Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Men of Ness by Eric Linklater

The Men of Ness was written by the Orcadian author Eric Linklater in 1932.  The copy I read was the Orkney Edition, reprinted in 1960 which I borrowed from the Kirkwall Library while on a recent visit to Orkney.  This book is one of the 50 classics I plan to read over the next few years.  It also counts for the Read Scotland challenge as the author was Scottish and the book is set mainly in Scotland.

The Men of Ness tells the story of the Orkney Vikings who lived at the same time as Harald Fairhair, who was king of Norway during the 9th century.  The main characters in the story are Thorlief Coalbiter and his sons Grim, later called Skallagrim, and Kol.  Thorlief is a peace loving man who prefers to stay at home and farm his lands in Orkney to going off raiding in other parts of Britain.  He is mocked about this by his wife Signy but proves to be a wise and fair ruler.  Signy encourages her sons to seek out the man who killed her first husband in order to gain atonement for his death.  Signy says, "Blood that is spilt will not dry clean away like water."  Eventually Skallagrim, Kol and their brother-in-law Erling set out in two ships to go a-Viking despite Thorlief advising them to postpone their voyage for another year.  As they prepare to leave, Thorlief again suggests they should wait for a few days as a storm is coming.  However the ships set sail and, as foretold by Thorlief, are caught in a fierce storm in the Pentland Firth.  The descriptions of the ships battling against the wind and the sea are vivid and the language poetic.  "The wind shrieked in the rigging and howled overhead.  Sometimes in the trough of a wave the sail hung flat.  Then with a great bang the wind would fill it again, and the Skua reach forward with a lurch."

The book is written in the style of a Viking saga describing the hardships and violence of the times in a stark and understated way.  There are references to the beliefs of the Vikings - their belief in fate, in the spirit world and the afterlife.  The story of Gauk's wife coming back to haunt him provides some light relief in the book though not to Gauk! 

I really enjoyed this book and found the characters were well written.  Despite using very few words, Linklater creates clear pictures of the main characters.  For example, Thorlief Coalbiter got his name "because he sat by the fire and would not go outdoors.  He was a good lawyer, and though he spoke in a mild voice there was often great wisdom in his words."  His wife Signy is described as "a very handsome woman, cheerful, hard-tempered, and rather greedy."

The action moves out from Orkney to other parts of Britain emphasising that the Vikings of this time were farmers and traders as well as being fierce warriors.  The character of Gauk provides continuity in the story as he survives the fighting to return to Orkney and relate what happened to his companions.   Gauk provides a contrast to the Vikings as he is a peace loving Orcadian farmer who does not want to be a hero.

As I am currently doing a course on the Vikings with the Centre for Nordic Studies, I found Linklater's description of life in Viking times to be historically accurate providing a balanced account of the period.  He successfully weaves real historical events, many taken from The Orkneyinga Saga, into the story.

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