An analysis of an allegory
By Glenn Larum
"Vinland the Good" is the rarest of Nevil Shute novels. Written as a film script, it further develops the theme that Shute was to make his own in all his major works - the common man as hero. In this work, the ostensible hero is the Viking "farmer" who sailed out in search of lumber for his cowsheds and discovers America.
(The reprint copy has a fine dark green cover and is one of 50 published this spring by The Paper Tiger, a book seller in Cresskill, N.J., with the estate of Nevil Shute granting the rights to the limited reprinting. Only one printing of the original in England (Heinemann), and one in the United States (Morrow), accounts for the scarcity of the book.)
I do not know that Nevil Shute intended it as more than a good story, but Vinland the Good reads as allegory -paying homage to the English schoolboys who helped defeat Hitler's Germany. The key to the allegory is the protagonist's brief sketch of his own war action, and his confident assertion to his young pupils that the heroes were people like themselves (and, he did not add, himself).
The schoolmaster Major Callender returns to the serenity of his old school after serving his country as an "ack-ack gunner" during the Battle of Britain, one of the few to whom, in Churchill's words "was so much owed by so many;" at Tobruk, where Rommel's Panzers were fought to a standstill and the future of the North African campaign rewritten; at Anzio, where Allied forces established a first beachhead on Fortress Europe; and at Oustrehem on the eve of D-Day. Then, he was sent out to Palestine, where the new national home of the Jews was being imposed on the world map. These were important moments in history.
"People in history were not a different race from you and me," Callender tells his students. "Your history books deal mostly with the great people, the Kings and Princes and the Ministers of State. They're just the froth upon the surface; the King and Princes and the Ministers - they don't mean much. History is made by plain and simple people like ourselves doing the best we can with each job as it comes along." He can not say, "Take us for example, we won the war." So, he says, "Leif went out to get timber to build cowhouses and found America. That's how real people make real history. You may make history yourselves one day, any one of you, but you may never know you've done it. Leif didn't." (p. 125.)
Callender might have been describing the leave taking of young soldiers like himself when he said of Leif's embarking, "It wasn't much of a send-off for people who were going to make history. But that's the way things happen" (p. 107). Everyman-Callender and his school mates boarded a plane or a ship, went out to do a job, and did it, beating Nazi Germany's finest in the process and saving the world.
"... as one goes through life, one has to make the best decisions that one can, and work on them. You can't do more than your best." - Leif, speaking to the princess Thorgunna, (p. 70). That might have been the unspoken credo of our Everyman and his counterparts.
There were a few people in Shute's time whom he felt intuitively understood the importance of their crusade, just as Thorgunna articulated it in Leif's context in the allegory (p. 64).
Thorgunna, an isle princess with a gift of second sight, tells Leif, "It seemed to be terribly important, suddenly, that nothing should happen to you. To every man and woman still unborn, living in countries far beyond our own that we know nothing about. It seemed to me that if you fell, something would be lost to all those unborn people we shall never know, and God would grieve for them and I should grieve with God," she said.
Much happened to individual English soldiers, life and death, defeat and victory, but as the collective "Everyman," they triumphed and in the process "discovered" a new world with their victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.
Had this Everyman fallen, something indeed would have been lost to all those unborn people they would never know. But he did not, and the result was a free world.
It was the Happy Land, the "Hy Breasail. The land beyond the sunset, the place where everything is clean and beautiful and good." -Thorgunna speaking, (p. 65). The Happy Land was peacetime, a world in which men and women were free to live as they wished.
"Surely, the place were you are happy is that Happy Land."-Leif, (p. 65).
A few pages earlier, Thorgunna described the good country. In her voice, Shute might have been describing England, as he would have it. "A good country is a country where there are good people, a place where men are kind, and generous, and simple." (p. 61).
The irony that wove the parable to reality was the fact that while these heroes - many not far removed from these young schoolboys - had come home to fanfare amidst the excitement of war's end, the hero worship was of the "Kings and Princes and the Ministers" - Churchill, DeGaulle, Montgomery, Eisenhower, and Patton.
Shute is driving home the message that it was the common soldier - the English Tommy and American Joe and Russian Ivan - doing his job that had turned the tide of war and he is still the hero of the action, whether he returns to fixing cars at the neighborhood garage or the classroom at his old school.
In the novel-play, the headmaster characterizes the public's understanding when Shute describes him as being appalled at Callender's unconventional approach to teaching history using the common man as pivotal hero.
"Froth on the surface ..." he sputters from his observation post beyond the door in the next classroom when he overhears Callender's comment suggesting "Kings and Princes and the Ministers" play something less than the leading roles in the march of history.
And at novel's end, the headmaster "suggests" that Callender might take that job offer he had spoken of - selling electric razors in Paris.
It's possible Shute was poking fun at the "stuffiness" of the English school system, but it seems more likely that he was satirizing conventional history.
The failure of this novel to grab the reading public's interest and go into a second printing is testament to the difficulty of allegory to take on a life of its own. But the fact does not diminish Shute's powerful tribute. The message makes it a novel worth reading.
26 June 1998
Glen W. Larum