John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was notoriously cranky and out of sorts with his own times. Remember, this is the man who spoke Celtic prayers over a journalist's tape recorder before speaking into it. He was immersed in Medieval literature, the Medieval worldview, and languages that hadn't been spoken in centuries (or, in the case of Elvish, ever).
All of which makes any praise rendered his contemporaries (or near-contemporaries) particularly gratifying. Tolkien was miserly in praise, yet he said this about H. Rider Haggard's The Saga of Eric Brighteyes: that it was "as good as most sagas and as heroic."
Those who've read it will find it difficult to disagree. Eric fights on land and sea, is enchanted, goes questing, and becomes enemies with a man named Ospakar Blacktooth.
Anyone looking primarily for a strong plot had probably best look elsewhere. Haggard's modern saga certainly has a plot, and with all the intrigues and treacheries and double-crossings it can get fairly complicated. However, the form in which he writes, imitating the literature of Medieval Iceland, is more about the man than the events.
This man, specifically: "in those days there was no man like [Eric Brighteyes] for strength, beauty and daring, for in all these things he was the first. But he was not the first in good-luck." He is the true Scandinavian hero, one of pure motives and great bravery, but also tragic and doomed.
That description of Eric also illustrates an aspect of Icelandic sagas that Haggard mastered very well—Icelandic sagas, for all their death and bloodshed, are often quite funny. Haggard's humor is usually subtle ("he was not the first in good-luck"), but wherever it appears it serves the story by sharpening the prose to spearpoints of sarcasm.
Unlike historic sagas, this one has a lot of magic. The half-sister of the woman he loves is a sorceress who wants him for herself, and she isn't afraid to enchant him. In this sense, Haggard's work is more like a precursor to modern fantasy than a backward homage to Medieval Icelandic literature.
However you categorize The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, it's a great book. Haggard was a master of swashbuckling adventure, and he's at the top of his form in this unjustly forgotten gem.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?