Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hammer and the Cross - By Harry Harrison and John Holm

Written by Harry Harrison and John Holm (Tom Shippey) between 1993 and 1996, is an alternate history series as much as its a fantasy series.

The series has got Gods and Monsters in it, as real interactive characters who influence the story. Though to be honest that is the whole basis of the story, The Norse Gods have decided that the way the real world went, would lead to defeat at Ragnarok, due to the influence of the Christian Religion. So they set about trying to fix this by subtle manipulations..

The first of the subtle differences was the influencing of the creation of " The Way " lead by the Way-men and based out of the College of the Way, its sort of a Monastery of Norse priests, Priests of Thor, and Freyr, and Idunn and Njord and Odin and all the rest. They have the simple idea that unless they have a codified and uniform religious doctrine they will never be able to withstand the efficient Catholic church. Essentially what they have done is created a variation on the modern Asatru/Vanatru religion 1200 years or so early. With a dedicated priestly caste which is self sufficient (that's one of their main axioms.. not to live off their people but to support themselves in order to set themselves apart from the Christians) Among their other main goals is the learning of new knowledge. The Norse seem to pay lip service to them, but at the time they are every bit as much the apostates as the Protestant reformers were later. The majority of the Norse still believe in the old ways.. they still sacrifice human beings to the gods, and hang hundreds of them in the sacred oak at Upsalla. But all things considered the Waymen are not 100% effective.. only about 30% of the Scandinavian peoples seem to share their ideals of self sufficiency and hospitality.

This leads one of the Norse Gods, though i won't say which as that would spoil the story, to directly influence events.. instead of subtlety he goes for blunt force trauma. And that pretty much sets up whats to follow. The changes to history begin very slowly. The Great Heathen Army still invades England in retaliation for the death of Ragnar Lodbrok lead by his sons. They do sack East Anglia, and York.. but then a curious thing happens, a group of the Way priests and our Main Character Shef, discover some Old Knowledge.. Left behind by " The Rome Folk " and split with the violent and depraved Ragnarsons.. instead of fighting Alfred, they join forces with him and establish a new peaceful kingdom of duel religions in Southern England under Duel Kings. They fight off Wessex and the Christians, and The Ragnarsons culminating in the death of Ivar the Boneless. And the finale moments of the book the Pope declares the first crusade, To be lead by Charles the Bald, against the ' Heathens and Apostates of England '...

The second book in the series shows Shef beginning the creation of an exceedingly powerful English Navy, eventually to gain control of the whole island and most of the North sea and Channel areas.. Shef is shipwrecked on the Frisian coast and in the process of being sold as a slave is rescued by other members of the Way. This begins a series of events that at the end puts him in control as " The One King " of essentially all of Scandinavia, from Frisia to Lapland. At the same time he sees the face of his knew enemy, the future Holy Roman Emperor Bruno, on his own quest to recover the spear of longinus used to pierce the side of Christ and the indicator of the true emperor.

the third sees the new Holy Roman Empire force an alliance with the Byzantines in order to begin pushing the Islamic forces out of Europe and the Mediterranean islands, essentially re-aligning history at this point with the Reconquista. However in this case the Islamic caliphate in Spain journeys to England to speak with " The One King of the North " in the hopes that he will open a second front against the Christian forces. But the Byzantines have Greek Fire, which routes the Arab fleet and sends the Norse fleet scurrying for cover. Their Jewish translator tells them about an enclave in Septimania of Jewish separatists. The Romans lay siege to this enclave but leave suddenly when they find the holy grail. Or rather, The Holy Gradule or the ladder used by Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalane to retrieve the body of Christ. After a lot of hemming and hawing about Loki needing to have worshipers too and that all gods are inventions of man's mind... the book ends after a climactic battle. During the fighting Shef is captured by the Romans and crucified upside down. The Viking champion defeats the Roman Emperor in combat and then we get a bit of exposition from the Norse gods about how Shef has managed to bring in a more peaceful age do to their being no large empires. However, I'd say this will only make it the more likely that in about 400 years time the Mongols will sweep all the way to the Chanel. Something I'm guessing that the author didn't consider.

Bits of the series are rather preposterous.. Especially in the second and third books. but other parts are very well thought out. The two authors skillfully weave the threads of Christian chronicles and Icelandic Saga together to create a world which is amazingly similar to our own modern world.. yet firmly set in the " Dark Ages ".. Most of the alterations seem to stem from the rediscovery of old knowledge.. A copy of Vegitius here, or of some other text there.. It attempts to show what can be accomplished by a government that for all intents and purposes is distributionist in tone.. and mainly interested in improving the lots of each individual with less interest in maintaining specific class structures. The Series is not exactly friendly towards the Catholic Church, but has no specific animosity to any of the religions presented. Merely that any group who begins to control too much power over the lives of others.. and uses that as a money making venture.. cannot be entirely trusted. After all despite the churches manifold accomplishments in retaining works of learning during the Dark Ages.. they also participated in their share of knowledge destroying ventures as well.

It is an interesting alternate worlds sort of story though, certainly a nice departure from the endless " what if the confederates/Nazis/soviets/etc had won" type of junk that endlessly gets regurgitated to the public.. I'd still like to see a " What if the Spartans had sided with the Persians " alternate history.. or maybe even a ' What if Alexander had invaded Rome ' alternate history.. Its really a shame that this series is Out of Print when other less deserving alternate histories are still in print. I think this is a good companion to Poul Anderson's " A broken Sword " where the Norse gods are equally meddling in the affairs of man.. However I really began losing interest in the series towards the middle of the last volume when I realized that the author was trying to go for a huggy feely everyone is equal everyone is a winner kindergarten gold star kind of ending.

The first book works fine as a standalone alternate history, the second adds to it but in a meandering away. The third really just subtracts from it. I don't know how much of the books John Holm aka Tom Shippey actually worked on. But it would be interesting to find out.


Brian Murphy said...

It's funny, until your post I never realized that The Hammer and the Cross was a trilogy. I own the first book, which happens to be called The Hammer and the Cross, and thought it was a standalone novel.

It's not a bad read, but what really stands out is the gore. I've heard of the Danes performing "the blood eagle," but this was the first depiction I've read in a work of fiction.

Have you read Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories? It's similar material but done better.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Yes I have actually.. and his " Warlord Chronicles " which is about a Roman-Briton Arthur fighting the Saxons.. I'd considered mentioning it but the Saxon stories are more historically accurate than the H&C series.

I actually own and have read nearly all of BC's stuff... probably one of my favorite authors.. I read the newest Saxon tales book in about 8 hours I think..

I think you are best off simply ignoring the other two books in the series, the second one adds in Marbendills(sort of like Grendel) and talking Killer Whales.. and by the 3rd one the 9th century Norse have Gliders and Gunpowder.. Its really completely preposterous.