The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 11
Not a Gospel
Leif has just learned that the books he hoped to sell to raise his father’s ransom are not Gospel books, as he had hoped. But do they still hold value? Get caught up using the index page.
Deep dread came over all those assembled at the words, “Not a Gospel.” It seemed the ending of all hope for Harrald and for Leif’s whole clan. But the monk had produced this judgement without even looking at the book. Leif took the monk by the arm saying, “Never mind that sheet. Look at the book.”
The monk shied away from him so sharply that he stumbled, and threw out a hand to Attor for support.
“Step back, lad,” Attor said to Leif. “Give him room to look at it properly.” He then guided the monk to a stool and pushed the book in front of him. “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Leif does not mean to harm you. He only wants to know that the book is valuable.”
“It is not a Gospel,” the monk said again.
“Look at it, I beg you,” Leif implored him.
The monk reluctantly nodded his consent, and opened the book. Elswyth sidled in beside him, to get a better view. The monk responded by pulling the hood of his habit over his head so as not to catch sight of her in the corner of his eye. He gave hardly a glance to the brilliant picture on the first page but turned to the next. Here again he ignored the beautiful decorated letter and began to run his finger along the close packed lines of small letters, speaking aloud in the Latin tongue. Elswyth desperately wanted to ask how the letters corresponded to the words he was reading—how many letters made a word, and how letters made words at all—but she bit her lip and kept silent for Leif’s sake.
It soon became clear that the monk intended to sit and read substantial portions of the book. He turned page after page, running his finger along line after line, though keeping it suspended above the pages so as not to dirty them. He muttered the Latin words to himself, and, as he did so, a kind of peace settled over him, and there was a joy in his mutterings. Leif contained himself in silence while the monk read. Elswyth was silent too, not wishing to draw any attention to herself for fear of being sent away. Thor was patience in the form of flesh, but Attor soon grew restless as the monk’s voice went on. But then Brother Alun’s joyful muttering changed to a sharp cry of dismay and the monk’s eyes were fixed in agony upon the page that he was reading.
“What is it?” Leif asked, moved by the monk’s distress, and afraid that Brother Alun might have discovered some flaw in the books that rendered them valueless.
The monk looked up at him, tears in his eyes, “The saint writes here that in the ancient days, whenever a general sacked a city, those who fled for refuge in the temples of the pagan gods were not spared, but suffered the same fate as all others in the city. But here he writes that when Rome itself was sacked, in his own time, many took refuge in the churches and the basilicas of Christ, and they were spared by the barbarians who sacked the city. And here he writes,” the monk continued bending his head over the book again, “‘Whoever does not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper, is blind; whoever sees this, and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it, is mad. Far be it from any prudent man to impute this clemency to the barbarians. Their fierce and bloody minds were awed, and bridled, and marvelously tempered by Him who so long before said by His prophet, “I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes; nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from them.”’ You see what the saint says. Christ saved those who took refuge in his churches.”
“Your God is indeed merciful,” Leif said, “for our gods give victory in war, or defeat if they are angry, but they do not protect the weak. It is a man’s job to protect his kin from the enemy, and the gods may give him victory if he pleases them. But the gods do not protect the defeated.”
“Your gods could not protect,” the monk replied, “for they are demons. This is what the saint has written, that those who took refuge in the temples of the pagans were not spared. But those who took refuge in Christ’s churches were protected, by his power and mercy—the power and the mercy he now withholds from us. Your people sacked Lindisfarne, and Christ did not protect us. Even when the brothers sought refuge in the chapel, he did not protect them. We have sinned, as many have said, and God has abandoned us. He has sent the vikingar to punish us for our sins. His mercy has gone out of the world.”
“Your gods are no better than ours, then,” Leif said. “Odin did not protect our village when the vikingar attacked us and kidnapped my father. All gods are fickle.”
“No,” Brother Alun said, “our God is constant. It is we who are fickle. It seems to me that among the pagans, it is men who are constant, in their lust and greed and anger, and their gods fickle. But with Christians, it is men who are fickle, failing in chastity and charity and peace, and God who is constant, punishing our sins and rewarding our virtues. Only in this way can I reconcile what the saint has written here with what happened at Lindisfarne. But how can I aid a pagan, knowing that Christ has made the pagans his instrument to punish us?”
“Is there not a story,” Attor asked, “about a Christian who helped a pagan, when none would care for him? The pagan was robbed and left by the side of the road and the Christian helped him.”
“No,” said the monk, “it was the other way around. It was the pagan who saved the Christian—except that it was not a Christian but a Jew, and the pagan was a Samaritan.”
“Really?” said Attor. “Why would a Christian tell a story about a pagan helping a Jew?”
“Christ told the story to remind us that even the pagans can be merciful.”
“If there is a mercy I can do for you, Brother Alun,” Leif said, “name it. I will do it if I can, if you will only help me to save my father.”
“But what do you ask of me?”
“First,” Attor said, “we need to know if the books have value.”
“Oh, this book has value,” the monk said. “As a book, its value is second only to that of the Scriptures. And since it may show us how Christians may find safety from the ravages of pagans, it may have particular value in our times.”
“If the book is not a Gospel,” Elswyth asked, “what is it?”
“It is a book of St. Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans.”
“What is a pagan?” Leif asked.
“You are,” said the monk.
“I am Norsk.”
“Norsk are pagans. Pagans are not Christian. Pagans are vikingar.”
“I am not a vikingr!” Leif said. “It is true that I am not a Christian. My people honor Thor and Ran and Odin. But we are not vikingar.”
“If you honor Thor and Ran and Odin, you are pagan,” the monk said.
“So this book is against me.”
“How can it harm me? Has it magic against me?”
“Magic?” the monk said. “That is a superstition of the pagans. The books will not harm you. If you are harmed, it will be Christ himself who punishes you.”
“My people have been greatly harmed since this book came into our possession. If I must make some sacrifice to appease your Christ, I will, since I am on Christian land. Uncle, I have no animals with me. Can you sell me one for the sacrifice?”
“Christ has no need of your dead animals,” the monk said.
“Then what am I to do to appease him.”
The monk looked up sharply at Leif. “This is something you truly wish?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes. It is not good to be at odds with any god, especially among his own people.”
“If you truly wish to appease Christ, there is a way.”
“What must I do?”
“Reject your pagan Gods and accept baptism.”
There was a moment of silence. Everyone gathered there was aware of the enormity of this suggestion. Leif took a few steps back from the table and turned toward the sea, toward his home. He reached inside his tunic and pulled out the amulet of Thor that he wore around his neck. A man who rejects his gods is a vikingr indeed, a man without home or kin.
“Oh,” said Elswyth. She had come to his side, feeling his anguish. She pulled his hand down so that she could see what he was holding. She pulled off that chain that was around her own neck and laid on his palm her own amulet, still warm from her bosom. “Look how much alike they are,” she said. Indeed, his was a silver amulet, rich with curling line, a bar and a cross piece making the shape of a hammer. Hers was a cross, also silver. Only the shape and position of the cross piece differed between them, and their size and decoration were almost the same, as if they had been made by the same hand. The difference between them was so small, and yet the difference they betokened was vast. He looked down at her, so eager, so open-faced. Would he abandon his gods for her? He might have done so indeed, but for his duty. But if he made himself the enemy of Odin, Thor, and Ran, how could he hope to return the ransom money safely across the sea to his home against the anger of the gods? He turned and looked pleadingly at Thor.
“A man must be true to his gods as he is true to his kin,” Thor said. “It is one thing and the same.”
“But can’t he be a Christian in Northumbria and a pagan in Norway?” Elswyth asked.
“No!” the monk said. “Christ is Christ everywhere. Only among the pagans do each people have their own gods.”
Thor too shook his head. On this Christian and pagan were agreed.
Leif looked down again at the amulet that Elswyth had laid on his palm. The cross was symmetrical. The boss in the middle was a perfect circle and the arms extended out like the four points of the wind. The ends were flared and rounded so that their circumference conformed to arc of a greater unseen circle. He had a notion for a moment to raise it and press it to his lips, for her sake. But what sign would that be to the men who stood about him? What sign would it be to his gods? He folded his hand around it and handed it back to her.
“Perhaps,” said Attor, “We should return to the matter of the price. Perhaps that will be easier to agree upon.”
The monk picked up the letter and resumed reading aloud where he had left off. When he was finished, he said, “Where did you steal it from?”
“We did not steal it,” Leif said, struggling to tame his impatience at the monk’s accusations. “My uncle took it in trade from a Danir.”
“The Danir stole it then,” said the monk.
“What does the letter say?” Elswyth asked.
“It is addressed to the Bishop of Utrecht, who bought the books, thanks to the generosity of his patron, Charles, King of the Franks,” the monk replied, turning his eyes to her, and then guiltily glancing away.
“Does the writing say how much the Bishop paid for the books?” Leif asked.
“The price is not mentioned.”
“I’ll warrant it was not the Danir that took them,” Thor said, with almost meditative slowness. “It must have been some Frisian bandit that took them on the road. He sold them to the Danir because he dared not try to sell them in his own country. He must have been disappointed that the Danir would give him no more than the value of the stones.”
“These books belong to the Bishop of Utrecht” the monk said. “They must be returned to him.”
“They are my property,” said Leif. “If this Bishop wants them, he must pay for them.”
“You have no right to possess them,” the monk said. “This letter proves whose property they are.”
“A man owns what he can keep,” Leif said. “They are in my possession therefore they are my property. Is it not so, Uncle?”
“Of course it is,” said Attor.
“No,” said the monk. “A man holds his property from God under the law.” He turned to Attor and said, “These books are the property of the Bishop of Utrecht. This vikingr should not have them. You should take them from him and restore them to their rightful owner.”
“You will not rob me, Uncle,” Leif cried.
“Of course not, lad,” Attor said.
Leif turned to the monk. “These books are mine. Any man who wants them from me, must fight me or pay my price.”
“The question,” Attor said, before the monk could reply, “is what that price should be. That is what we want to know from you, Brother Alun.”
“The price should be nothing,” the monk said. “No vikingr should have profit of his theft. I will tell you nothing to help thieves and murderers.” He rose and started off back towards the hut where Kendra lay dying.
“I’ll go after him,” Attor said. “Perhaps I can still persuade him.” He hurried after the monk.
“Take time to change that one,” Thor said, watching him go.
“But we don’t have time.” Leif said. “My father suffers in his captivity. I must get his ransom quickly. What do we do now?”
“Trust Attor,” said Thor. “And put that book back safe.”
Leif picked up the book, closed its cover, hugged it to his chest, and began to walk rapidly down the path to the beach. Elswyth began to go after him, but Thor called her back. “Let him be, lass. He’s got troubles enough.”
“I won’t trouble him, Uncle,” she said. “I just want to look at the book.” She turned and ran down the path after Leif.
Thanks for reading The Wistful and the Good! Subscribe for free to receive new chapters and support my work.
If you know someone who might enjoy The Wistful and the Good, please share it with them.
I will be publishing occasional commentaries on The Wistful and the Good, generally on the Monday following the publication of the chapter on Saturday. These will deal with the historical background and some of the literary questions raised by the book and its composition.
Looking for the earlier chapters? Check the index page, and subscribe so you don’t miss anything.