“Two vows Rolf made before he slept that night: the first was that he would yet show his father’s slaying unlawful; the second was that, so long as he might, he would neither stand, sit, nor lie, without weapon within reach of his hand. For Hiarandi might have saved himself had he but had his sword. Asdis and Frodi, who stood by and heard the vows, might not blame him; for such was the custom of those days.”
The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allen French, is a riveting story of greed and cruelty vs. compassion, corruption and injustice vs. honor, bitterness and revenge vs. forgiveness. It is set in Iceland in 1010 AD, and the fascinating setting is enhanced by being told in the form of a Norse saga.
Rolf is the son of Hiarandi the Unlucky. It seems odd that Hiarandi be called unlucky, for his property sits on a seaside cliff, which by long-held custom means he can salvage all the wood and cargo from ships dashed to pieces there—potentially a great source of wealth. However, as Christianity comes to Iceland, new values challenge old customs, and one stormy night Hiarandi’s wife, Asdis, urges him to do something unprecedented – to light a beacon fire on the cliff-top in order to save the lives of the sailors, rather than allow them to perish in the hopes of a lucrative haul. Defying the old ways seems to set Hiarandi on a spiral of bad luck, for the life that he saves from the shipwreck proves to be the undoing of himself and his family. Is compassion simply a fool’s choice, in the end?
As the story unfolds, we see Rolf grimly determined to right the wrongs done to his father and mother and himself. His immense strength and skill with a bow become pivotal to his cause. Through legal wranglings, blood debts, the corruption and deception of neighbors, outlawry, enthrallment, shipwrecks and battles, Rolf’s life bends and shifts, but not his resolve. This is a book that torments us with unresolved tension literally to the last page. It is a masterfully crafted, satisfying, memorable story.
Allen French was a careful historian, professor, and author from Concord, Massachusetts, known for his tremendous thirst for knowledge, who wrote a number of well-researched, well-imagined historical fiction novels for children. This book was written in 1924. We love it and have recommended it often. Several other of his books have been reprinted recently and are also quite good. This is his best, I think.