Barbarian Lord by Matt Smith

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsBarbarian Lord by Matt Smith

BARBARIAN LORDBarbarian Lord is an excellent story for both kids and adults, particularly fans of Icelandic Sagas and Nordic Mythology, which Matt Smith has clearly studied and for which he has an obvious passion. This book would be perfect for introducing kids to this mythological world; however, it’s not merely a retelling of classic Nordic tales, though some of them are certainly incorporated. Rather, Barbarian Lord is a unique combination of all these and more, even a bit of Tolkien and He-Man, Smith acknowledges in the back of the book.

The story of Barbarian Lord starts with a listing of his family lineage, including some animals, which lends mystery to Barbarian Lord’s strength and leadership. The main story is of Skullmaster and Skull Witch who rise up against Barbarian Lord in order to take possession of his lands, the “finest farm in Garmland.” They use trickery, of course, because our hero is a good man according to the ethical guidelines of this harsh world. They get the local people to outlaw Barbarian Lord, and the rest of this story is his going on a series of adventures and eventually coming back to challenge Skullmaster in order to regain his lands.

barbarian lord 1What makes this graphic novel so wonderful is the way Smith tells the story. First, the story begins as two ravens talk. One tells the other of Barbarian Lord’s lineage, and we overhear the story as the panels of the comic show the birds flying over the land they are discussing and eventually landing near the dwelling of Skullmaster. The ravens will return at various points in the graphic novel to tell parts of the story.

In addition to hearing the language of the ravens and other animals, we hear the beautiful language of the characters. Often, of course, Smith has them speak very plainly, but at other times he has their English approximate poetic storytelling in which they employ kennings (see “whale’s hall” and “horse of waves” below), a major component of skaldic poetry. For example, after Barbarian Lord defeats a sea creature, he cuts off its head and takes it to present to a king. When he presents it, the poetic speech is just as important as the gift itself: “Through the jagged roof of whale’s hall, the scaly thrasher rose up and brought the horse of waves below. With a maw of swords, the savage swimmer sought an unwilling meal in Hammerheart’s guest. Now a gift for the mighty war chieftan, two jewels shining, resting in a scaly bed.” Though perhaps overdone, this imitation of skaldic poetry seems pretty good to me, and it’s certainly good enough to give a sense of what one would get studying the original tales and poems in translation.

barbarian lord 2The chieftan requests that Barbarian Lord “reclaim a mighty war-hammer and symbol of my family name.” This next quest on the behalf of another is well-told: Barbarian Lord, on his way to confront the ghost protector of the war-hammer, encounters trolls, swaps different stories of gods and the afterworld with his traveling companion, and is aided by a wolf in his endeavors. There’s much else to tell about this story, including a battle of words, a poetry contest of sorts, as well as Barbarian Lord’s journey back home, but essentially Barbarian Lord is a great mix of myth and poetry, as well as action enough to captivate a younger, but not too young, audience. Obviously, there is much violence, but it’s not overly graphic given all the battles. There are certainly available retellings of specific Nordic myths out there, and if that’s what you want, Barbarian Lord is not for you probably. But if you want the feel of those myths employed imaginatively and incorporated into a single, fairly unified story told in graphic novel format, then Barbarian Lord is highly recommended.


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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3 comments

  1. This (and Super Ego) sounds amazing! Your reviews really make me want to read comics/graphic novels.

  2. Brad Hawley /

    Thanks, Kate!

    I never read any comic books except Sin City and Watchmen until seven years after I got my PhD,and I still didn’t think comic books and graphic novels were really worth reading. I also thought most genre fiction, aside from the rare SF, novel was garbage. But I have a belief that if intelligent people tell me something is good, the fault is probably with me. So, I started studying crime fiction two years after finishing my PhD (and now teach a course in it). Then, I started reading crime fiction COMICS written for adults, particularly CRIMINAL by Ed Brubaker (which I highly recommend). Brubaker made me realize what comics could do. Then I read the comic book textbook on comics, UNDERSTANDING COMICS, by Scott McCloud, and I had the Dane experience I had in my first film studied class: my eyes were opened to the complexity of the at firm, and I saw that what seemed simple and “natural” was anything but that. I try to mention a few of these key points in my essay here on Fanlit called HOW TO READ COMICS. I now teach comics in all my classes and give public lectures on the importance of comics, visual literacy, and education. Now, I shudder at the idea that I could have made it through life without enjoying an entire form of art that gives me great pleasure. To me, along with novels, short stories, films, and drama, comics are one of my favorite forms of fictional narrative, probably just second to novels and short stories, but far above drama and film. I feel this way even though my favorite novelist is Jane Austen, my favorite novels are Victorian novels, and my favorite poetry, aside from Millay, Wallace Stevens and a few others, is the poetry of the Victorian period. I was never a pop culture junky, watch little TV and only slightly more movies, and until seven years ago, didn’t know the difference between DC and MARVEL, and I didn’t care. But so much has changed: AND I owe comics for making me fall in love with fantasy and horror and for leading me to want to read more SF, as I’m doing now. So, if you’ve never given comics a chance, the only problem you face is finding the right ones for you. I’d start with DAYTRIPPER since Marion, Bill, and I all love it (see Marion’s review). You also might enjoy SAGA (see my review). Bill likes it, too, and eventually, he’ll no longer be able to claim he doesn’t like comics and graphic novels! Given your academic background, you might enjoy Alan Moore’s theoretical comic on aesthetics and storytelling: PROMETHEA. Moore’s myth of PROMETHEA is about a feminine entity who brings humankind the fire of imagination (instead of just physical fire as brought to us by Prometheus).

    I’ve gone on too long, but I get a little excited talking about this often overlooked art form!

    (Please excuse any mistakes; I’m writing on my phone)

  3. Brad Hawley /

    Damn, auto-correct! Oh well.

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