Sunday, June 17, 2007

Book Review: The Sea of Trolls

Here's a delightful book for 12-16 year olds - Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls. Set in the Holy Isle post-738 C after the raid, by the Vikings, of the island of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was founded in 635 CE by a group of monks and became a centre of scholarship and art. The famous Lindisfarne Bible was a product of this community. Nancy Farmer has produced an engaging historical fantasy based on what happened following the attack on the community by Vikings in 738 - the beginning of 200 years of Viking raids on the British Isles. The story is about Jack, a farm boy who becomes an apprentice bard to a mysterious character who seems to have magical powers. But Jack and his sister are captured by a Viking chief and go on a thrilling adventure that tests their ability to survive. Jack and his sister are separated and Jack, using his immature magical powers as a new bard, accidentally casts a terrible spell on an evil half-troll queen. He is banished to the kingdom of the trolls to find a magical well from which he needs to drink in order to find out how to undo the curse and get his sister back from the evil queen. At the back of the book, Farmer has included some historical detail about the period she is writing about, including the myths and legends of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that pervade the narrative. This includes one of the hypothesised origins of the Jack and Jill rhyme we all know so well. Farmer writes as though this particular hypothesis is the only one, but there are many (check out the Wikipedia for more possibilities). One of the interesting things about The Sea of Trolls is its frequent reference to Christian beliefs in comparison to the pagan beliefs of the era. This was a time when Christianity coexisted with paganism and Farmer does a good job in subtly referring to the existence of the Christian belief system - much of it as fantastic as the paganism with which it is compared! At the heart of the story is a warning of the danger of being imprisoned by our own belief systems and expectations, unwilling to venture outside of them and, thus, remain ignorant and unchallenged. At the end of the story, the Bard who apprenticed Jack, in response to the disbelief that people had to the stories of Jack's adventures, says:
Don't be angry ... Most people live inside a cage of their own expectations. It makes them feel safe. The world's a frightening place full of glory and wonder and, as we've both discovered, danger. Flying isn't for everyone.

This comment speaks to the tendency we all have to create cages of our own that protect us from anything different or new. It is the cause of much fundamentalism and sectarianism. As Christians, we need to take the risk of "flying" and facing the dangers and glories of reality even if it means having to modify what we believe or expect.

The Sea of Trolls is a thoroughly enjoyable yarn that is highly informative about times and places that existed long ago but still have an influence on the way we think today. It should provide lots of opportunities for parents and teachers to discuss religious belief, myths and legends, friendship and loyalty, the relationship of humans to nature, and the history of the time and place. I thank my teenage daughter for recommending it to me!

1 comment:

  1. I highly recommend this. It is a good book and series, though the third book has a few more Christians behaving foolishly. The series is well-written and provided some interesting food for thought.