It was a warren of a place off Coldharbour Lane with echoing stairwells and concrete floors. An oddly brutalist interior at odds with the Victorian fascia that shouldered up tight to the pavement. We climbed at least one flight of stairs and took several turnings before we reached the flat. J was waiting at her door, grinning. She didn’t see well. Her shortsightedness gave her a quizzical aspect she accentuated sometimes by cocking her head. She did this now – a question and a welcome rolled up. We were on our way somewhere but there was tea to be drunk here first. We sank deep into the cotton cushions of wood-framed armchairs.
J had met someone. She had a lover, she said. He owned a factory. J and I had been together very briefly and not in the best of circumstances. We had settled since into the kind of friendship my relationships all seemed bound for back then – filled with good-natured insult and almost-mock contempt. In that spirit, I made fun of the idea of a factory-owning lover. I made fun of her for picking him. I doubled down on our own bad ending to sneer at her good new start. I don’t think it occurred to me for a moment that these were low or mean things to do.
Here is what happens. The protagonist and his widower friend Gnut are called upon by maniac Viking Djarf Fairhair to once again pillage Lindisfarne. They are certain that a sorcerer there – one Naddod – has been calling dragons and pestilence down upon them. Our hero is reluctant to leave his young wife Pila, but Gnut is lonely and welcomes the opportunity to return to sea. They set out on their raid and confront Naddod on the beach. He denies responsibility for the witchcraft but Djarf mortally wounds and then mutilates him anyway. The narrator and Gnut have little appetite for further violence and they hang back with veteran raider Haakon and a fourth man, Orl Stender. Eventually, the group climb the hill in search of food. Haakon argues with a young Viking hothead. The youngster stabs Haakon who kills him in return. They meet a friendly local named Bruce who takes them home and has his daughter Mary fix Haakon up. Mary is missing an arm, an injury she probably sustained during a previous raid. Gnut falls for Mary. The party meet up with maniac Djarf. Djarf wants to pursue the real source of the witchcraft but he is aggressively outvoted. Gnut decides to take Mary home with him – which he does, though only after the protagonist violently overpowers Bruce who is frantic at the prospect of losing his daughter. And back they go. In a brief coda we are told that Djarf falls ill and gives up raiding, and both Gnut and the narrator focus on married life.
There’s almost enough incident for a novel in a short story that weighs in at only eighteen pages or so. At least at first, though, perhaps the most striking thing about this story is its language. It is written in a heightened, deliberately anachronistic vernacular.
A turncoat Norwegian monk named Naddod had been big medicine on the dragon-and-blight circuit for the last decade or so, and was known to bring heavy ordnance for whoever could lay out some silver. Scuttle butt had it that Naddod was operating out of a monastery on Lindisfarne, whose people we’d troubled on a pillage-and-consternation tour through Northumbria after Corn Harvesting Month last fall.
This is close to the tone, perhaps, of a 20th Century detective story, or maybe that of a Western – though I’m not sure it settles entirely into a particular era or genre. This tone accommodates, with some incongruity, occasional nods to an older vocabulary or rhythm. In the sample above, for example ‘fall’ and ‘Corn Harvesting Month’ are uneasy neighbours.
Translation, of course, frees historical texts from their contexts. Here’s a neat digressive example – this is an extract from the start of The New Chronicles of England and France by Robert Fabyan which was first published in 1516:
In this batayll was slayn a noble Troyan & neuewe to Brute named Turnus & there
burved : wherfore in reinembraunce of the sayde Turnus, Brute buylded there a cytie & named it Turon as some Auctours testyfye, but it shuld seme by the sayinge of Policronica that thylke Cylie Turon uas buylded afore. Albeit that the Auctour of Cronica Cronicarum affermylh it to be buylded hy Brute in rememhrauuce of his sayde Cosyn Turnus, whiche Cytie at this day is yet of great fame win the Real me of Fraiice. This done the savd Brute & Corneus with their Troyans toke agayne Shyppynge, the whiche after, iii. dayes or fewe daves saylyngc, landyd at an Ijauen or port in Cornewayll named at thiss day Totnesse, and from thens yode serchyng y lande & couter” y yere as before is sayde.
And here is a passage from Utopia, published by Thomas More in the same year:
Soon relations were not merely peaceful but positively affectionate. They got on particularly well with a certain king, whose name and nationality have slipped my memory. He most generously provided Raphael and his five fellow-explorers with food and money for their journeys, which involved the use of boats as well as carriages. He also supplied a most reliable guide, who was told to put them in touch with various other kings, to whom they were given letters of introduction. Thus after travelling for many days they came to some large towns and densely populated areas, with quite a high standard of political organisation.
Of course, More wrote in Latin and this is a translation by Paul Turner. At the same time as conveying the spirit of the original text, a contemporary translation will naturally reflect the era in which it is created. So Utopia in translation is refreshed for every generation.
To confuse matters, of course, there is no real original text for this short story. And yet there is the implication of one. Seen in this light, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned becomes a complex story indeed. We are invited to imagine its fictional world and a tale of violence and love. There is an implied actual language for this – the original language of the characters, or perhaps of some fictional contemporary storyteller. And there is an implied translation into a modern, highly stylised vernacular. This plays up to its inept moments for comic effect – in other words, the narrative succeeds at times by failing. A historical story may use or mimic archaic phrases or patterns of speech to convey a sense of the period. The vernacular of this story is so idiosyncratic, though, that the contrast between it and the events and characters portrayed is incongruous. Of course, putting it that way also effectively kills the joke.
But there’s more to this story than its anachronistic form, central though that is. This is a story that divides readers. I have encountered some geniuinely angry responses to its cavalier portrayal of violence and kidnap. And it’s true – the violence is gratuitous, beginning with the stabbing and mutilation of the sorcerer Naddod and on to the casual brutilisation of the inhabitants of Lindisfarne. Bruce, one of these victims, seems so inured to the raids that he discusses the attacks in the same flat tone the raiders themselves use.
Across the road, an old dried-up farmer had come out of his house. He stared off at the smoke from the monastery rolling down across the bay. He nodded at us. We walked over.
“Hello,” he said. I told him good day.
He squinted at my face.
“Something wrong?” I asked him.
“Apologies,” he said. “Just thought I recognized you, is all.”
“Could be. I was through here last fall.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Now, that was a hot one. Don’t know why you’d want to come back. You got everything that was worth a damn on the last going-over.”
“Yeah, well, we’re having a hard time figuring it ourselves. Came to see your man Naddod. Wrong guy, looks like, but he got gotten anyway, sorry to say.”
The man sighed.
“Doesn’t harelip me any. We all had to tithe in to cover his retainer. Do just as well without him, I expect. So what are you doing, any looting?”
It is almost as if attackers and victims are playing out a professional ritual together – the casual slaughter around them is a subject of interest but not of epochal import — akin to a football fixture, say, or a local election. This recalls the comedy of Monty Python to some extent (see particularly scenes in both Life of Brian and The Holy Grail in which horrifying ancient or Medieval practices are recast in prosaic modern language).
While there’s no doubt that that the story’s violence is gratuitous, this is somewhat the point. The story turns at the moment that violence takes on meaning. Initially, killing and mutilation is haphazard – it doesn’t seem related in itself to fear. If that’s true though, then love, it turns out, is much worse than violence. Love is terrifying. Not in its own right, but becuase of what it threatens. Love threatens loss.
Here is the moment that the story shifts.
“She’s coming with me,” he said.
He nodded gravely. “I’m taking her home with me to be my wife. She’s in there talking it over
“This a voluntary thing, or an abduction-type deal?”
Gnut looked off toward the bay as though he hadn’t heard the question. “She’s coming with me.”
I mulled it over. “You sure this is such a hot idea, bringing her back to live among our people, all things considering?”
He grew quiet. “Any man that touches her, or says anything unkind, it will really be something different, what I’ll do to him.”
From here onward, violence has meaning. It is as if Gnut’s love for Mary casts a spell on the story’s world. Bruce, who seemed cheerful enough about the loss of his wife and his daughter’s mutilation is desperate beyond measure to prevent her abduction. In stealing Mary, Gnut wins what he wants – the object of his love and maybe even her eventual grudging affection. But more than that, he takes on the burden of having her taken away. And it’s not just him – the story ends with the tables turned. As the marauders settle down so they realise how tentative their hold is on all that they love.
It didn’t make much sense to me then, what Gnut was going through, but after Pila and me had our little twins, and we put a family together, I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.
I was mean, though. And that sticks around. I don’t remember where I was going or coming from that night. And yet, sitting in that room, speaking that way – that’s still going on, still playing out. I sometimes wonder why I thought so little of it at the time. I must have known enough to have kept those moments safe since. They, and all the other shards of spite that don’t get worn or washed away, were important enough to hold on to – so I can’t even plead ignorance. It’s a kind of wilful carelessness – a non-acknowlegement. But unless you are particularly stupid or boorish that is not a strategy that can last forever.