Around the turn of the previous century, a young C.S. Lewis encountered Longfellow’s ballad about the death of the Norse god Balder, and his life was changed. Many years later, in his autobiography, Lewis wrote, “I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky … cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote.” Lewis’s hunger for what he called the “pure northernness” of Norse mythology never abated, and it influenced both his own writing and generations of fantasy writers who followed him. Together with his colleague J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis introduced into fantasy writing a set of motifs and a particular style that now seem the norm. Who would have thought that some fragmentary 13th-century Icelandic Eddas would eventually find their way into drugstore fantasy trilogies, video games, and heavy metal lyrics?
In The Winter Drey, a sequel to 2007’s The Feathered Cloak, Sean Dixon uses Norse mythology and Scandinavian history to create an innovative hybrid narrative set in the days following the 10th-century battle between two rulers, Erik Blood-Axe and his brother Haakon the Good, a battle that serves as the climax to The Feathered Cloak. This volume shifts the focus to Rolf, a nine-year-old giant who is persuaded by an eloquent squirrel to undertake a journey to discover Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World. Rolf leaves home and family, encounters hazards (cliffs, swamps, near-drowning, a sort-of dragon), conquers his fears, falls in love, becomes disillusioned about the duplicities of his fellow creatures, and finally finds a new home.
The story resembles its Norse sources in several ways. First of all, it is saturated with longing and loss. Rolf has lost his mother, his father, and his sister, and in the course of the story he loses his dearest friend. The children of Erik lose their father. Egil, the wandering poet, has lost his wife and children in a terrible volcano. The Beaky, a saintly fool, has lost his job and his king. And, as Christianity is introduced to this land of the Vikings, everybody grieves the death of the traditional gods and longs for their return.
Stylistically, Dixon also echoes his sources, sprinkling the story with little lessons and proverbs – e.g.,“Poetry is about telling the truth of the heart.” He captures the heightened yet plain language of the Eddas: “From the source of the wind to the path of the sun, and the glow of the moon on the face of a wall, everything in nature has a guide.”
What Dixon has created is really a mash-up of mythology and fiction. From fiction he takes the idea of psychological realism as we follow Rolf, a giant from a non-giant family, and surely a stand-in for every child who grows big too soon, who feels clumsy and oafish, from whom too much is expected, and who literally does not fit in. The Beaky, the book’s most peculiar and intriguing character, is a study in what happens to a man who encounters freedom for the first time.
From mythology he takes the rhythm of an oral story and gives us a mysterious and digressive narrator. This narrator, who is more than a thousand years old, comments extensively on the action of the plot. Sometimes his voice adds a comical, crotchety note to the texture of the story. Sometimes he explains things that would be difficult to weave into the narrative. More often, however, he simply pulls us away from the action and emotion of the story, just as we are surrendering to it. (“But it is perhaps also important to mention….”; “I have to leave the voices for a moment and explain a part of this story that I have not yet spoken of ….”) The narrator’s faux-apologetic use of anomalous references – “betrayed, hard done by, screwed over; if I may use an expression from your day” – also becomes tiresome. This garrulous narrator winks at us over the head of the story, thus undermining our faith in the narrative while adding very little to entertain or enlighten.
Our fictional expectations are also shaken up when Rolf falls in love with a leaf. Idun the leaf adds a welcome female element in this male-populated world, but she leads us into a world of parable or fable that is at odds with the naturalistic dialogue, the quasi-historical setting, and the epic tone. Expressing the idea that one “knows” the object of one’s love, our narrator tells us that Rolf “knew her sinuses and her contours and her teeth.” Botanical accuracy is not enough to save this from bathos.
This volume is the second book in what is to be the Trilogy of the Tree. Middle books, like middle children, are tricky, caught between siblings with more obvious advantages. Though Dixon does a tidy job of reminding us of the first volume and creating suspense for the final one, there is an inevitable sense of readerly frustration. All the characters in this story are scurrying around trying to protect Yggdrasil, but from whom? Rolf’s sister Freya has already had her moment in the sun in volume one, so who will be the main character of volume three? We’ve met the assembled giants but they haven’t had a chance to strut their stuff.
If The Winter Drey doesn’t totally coalesce, it makes a workable bridge to what is surely going to be more skullduggery, tragedy, action, and beauty in the world of the Tree. Now if only the narrator would pay attention to Egil the poet, who says, of editing his own work, “It takes an awfully long time to make something short.“