‘Behind the Text 35. ‘The Wanderer’ 5 : ‘Empty Triumphs’
This book is the fifth in ‘The Wanderer’ saga and is set in the lands surrounding the Baltic Sea(985-86) – an early title was ‘The Swedish Sea’. It actually was the first part tackled – a short story inspired by a dream in the early spring of 1992 when I was recovering from an operation (see the progress of the Sons of Hel along the river Rega for what I dreamed). It was lengthened into a novella but stopped at the close of Part 3. I then turned to England, making that Part 1 of a 9 part saga ( a VERY sketchy overall plan was constructed!) and extensive End-Notes were added and became standard practice. Book 6 was revised to conform to companion sections c. 2000 and all published as a trilogy in 2008 in Print format.
This book falls mainly into three sections. Ethelwulf the Wanderer, trying to blend in with his companions in the hall of Harald Bluetooth of Denmark volunteers to accompany the giant, Thorgrim the Short, to destroy brigands raiding the Wends living south of the Baltic. Victorious they then have to fight the savages they rescued. Finally they are forced to join an attempt by the Viking Styrbjorn to seize the Swedish throne. Disaster is only lessened by Ethelwulf’s military skills but his desire to ‘desert’ makes him unpopular.
Historical knowledge of the Wends is very limited and I have probably made them more savage than reality – even inventing religious rites to that end. Whereas the Jomsvikings, with an equally obscure history, are displayed as well-organised but arrogant bullies. Styrbjorn’s expedition is ‘historical’ but so murky as to give me ready material for fiction.
In this book women play a minor part – Thorgildis & Gunnhild (sister & wife respectively of Thorgrim) are quickly abandoned and Skuna, despite an affaire with Ethelwulf, is soon forgotten. Some characters( e.g.Krull the priest, Kalle Twistneck the brigand, and King Mistivoj) are pure evil. Others (e.g. Tokl, Styrbjorn and Vagn Aagesson) are more enigmatic and a few are mad (e.g. Thrain Lap-ear). A fine collection of play-mates – enough to make Ethelwulf to sail east in an attempt to escape the Viking world.
Thorgrim the Short changes drastically because I shrank his overall role and superseded him by Gunnar the axeman from Ireland. Whereas Gunnar becomes more companionable, trustworthy as the saga moves forward, Thorgrim slumps into a mood of morbid deceit. He’s a hero in Wendland but by the end of the book a paranoid and, in Book 6 , distinctly more dangerous. He almost appears to shrink in size as the story unfolds.
Book5 is halfway through the saga and, being the first written, perhaps suffers from continuity problems. It has some of the nastier passages in the whole work as well as some of my ‘more imaginative’ passages. It’s up to you as to decide if the effect is to detract from the book.