The Rood and the Torc: The Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn
Paperback, 416 pages
Publication Date: January 2014
Matthew Dickerson was inspired by the fragment of an ancient story that comes from the 7th century. Known as the "Finnsburg Fragment," this poem echoes the retelling of the same event in the great early English epic, Beowulf. The Rood and the Torc begins after the devastating fight at Finnsburg. Kristinge is the hidden child of Finn and Hildeburh, sent south into France to be educated in a monastery. While there, he also becomes an accomplished bard. When Kristinge is called upon to claim his heritage, he must journey north into a hostile world of warrior clans and pagan priests. But is he to be a king, a bard, or a monk?
Includes a map, glossary, detailed character list, and historical notes.
Available exclusively from this website until January 2014. Also available as an ebook!
- Among building blocks of history, poetic fragments and imagination, Matthew Dickerson constructs a story set in northwestern Europe in the 7th century. Using archeology, translation and an energetic sense of adventure, Dickerson plots the journeys of Kristinge, which the reader follows with confidence in Dickerson's research and artifice. At the end of The Rood and the Torc, Kristinge comments, "I am content"—and so is the reader in this fine novel.
— Diane Glancy, author of Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea and The Mask Maker
- Part poetry, part prose, The Rood and the Torc is a weave of myth, song, vision, scripture and dream. Dickerson reminds us of the ancient power of story as he writes of Kristinge's compelling quest after his heritage, identity and calling. Moreover, Dickerson's sharp attention to detail and lush description preserves and evokes a bygone time and place well worth inhabiting.
— Gina Ochsner, author of The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight and People I Wanted to Be
- Rarely does a novel of history—one that summons a distant place and time—seem so contemporary and thoroughly imagined. The Rood and the Torc is an exemplary piece of writing, one that conjures with grace and poetic skill the twilight of the Merovingian Dynasty. Matthew Dickerson has managed to inhale the atmosphere of northern Europe in the seventh century in such a complete way that its bright particulars—the smells, sounds, tastes, and imagery—shimmer in these pages. His lead characters, Kristinge and Aewin, have taken root in my mind, and readers will follow their story with delight. Dickerson writes well, and this memorable tale in his hands is expertly drawn. A marvelous novel by a writer's whose work I've long admired.
— Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and The Apprentice Lover
The Tangled Path Before Us: A Review of Matthew Dickerson's The Rood and the TorcA Pilgrim in Narnia (blog)July 30, 2014 and January 30, 2015
Reviewed in [A Pilgrim in Narnia] by Brenton Dickieson
When I walk into a bookstore and scan the historical fiction section, I am inevitably met with dozens of book jackets featuring Amish women in bent grass landscapes or mysterious looking Elizabethan courtiers ready to be betrayed (or to do the betraying). I suspect some among them are quite good, and I also imagine we will see rich war stories in the next few years as the WWI centennial is upon us. But my eyes blur as the books overlap with one another and I simply lose interest. Some days I lose hope for the genre.
That's why it is so refreshing when something so penetratingly unique emerges from the blur. Such is the case with Matthew Dickerson's new novel, The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn (2014).
Kristinge, the protagonist, is a destiny child. An austere and quiet monk in an early medieval France, Kristinge is content to make his way as a scribe, gardener, and brother of men in his secluded monastery. His world is disrupted when he hears the the last words of a dying warrior. Kristinge is shocked to discover that he is of royal Frisian blood, and has been hidden with his protector Willimond at the monastery until he is mature enough to face his destiny. Haunted by the possibilities of the tangled path before him, Kristinge and Willimond set out to explore these paths, taking their robes and staffs and a few coins as they journey from the mountains of France, through the faltering city of Paris and the bare lands of Friesland and Saxony, to the cold shores of Denmark. Without burdening the reader in detail, the simple actions of finding food, getting lodging, retaining passage, and remaining safe on the road act as a port-key to the Franco-Germanic world of the 6th century. And for most of us that world is very remote. I can feel the distance when I pick up Beowulf, even in a good translation. It is a world after the fall of Rome and before the rise of Charlemagne that defines Europe. Brendan and Patrick have begun the conversion of Ireland, the deep roots of Arthur are working into the British imagination, and the Danes are moving toward an era of Viking supremacy. Though many of us in Western Europe and North America trace our roots to this ancient past, it remains completely foreign to us. Yet Dickerson is able to help us slip easily into the story.
The character of Kristinge himself helps us appreciate the contrast between our world and his. Kristinge is a Christian monk in an age before the conversion of Europe, a pacifist in an era of war and brutality, and a sympathetic soul when such folk are hard to find. As Kristinge is faced with his royal destiny, he comes to realize that when he takes up the torc of his people (the crown) it will inevitably mean taking up the sword. The kings and clan leaders Kristinge meets are men of cunning brutality, and it becomes difficult to see how Kristinge will take up that path. Can he become like Gideon or David in a land where mead hall stories are of the great feats of Valhalla, the mead hall of the slain?
Intriguingly, Kristinge's bridge to the pagan world around him comes from a skill he learned in childhood. Like David, he is blessed with the gift of song, and his harp gains him entrance to the halls of the great men of the era. He is truly a reluctant bard at first, but Kristinge soon sees that his art can become a vehicle for his Christian expression. With great skill Kristinge weaves together biblical stories and principles of Christian humility and love with the great poems and stories of France, Friesland, and Danemark.
And it is these scenes that I love the most, the times when Kristinge takes up the harp in the mead halls and sings to audiences of courtiers and thanes and warriors. There are a dozen alliterative poems throughout The Rood and the Torc, some of which are translations of Old English, and some are Dickerson's own creation. Dickerson's secret is that he studied Old English as a grad student, so he is intimately familiar with the alliterative poetry that is authentic to the period. Indeed, it isn't even so much that the poems adorn the book, or even show off his skill as a translator and musician. It is more true that the character of Kristinge and his story emerge from the poetry itself, so that the stories and songs are intricately linked in imaginative authenticity. It really is a superb feature of the book. One of the most fascinating parts about this book is the tension Kristinge feels about his own destiny. Tucked away as a claimant to a seat of power with a name to become a chieftain of chieftains, Kristinge is uncertain about where he fits in the world. The tri-vocational tension of artist, leader, and pastor resonates through the pages of the The Rood and the Torc. I wonder if this isn't Dickerson's tension as well, if we can replace "leader" with academic or teacher. Kristinge himself finds the resolution of this tension as he works out a theology that balances between cultural artistic engagement and cultural prophetic critique. I don't think it is a coincidence that my favourite book of Dickerson's is his The Mind and the Machine, which is a theology of culture in its own right. Maybe I am in danger here of committing the personal heresy, of imagining too deeply into Matthew Dickerson's motivations. So let me say flat out that if this tri-vocational tension is not true of Dickerson, it is certainly true of me. My whole adult life has been about the writer-teacher-pastor tension, and it seems to have resolved itself in my own life in a theology of culture. The Rood and the Torc for me, then, was not only a great read — I gobbled it down around campfires and in late night reading binges — but it was also shockingly prescient of my own human experience.
Perhaps all the good books do exactly this. I don't know. But Matthew Dickerson did in this novel what Frederick Buechner did for me in his memoirs. And although Buechner's Godric and Brendan are radically different as books, like The Rood and the Torc they transport the reader into the wonder of the medieval world through the eyes of its early saints. I realize I have not spoken much of the storyline, and have focused on the narrative textures of character, scenery, culture, language, theology, vocation, and art. The story is good too! I was frustrated with the ending of the storyline until it actually came together, but it drove me forward as a reader. This is no Brown-Grisham-Patterson where everything hangs on plot. Instead, The Rood and the Torc is a rich book, complex in imaginative wonder and yet accessible to the curious reader. Dickerson is best known for his nonfiction work, including From Homer to Harry Potter: a Handbook of Myth and Fantasy (2006), The Mind and the Machine: What it Means to Be Human and Why it Matters (2011), and a number of books on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Truly, Dickerson is a diverse artist-scholar, producing works that range from folk albums and musicology books to computer science models and literary criticism. According to his website, he will be releasing a fly fishing book in the late summer, just before he publishes the first in a fantasy trilogy. All of this is on top of (and occasionally part of) his role as a university professor. Busy fellow.
Where does The Rood and the Torc fit in this resume? The answer to this question is intriguing. While The Rood and the Torc is a tight, imaginative, literary narrative, it also displays the breadth of Dickerson's personal palette. The novel brings together all of his interests. It is an environmentally rich outdoors novel, filled with Christian thought and imaginative play, and resounding with song. And while there is little overlap with The Rood and the Torc and Tolkien's legendarium, the 6th century context is evocative of the Beowulf world that Tolkien used both as a reference point and as imaginative inspiration. The Rood and the Torc has that "Northernness" that C.S. Lewis felt captured his sense of eternal longing; indeed, it is as if Kristinge brings together the humility of Frodo and the mysticism of Ransom. Dickerson takes the protagonist further than either Frodo or Ransom in moving through the personal struggles with destiny to a sense of vocation in the end. But in many ways the novel rhymes with the work of the Inklings as it captures the best of Dickerson's other expressions.
For those who love books filled with art and ideas, The Rood and the Torc is a must read. Although Matthew Dickerson has not quite renewed my faith in historical fiction as a genre, he has made me sensitive to the fact that I need to move past the bookstore displays of mainstream trends to the small press section where this generation of writers are resisting the restrictions of sales demands and producing books that are worth reading and owning and passing on to the next generation. The Rood and the Torc is one of those books.
About Brenton Dickieson
"A Pilgrim in Narnia" is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children's literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia — or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, "like" a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
A splendid historical novelBooks and CultureJune 2014
Reviewed by JOHN WILSON in [Books and Culture]
Critics and reviewers often talk about "historical fiction" as if it were one thing, easily mapped. It is not. A genre that encompasses Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower&MDASH;to take just two outstanding and wildly contrasting examples&MDASH;is capacious indeed. And of course historical fiction isn't limited to novels and stories and the like; it also flourishes (or takes pratfalls) in narrative poetry, in movies and on TV, in painting, and so on. At its best, whatever form it takes, historical fiction evokes the otherness, the sheer strangeness of the past, even as it conveys an essential human connection across time.
In The Rood and the Torc: The Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn, Matthew Dickerson takes us to Northern Europe in the mid-7th century, when Christianity was both spreading and meeting sharp resistance. Dickerson, who has taught for many years at Middlebury College, has written several books on Tolkien and Lewis, but he has taken up other subjects as well, including fly-fishing (one of his great passions). When we first met, around 2007, I already admired him as a writer, having read his 2006 book From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy. We have become friends, as I am duly reporting here, but I can recommend this new book of his without partiality.
Kristinge, the winsome protagonist of this tale, has been raised by the missionary monk Willimond, who knows that his young charge is the son of Finn, a Frisian chieftan, and his Danish wife, Hildeburh. Finn was killed and their village was destroyed by the Danes; Hildeburh survives. The story is set in motion when Kristinge, now a young man, learns his true identity: he is the son of a king (though "king" may suggest a realm on a scale much grander than the very modest territory Finn had presided over.)
A king's son, a monk by training (and a Christian by conviction), Kristinge is also a bard, and that role allows him (in Willimond's company) to begin unraveling the story of his father's death. Kristinge's skill as a bard wins a place for him and Willimond in the hall of a Danish chieftan, Fjorgest, in the village where Kristinge's mother is living. But his skill, and the Christian message in the poems he sings, also provoke the deadly enmity of Sceaptung, Fjorgest's skald, who is allied with the pagan priests determined to resist any incursions by the new faith. And finally, often in the background but never truly absent, there is a love-story.
One of the great pleasures of The Rood and the Torc is the way in which Dickerson weaves poetry into the narrative, sometimes in his own translations of classic Anglo-Saxon poems and sometimes in poems that he has himself composed. These scenes, in which Kristinge recites his verses at night in the mead hall, are spell-binding, not least because, hearing the miracle of the wedding at Cana, say, transposed into this setting, this idiom, we are reminded of the translatability of the gospel message, its ability to take root in any language in any culture in any land. With these delights and much more (including a primitive precursor of today's fly-fishing), anyone who hunkers down with this novel&MDASH;with a cup of mead or a simple glass of water&MDASH;will be richly rewarded.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
An Interview with Matt DickersonThe Tolkien LibraryJune 2014
Tolkien scholar Matt Dickerson is interviewed by Pieter Collier in [The Tolkien Library]
Matthew Dickerson is the author or co-author of several critical studies exploring the writings of J.R.R.Tolkien: Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings (Brazos Press, 2004), Ents, Elves and Eriador: the Environmental Vision of J.R.R.Tolkien (University Press of Kentucky, 2006, with Jonathan Evans), and A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J.R.R.Tolkien's Middle-earth (Brazos Press, 2012). His 2006 title From Homer to Harry Potter: a Handbook of Myth and Fantasy, co-authored with David O'Hara, despite the title is also very much an exploration of Tolkien's view of myth and fantasy.
He has also authored chapters about Tolkien in numerous other published volumes, as well as several entries in the J.R.R.Tolkien Encyclopedia, and a number of magazine and journal articles about Tolkien, both print and online.
In January of 2013 we interviewed Matthew Dickerson about his new release A Hobbit Journey. This time around, the Tolkien Library interviews Dickerson about his new medieval historical novel The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, son of Finn (Wings Press, 2014).________
TL: You have published several works of non-fiction about J.R.R.Tolkien. What led you to write a novel?
MD: Actually, I started writing fiction many years before I started writing about Tolkien. My first medieval historical novel, The Finnsburg Encounter, was published back in 1991. And I wrote most of The Rood and the Torc before I wrote any of my Tolkien books. I have also been working on a three-volume fantasy novel for many years. The first volume, The Gifted (Volume 1 of "The Daegmon War"), is due out this fall.
TL: Is there any relationship between your newly published novel and your interest in J.R.R. Tolkien?
MD: Certainly. It was my love of Tolkien's literature, and my desire to better understand his sources and inspirations, that led me to take graduate courses in Old English at Cornell University in the late 1980s. At the time Professor Robert Farrell was teaching Old English and Medieval Studies at Cornell, and I heard that he had studied at Oxford University and had known Tolkien personally. So I took the opportunity to take classes from him on Old English literature. And then another class. And then I did research under him in Medieval Studies. Eventually, I co-taught a class with him on fantasy and horror. He let me teach the section on The Lord of the Rings and he taught Stoker's Dracula and Stephen King's Salem's Lot.
TL: And there is a connection between these studies and your novel?
MD: Yes. Sorry. I got sidetracked. Back to your question. I studied Old English to get a deeper appreciation of the literature that Tolkien loved, including poems such as "The Battle of Maldon," "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and especially "Beowulf." And I also wanted to gain a deeper understand of Tolkien's creative writing. Tolkien worked closely with and thought deeply about those works of Old English literature. For example he has one beautiful essay that connects ideas of heroism and moral responsibility in those three poems I just mentioned. Reading what he said about those poems in his non-fiction essay gives great insight into his portrayal of heroism in his own creative writing. Of course he also has a famous essay entirely about "Beowulf," a well-known posthumously published translation of "Sir Gawain," and very recently a brand new translation of "Beowulf."
I never attempted to translate "Sir Gawain," but in my graduate courses I did translate large portions of "The Battle of Maldon" and "Beowulf." It was reading, and translating, and studying "Beowulf" and one other Old English poem, in appreciation of Tolkien's scholarly work, that led to my novel.
TL: What was the other poem, and how did they lead to you writing fiction?
MD: For a final project in my first graduate course with Prof. Farrell, I translated the poem "Deor" and wrote a paper on it, and actually wrote several additional stanzas for the poem in both modern English and Old English. The poem briefly recounts several famous figures who came through tragedy and sorrow and back into joy and hope. At least we assume they were famous. Some of them certainly were, like the famous smith Weland who appears in the poem. But others have since been lost to us. They are now known only through the references of that one poem. So I had the idea of imagining and retelling one of those stories in novel form. A few weeks later I was on to studying and translating "Beowulf," and decided I would do just that, except with the tragic tale of Finn and Hildeburh from "Beowulf" rather than one of the characters from "Deor."
TL: The story of Finn and Hildeburh is summarized by the poet at Heorot in "Beowulf" after the hero Beowulf wins his fight over Grendel. It is a poem within the poem. Finn was a Frisian chieftain and Hildeburh his Danish wife.
MD: Correct. But we actually know very little about them. There are only two sources. One is the short episode in "Beowulf." The other is a fragment of another poem about "The Fight at Finnsburg." Tolkien, of course, was familiar with the tale from both sources, and he wrote an essay about the later of them. I decided to write a novel imagining the story leading up to the famous fight at Finnsburg.
TL: And that was your earlier novel, The Finnsburg Episode, published twenty years or so ago. And that led to your new novel, correct?
MD: Yes. It is likely that Finn and Hildeburh were historical figures, but we know them only as poetic literary figures. In writing that first historical novel, I had to set it in some real time and space. Although there are certainly arguments for other times, I chose to set the story in the early 7th century. The Danes were beginning their rise to power, and it was toward the end of the period when the Frisians were ruled by their own chieftains. In the previous century and a half, the Saxons and Angles had taken over England and driven the Britons off to a corner of the Isle. Maybe a little of the choice was arbitrary. But in any case, I spent two years researching the time period. Jewelry. Food. Culture. Architecture. Agriculture. Historical events. Literature. Not just in Friesland, but also in surrounding countries such as the Merovingian dynasty in what is now France, and also northeast in Denmark. I also wrote a lot of Saxon and Germanic poetry and legend. I wanted not only to write a exciting and captivating tale with compelling characters, but also to give feel and mood of the times and setting.
Anyway, I finished the novel. It was published in 1992. And I moved on and started working on a fantasy novel.
TL: But obviously you returned to the 7th Century for another novel. What brought you back?
MD: Three things. The first is that an acquisitions editor for another publisher, in turning down a different project of mine, commented that she'd read and really enjoyed The Finnsburg Encounter, and would be interested in a sequel if I wrote one. The second factor was that I had done all the work over several years of trying to put myself imaginatively in that time, and it made sense to make use of that work and to tell another story set there. But the third and most important reason is that, in writing The Finnsburg Encounter, some new unexpected characters had made an appearance in my story. One, in particular, was Kristinge, the second son of Finn and Hildeburh (who for some reason never before appeared in any of the poems, perhaps simply because they had kept him hidden for his own safety.) Kristinge appeared in my first book, but I didn't get to know him well. At the end of the tale, he is seen riding south under the protection of a monk and an old warrior. I decided I wanted to tell Kristinge's story. I wanted to discover what he would do, as a young man of twenty-two or so, upon discovering that he was the lost son of Finn and Hildeburh. That's where the new novel begins. Kristinge, knowing that his father, brother, and uncle are all dead, killed in the Fight at Finnsburg, sets off across Europe to find whether his mother is still alive.
TL: So the new novel is a sequel?
MD: No and yes. I wrote it as a self-contained novel. It begins six years after the end of the first, and almost the entire cast of characters is different. You needn't have read my 1992 novel in order to read and follow my 2014 novel. It makes sense, and I hope it will be enjoyable, to be read on its own. And one of the ironies is that by the time I finished The Rood and the Torc, the editor who had asked for it was no longer interested or no longer with the company. But it is set in the same time, and based on the same legend, or history, or tragedy of Finn and Hildeburh.
TL: How are the two novels the same, and how are they different?
MD: My writing has improved a great deal over twenty years. I think that's the biggest difference. I write better prose now than I did when I was in my early twenties. Stronger and more economical. The new novel is also written in a more modern and accessible voice. In my earlier novel, I was trying to capture something of the literary style and voice of Old English heroic poetry with my meter and phrasings. That first novel also covered a much broader sweep of time, about twenty-five years.
Another difference is that the first novel, The Finnsburg Encounter, though set in a time in history, was more rooted in figures from heroic literature. The recent one is more tied to a number of actual historical figures whom we know quite a bit more about. Merovingian kings. Abbotts and abbesses. Frisian chieftains.
Other than the improvement in my writing, I'd say the other most obvious difference is that The Rood and the Torc, is less epic and more personal and intimate, and maybe a little more romantic. It spans only a couple years. It is the story of one person's quest for self-discovery and not the story of the fate of a whole nation. My hero Kristinge has spent the last six years being trained as a monk in an Irish-run monastery in southern France. He grew up in Frisia partly under the tutelage of a great bard, and he himself has some gifts in that direction. Now he discovers he is the son of a famous king who died a tragic death. There are three paths before him. Maybe all of them are open. Maybe none of them are. Maybe they are exclusive. Maybe they aren't. Is there value in being a poet? That's a real question he struggles with. And of course he now also learns that he may have a mother who is still alive, a mother he never knew.
TL: Are there any more connections to J.R.R.Tolkien, in addition to having a mutual inspiration in "Beowulf"?
MD: You know, it's interesting. People think of Tolkien's writing as this great work of "other-worldly" literature. But Tolkien always thought of his Middle-earth writings as being in some way set in our world. Middle-earth is just an Old English and Old Norse word for the world of men. So in that way, I guess my novel has more in common with Tolkien's writing than it is with most fantasy literature. But Tolkien did not set his works in one particular historical period, as I did. They are set outside of history, or in pre-history, or in a mix of histories. And they have a more fantasy element of enchantment. There is no "magic" in my novels.
Perhaps the only other similarity is in names. Not surprisingly, since Tolkien's land of Rohan is rooted in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, as are my historical novels, there are a couple instances where I have some very similar names. But they were not copied from Tolkien, but simply rooted in Old English, and my characters rooted in my research.
Still, I would hope that readers of my books about Tolkien would also enjoy my fiction. For all my research, I think my goal in writing my novels was similar to the goal Tolkien stated for himself: just to tell a really good tale that would hold people's attention. I haven't done it as well as he did, but I think and hope I've done it well enough that folks will read my book and enjoy it, and tell others.
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