Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Viking is the novel whose adaptation into a screenplay by Calder Willingham became the rousing action film The Vikings, with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine. The film, with its scenes of ax-throwing, oar-running, and a thrilling assault on an anachronistic castle, lured many of us into our first love for Viking lore, and it's heartening to be able to report that the original novel by Edison Marshall is a worthwhile read. Marshall tackles the great saga of how the mighty sea-rover Ragnar Lodbrok met his doom, a fall that led in turn to the destruction of the Kingdom of Northumbria. He spins the plot around a slave in Ragnar's household named Ogier, whose mysterious origin is hinted at early and whose early escape from doom will not surprise anyone who grasps the simple requirements of a tale told in first-person form. As in the film there is a bloody falcon attack, a struggle to survive a tide-pool ordeal, a harsh mutilation, and some crucial scenes in the fog where a compass prototype proves invaluable. The final twist when the hero's parentage is revealed surprises only in how far it goes: think Oedipus cubed.
Marshall's prose begins with a metaphoric resonance that fits the period, but by the time he treats the central love-story between Ogier and a captive Welsh princess he sometimes made me wonder whether there is an adjective form for poesy, to be used when poetic language crosses that line. Among the welcome elements of The Viking are its inclusion of a famous raid into the Mediterranean, and the author's earnest attempt to transform the famous death of Ragnar into something a bit less absurd than the saga original for those who know a little natural history. He doesn't fully succeed, but the novel is still an engaging transformation of some crucial tales at the center of the Viking Age. (1951, 380 pages)More about The Viking at Amazon.com