The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers

Published 1941
Review by Tim

Life in tenth century France was, on the whole, pretty miserable. Charlemagne's empire was a fragmented memory, and the remnants had become the established prey of raiders from all points of the compass. When the Vikings were not looting from the north, the Moslems were pillaging from the south, and one can only wonder what remained for the Magyars to plunder when they swept in from the east. Finding security more valuable than freedom, farmers willingly became the virtual slaves of any leader strong enough to offer some measure of protection. For the folk of this region, the age was truly dark, and many looked forward to an end of it all as the millennium approached. This is the era of Myers' historical romance The Harp and the Blade.

The story is told in the first person, by a wandering Irish bard named Finnian. As the story opens, Finnian is sitting in a hostel on the Loire River, copying an ancient Latin manuscript. Nearby two men sit drinking and arguing, a Frankish man and a young Saxon. The youth, drunk and foolish, is baiting the man with considerable wit. Finnian sees the anger building in the man, and foresees a murder, which is not long in coming. The bard sees an opportunity to save the foolish youth, at little risk, but deems the matter none of his business. Not long afterward a chance-met Pictish priest places Finnian under a geas for his neglect: "From now on, as long as you stay in my land, you will aid any man or woman in need of help."

The fallout is not long in coming. Finnian quickly becomes embroiled in the troubles of a young Breton warlord named Conan, who is trying to rally a group of his countrymen into a community able to resist the depredations of raiders and the extortion of self-proclaimed nobles. The remainder of the story is a tale of love and brotherhood, featuring a series of daring rescues and hair's-breadth escapes, ending with a bittersweet denouement. The story is told with humor and realism, and paints a fascinating picture of 10th century life.

At the risk of sounding like a WMO1, I feel obliged to point out that this is sort of a "guy" story. That is, it features lots of convivial drinking bouts, songs slanderous and salacious (repeat that phrase aloud, three times, fast - and do it drunk), blood brotherhood, and lots of other neat stuff sensible adult males never grow out of, and that women could enjoy too if they could get over being civilized. The women in the story are usually, at best, tolerant and resigned over the foibles of the men. Ah was the Dark Ages, after all.

John Myers Myers is best known for his 1949 novel Silverlock, which is a Pilgrim's Progress type of story, and which became hugely popular with science fiction fandom, and also developed a cult following on college campuses for a time. Although the story is a lot of fun, it is immensely complicated, containing many references to historical and fictional characters, and providing fans hours of past-time pleasure in exchanging Silverlock trivia. By comparison The Harp and the Blade is much more straightforward, and is certainly more tightly plotted. Like Silverlock, the story chronicles the development of a man adrift within his life, as he finds "a heart for living".

January, 1999

1It means White Male Oppressor, and is part of the current lexicon of politcal correctness. A friend of mine who writes scripts in Hollyweird has this phrase flung at him from time to time, for no especial reason, and takes a sort of rueful pride at the appellation. Hang in there, buddy!