Thunder God by Paul Watkins

A devout pagan, given to random violence
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Not all Vikings went round terrorising their neighbours and sprinkling genes for red hair and hard drinking along the Tyne. Some of them stayed at home and led deeply uneventful lives.

It's 975, and in the quietly prosperous Danish town of Altvik, Hakon is growing up with his parents and sister Kari. He expects to follow in the footsteps of his fisherman father, joining the weekly procession to the temple where they worship the old gods, Thor and Odin.

One night, summoned into the teeth of a storm by a mystery voice he is struck by lightning and marked henceforth as different. The town priest summons him to be his apprentice, revealing, when they are captured by raiders, that his life's mission is to be a messenger between gods and men, and guard the source of their faith buried under the temple floor.

Watkins' story is plot, rather than character-driven. The man who now owns him travels to join the Emperor's Viking Guard in Miklagard (Constantinople). After his death Hakon becomes a guardsman himself, and there are some lovely descriptions of the strange places in which he finds himself fighting. The author is better with landscapes than with people. After 12 years in Hakon's owner's company we know nothing more about him than that he's a devout pagan and given to random violence. Hakon himself is a curiously flat hero. We are told he prays. When he's lost in mid-Atlantic he prays very hard indeed. But, given the central role of religion in his life, and the book, it's quite surprising that we have no idea what form his beliefs take, or the impact of his spiritual system on his daily life. The nearest we ever come to it is when his strange Welsh sidekick Cabal (every hero needs one) replies to a Christian proselytiser with: "You have found magic in your one god, but we find it in everything around us."

The old religion makes a rather more attractive showing here than the new, whose missionaries resort to trickery, bribery and death by poisonous snake for those who fail to see the light. On his return to Altvik, Cabal in tow, Hakon finds the king's tax gathers demanding 150lbs of silver, or the town faces the sack. The new religion is quite blatantly a means of social control. If Hakon is baptised and leads his flock into Christianity, the tariff is 100lbs and he gets a Judas cut of 30 of them. Cabal knows of a treasure trove in his native Wales, and Hakon shoulders his priestly responsibility, gathers up his friend Olaf and his boat, and sails off to save the town.

Watkins does have this way of making you believe his twists. Possibly because he's done his homework. On the way back they are blown off course, and end up on the shores of Central America, 500 years before Cortez, which is perfectly possible, given that Viking remains have been found in America. It's a very shapely book, with a big climax and chase near the end, Olaf has to choose between friendship and godhead.

The end of Hakon's spiritual quest, and the book's message, if it has one, is that religion is more trouble than it's worth, and that, given a supportive family structure and a reasonable living, people do quite nicely, thank you, without any belief system at all.