‘Behind the Text 36. ‘The Wanderer’ 6 : ‘Swords for Sale’
This book is the sixth in ‘The Wanderer’ saga and is set mainly in Finland (986-88), an area possessing somewhat limited historical evidence as regards the bulk of the population. Originally there had been a first part (written in 1995) which dealt with werewolves but this was later rejected, partly as being too close to Crichton’s ‘The 13th Warrior’, and replaced by an opening chapter set in Gotland which stands distinct from the rest of the book. It was intruded to allow for later plot development. What remained of the original first part was moved into 6:2 which deals with the Kainuu, a historical group which terrorised the Sami trappers in the far north. This book stresses the contrast between the Vikings and their ‘victims’ for exploitation – the Finns, Karelians and, most of all, the Sami.. In these surroundings Ethelwulf’s character sinks to the bottom: he serves with the Kainuu for several weeks and later leads a raid for slaves.
The breach with Thorfinn Cross-Eyed, the brutal chief of the Kainuu, creates one group of enemies. Rumours about the past history of Ethelwulf & his his men provoke a fight in the hall of Oleg Gunnarsson, Lord of Aldeigjuborg, which is so destructive that Ethelwulf joins a slaving expedition.. He plays a key role in the defeat of an attack by native forces and then joins an attack on the key native stronghold of Pisamalahti, narrowly escaping death at the hands of a treacherous Thorgrim the Short. Victory brings slaves but it also brings disease. Ethelwulf is struck down and, just as in Jersey (see ‘The Wanderer’2) his cousins save him by drastic measures.
Again there’s a range of characters with Thorgrim the most notable villain, Oleg Gunnarsson the most enigmatic along with the charismatic Karelian, Karvulakki. There are several striking figures – the spy, Asa; the turncoat, Didrik ; the subtle Sami, Jovsset; the host, Egil Blue-Eyes; the vengeful, Blood-Harald; the natural leader, Olaf Tryggvason; and the honourable Jomsviking, Stein Thorgetsson. There’s also a wide range of scenery – from Lake Ladoga to the river Kemijoki above the Arctic Circle, and even to the White Sea if the reader accepts the tale of Freysteinn Kárisson (one of the best in the whole saga).
Ethelwulf is hopelessly out of step in this world –whether dealing with traders like Didrik or tyrants like Thorfinn (mis-styled ‘Open-Hand’); environmental challenges in the far north; the vicissitudes of a stronghold experiencing virtually continuous siege; or the problems of huge numbers of captives. Above all, however, it’s shown by what he considers the undeserved lack of trust. Somehow he flounders his way towards safety in Gadarike,