I was a little put off by the style of the book as I began reading, since it does echo the sagas more than a modern novel and I figured characterization would be pretty minimal, but the farther in I got, the better I came to know all the characters, good and bad. I felt a lot of sympathy for Swanhild because even though she did evil things, it was out of her all encompassing love for Eric Brighteyes. This isn't a simple story of blonde girl good, brunette girl bad. At one point she even tells Eric that none of her crimes would have occurred if he had returned her love. There are a surprising amount of layers to the characters in this book.
Anyway, if you love a good epic tale, or if your pulse quickens to heroic deeds and star crossed love, I heartily recommend The Saga of Eric Brighteyes.