Sunday, 10 February 2019

Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey

Like Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey's Day of the Giants is one of those books which had a powerful impact on me when I was a child, which I absolutely loved back then, which I read repeatedly and which — rare miracle — I can still read and enjoy today. These books retain their magic.

Also like Podkayne, Day of the Giants is a science fiction novel. On the surface it appears to be a heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery tale. And there's certainly no shortage of heroes, fantasy, swords or sorcery in it. Indeed, the story largely takes place in Asgard and associated realms from Norse mythology, and is peopled with the gods from those myths.

But Lester Del Rey skilfully seeks to underpin the fantasy with attempts at rational, scientific explanation, by way of the speculations of his hero Leif Svensen, a mortal and a 20th Century Midwest American farmer who is swept up to Asgard along with his identical twin brother Lee — a far more heroic figure, a mercenary and wanderer who has the warrior temperament suited to Asgard which Leif so singularly lacks.

In fact, it was Lee Svensen who was supposed to be transported to Valhalla when he falls in battle. Only Loki's wily machinations cause Leif — who, of course, looks just like his brother — to also be picked up by the Valkyries in the confusion of combat and carried across the rainbow bridge Bifrost.

Leif is needed because Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods against the giants, draws near. And if Valhalla is to prevail they will need more than courage and brawn to carry the day. This is where Leif and his brains and scientific aptitude come in...

I said the brothers were felled in combat, but this was no grand engagement on a battlefield. It was a sordid little attack by vigilantes — Leif's farmer neighbours who had formed a lynch mob intent on killing Leif's faithful dog, Rex. This is a strikingly chilling sequence with Leif confronting "the hysteria of the mob and the ferocity of these former friends and neighbours."

"Give us that damned dog... Leif Svensen," they tell him. "This is your last chance."
 
Rex has been accused of killing livestock, a serious charge in a time of acute shortage and hardship — when in fact it was wolves who were responsible. Wolves who have come roaming in from the wild places, emboldened by the onset of the Fimbulwinter, which precedes Ragnarok, "roaring across the fertile plains of the United States... a blizzard running from Dakota clear down to Kentucky."

And it's Loki, ever the slippery manipulator, who has stirred up feeling against Rex among the locals, specifically to trigger the attack which will enable him to send Leif to Valhalla...

I forgot to mention that Rex the dog gets brought across Bifrost, too. But Del Rey himself soon forgets about Rex, and he fades from the story, which is a shame. Because he's a very cool and very brave dog. And I could have done with a bit more about him and a bit less of Leif's romance with Fulla, a shield maiden...

Del Rey's depiction of the Fimbulwinter and its catastrophic effect on the human realm is striking, not to mention rather disturbingly prophetic: "Even the Southern Hemisphere was in the grip of savage storm... The Muslim faith was sweeping over Russia and there was dark muttering of a new jehad." (Day of the Giants was published in 1959.)

However, most of the story is set not on Earth but in Asgard, where Leif finds himself drawing on the "Tattered shreds of the old Norse legends" he recalls from his childhood. At first the place strikes him as something from a "second-rate production of a Wagnerian opera... Asgard seemed badly in need of repairs."

Loki warns him, "yes, you're looking at myths — but myths with sharp teeth." 

Soon Leif is working with Asgard's contingent of dwarfs, trying to manufacture more advanced weaponry which will allow the gods to prevail against the giants, who are a memorably unpleasant bunch — All three of his mouths were drooling" — before it's too late.

Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is swiftly growing critical. "The cities were horrors now," Del Rey tells us, with chilling concision.

Lester Del Rey is an excellent writer. I particularly admire the way he roots even the most fantastical scenes in concrete physical reality. So, even as a Valkyrie is carrying him to Asgard over Bifrost on her winged steed, "Leif felt the sweat from the horse begin to soak into him, stinging sharply as it worked into his wound." 

And I just love his evocation of the most fantastical sequences, as when Leif crosses the rainbow bridge and leaves our mortal realm for the alternate dimension of Asgard: "the horse strained and something seemed to give with sticky reluctance."

Meanwhile the Valkyrie is singing a "strange shrieking set of tones" and Leif speculates, "Probably sonics had some effect on the dimensional bridge." These are wonderful details and this is imagination of a very high order.

There are also great, tumultuous, bloody action sequences, like the one in which Thor's "hammer cut the air with a scream that left a wake of steam behind it." 

And lest I seem too harsh on the pre-feminist depiction of Fulla, I should also mention that she  buckles on her mail and goes into battle instead of staying home and making meatloaf for our hero...

This is a splendid, memorable adventure story and a forgotten classic of fantasy and science fiction. And it has a lovely, uplifting ending.

(Image credits: There are very few editions of this wonderful book — one hardcover and one paperback in English, plus three foreign language versions I've discovered, and a Kindle. And the English language paperback has a dreadful cover by some artist who read no further than page 1 of the book, and misread that one, coming away with the impression that the story is about flying saucers. Luckily the original 1950 magazine version of the story featured on the cover of Fantastic Adventures magazine by Robert Gibson Jones, and a lot of its internal illustrations, also by Jones, are available online. The Avalon hardcover art by Ed Emshwiller is from Good Reads. The aforementioned disappointing paperback cover is from Nite Owl Jr. The Kindle cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The Fantastic Adventures magazine cover is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow & Creased, which features an excellent post about Del Rey's novel. The internal magazine illustrations are from diverse Pinterest saves by Josan: Page 6, Page 7, Page 36, Page 45, Page 51. The Dutch edition is from De Boekenplank. The 1993 Club Jules Verne Czech edition with the orange cover is from Antikvari├ít Bosorka.The 1999 Czech edition with the dark purple cover is from Anitkvari├ít U Kostela. The Dutch edition, which recycles the Robert Gibson Jones cover and dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s is from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.)

2 comments:

  1. I remember this story fondly, albeit as an artifact of 1950s sensibilities. I encountered it at an engineering college in the late 1980s, so I was predisposed to like Leif.

    What stuck with me the most were the dwarves, who were great minor characters. I loved the way they separated elements by chewing the ore, and chose to keep one particular element in little piles because it kept better than if it was in one big pile. I think this was also the first sympathetic portrayal of Loki I'd ever seen.

    I had the edition with the atrocious red cover for many years until it was finally abandoned during one of my many moves, but now I think I need to go find another copy.

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  2. This was indeed a perfect book to find at an engineering college... I assume it was a hardcover in the library? The original US hardcover is a handsome thing, but we're both agreed the paperback is terrible. ;)

    I couldn't agree with you more about the dwarfs. I would have included a discussion about them, and some quotes, but this post was already way longer than usual! I also would have liked to mention the development of radioactive ore to make a nuclear weapon to use against the giants. Chilling stuff.

    And you're right, too, about the depiction of Loki. This really is an under-rated novel and I'm glad I revived your interest in it.

    Many thanks for commenting.

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