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Literature / Who's Afraid of Beowulf?

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Who's Afraid of Beowulf? is a comic fantasy novel by Tom Holt.

Archaeologist Hildy Frederiksen has always wanted to make a major discovery, and an intact Viking ship burial certainly fits the bill. She most definitely does not expect the dead Vikings to come back to life, and is understandably rattled when they do.

It seems that a thousand years ago, King Rolf Earthstar of Caithness ('God-forsaken place but it is my Kingdom') and his band of heroes fought a dreadful battle with the evil Sorcerer King. They won the battle but lost track of their enemy, and so found it necessary to do a 'King Arthur'; that is, put themselves into an enchanted sleep to wake when they are needed to destroy the Sorcerer King once and for all. Thus Hildy finds herself the dazed and bewildered guide to an unflappable King Rolf and his bickering band of heroes as they make their way southward to confront the enemy in his new stronghold, London.


Tropes present in this work:

  • The Alleged Car: Hildy buys a minibus which she christens "Sleipnir" (after Odin's horse). Later the King and his elite strike team flee London in a car held together by body putty and magic. Then there's the Sorcerer-King's car, an ancient compact which he has enchanted to be able to outrun sports cars, causing much cursing on the highway.
  • Battle Cry:
    Starkad: I forgot my battle-cry.
    Brynolf: It's "Starkad!", Starkad.
    • Later subverted as the heroes push their ship out to sea;
      Hildy: Was that his battle cry?
      Arvarodd: No, the keel just went over his foot.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Mentioning "Arvarodd" and "Permia" in the same sentence (see Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep").
    • Discussing Thorgeir's parentage, especially when he's in his giant wolf shape.
    • Hildy is deathly afraid of dogs, but at the climax she decides she really hates wolves.
  • Butt-Monkey/Conspiracy Theorist: Danny Bennett, BBC reporter. Once assigned to the story of the Viking ship, nothing goes his way again. It doesn't really help that he tries to connect everything he ever hears- really everything- to the JFK assassination.
  • Calvinball: Two imps have spent the past thousand years playing "Goblin's Teeth". They're still on their first match (of 9 sets, with 100,000 games to a set). Descriptions of the gameplay suggest it contains elements of chess, Monopoly, Scrabble and several others.
  • Can't You Read the Sign?: Vikings Arvarodd and Brynolf come to a perfectly logical but completely wrong conclusion about the London Underground by reading the signs.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: When the police and British Special Forces assault Rolf's castle, they use "special effects" (guns, grenades, helicopters) instead of good, honest spears, axes, and swords. The heroes regard this as unsporting. (Since the Vikings are wearing Magitek armor, the bullets don't worry them, it's just that they were hoping for some straightforward violence.) The attackers fail miserably, on live TV, and the heroes counterattack, forcing the high-tech assault force to flee for their lives.
    Reporter: For the love of God, will you get me out of here? For BBC News, this is Moira Urquhart, Borve Castle, Caithness.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The magic stones Arvarodd lends to Hildy come in handy on many critical occasions, almost qualifying for Chekhov's Boomerang status especially since one magically turns into a boulder when you throw it, then returns to your hand as a pebble.
    • The game of Dragon's Teeth is used to help the Sorcerer-King mend his ways. He is last heard debating the rules with King Rolf as they sail towards Valhalla.
  • Circling Monologue: The last Viking king, Hrolf Earthstar, circles the evil Sorcerer King before battle, determined to break his attempt to rule the world. Unusually, the mighty but doomed villain accepts the Last-Second Chance given by the hero. After all, someone could have got killed.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: To honour Hildy for helping them, the Vikings bestow upon her the name "Vel-Hilda." Why? Because the word "vel" is short and means "well," just like Hildy!
  • Drives Like Crazy: The Sorcerer-King may be 1,000 years old, but he drives like a teenager.
  • Duel to the Death: Averted. As the Sorcerer-King said, "I never did like all that running around and shouting."
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Arvarodd is frustrated to be known only as "the Arvarrod who went to Permia". This was actually the least interesting thing he ever did, but his saga was butchered by the editors. This is his Berserk Button in times of stress, such as when a museum curator recognizes him.
    The curator took a deep breath. "Aren't you the Arvarodd who went to Permia?" he asked.
    Arvarodd hit him.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The sorcerer king
  • Famed in Story: Both King Rolf and Thorgeir Storm-Shepherd comment on the absence of a King Hrolf's Saga, but Rolf's heroes are known to Norse scholar Hildy from other sagas.
  • Food Porn: Averted. The heroes dine on seagull and baked mice when they can't manage anything better, which, frankly, is most of the time. Parodied in that they have a dozen recipes for seagull.
  • Genre Savvy: The heroes are old hands at adventure and know just what to expect.
    Angantyr: "Things are looking up. We've just been betrayed by a traitor."
  • Gentle Giant: Starkad the Berserker again. His comrades call him "Honey-Starkad" because he's 'sweet and thick'.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: Rolf solves the final Mexican Standoff by inviting the Sorcerer-King to retire and go play Goblin's Teeth instead of conquering the world. Which is what his enemy wanted to do all along.
  • Go Ye Heroes, Go and Die: Arvarodd gives a variation of this to Hildy, explaining that their job is simply following the King's orders. If things work out, it proves what a great leader Rolf is, and if not, everyone goes to Valhalla. This is described as a "win-win" scenario.
  • I Am X, Son of Y: The heroes start to introduce themselves to Hildy this way, but don't get very far before one of them calls for a song or something instead.
  • I Have Many Names: King Rolf gets this when he asks the Sorcerer-King to reveal his name, while Rolf is being held at swordpoint. By the time his enemy is done reciting his aliases, Rolf's side stages a rescue. It turns out the Sorcerer-King's real name is Eric. Even spelling it with a "K" didn't make it evil enough.
  • Immune to Bullets: The heroes, thanks to their state-of-the-art magic armor.
  • King in the Mountain: Played for laughs: Viking King Hrolf of Caithness (god forsaken country—but it is my kingdom) and his band of heroes are disinterred in time to put an end to their ancient enemy, the Sorcerer King's, attempt to take over the modern world via magic—or as we call it, technology.
  • Last-Second Chance: The sorcerer-king has the good sense to accept this.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Starkad can run like the wind, if he doesn't trip over something.
  • Magitek: The Vikings were masters of this, as it turns out, and Hrolf's men show off a few examples they had buried along with them. Not to mention their magic armor.
  • May–December Romance: Hinted at between Arvarodd and Hildy, only there wasn't time for much actual romancing.
  • Named Weapons: Rolf's sword Tyrving; the Sorcerer-King's sword Ifing.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Brynjolf the Shapechanger instantly turns himself into basically anything he wants to, but can't help taking on some aspects of the shape; for instance, he gets lost in flight at one point and says he should have gone as a homing pigeon.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: Thorgeir started life as a gigantic wolf, shapechanged by the Sorcerer-King's magic into a human being. When the heroes suppress the magic in the enemy HQ, he goes back to being a humongous wolf, who can nevertheless hold a decent conversation.
  • Papa Wolf: Subverted when Thorgeir has a hard time getting enraged for a fight with Arvarodd. It's noted that most wolves won't attack humans unless their whelps are being threatened- and Thorgeir's are both safely away at boarding school.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Sorcerer-King and Thorgeir was a threat to the entire human race 1,000 years ago, but, as Rolf points out, hasn't yet been able to actually take over the world despite the lack of any opposition. This means the Sorcerer King has undergone such extreme Villain Decay that he is now an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain, who even prefers to watch his enemies on TV at one point rather than go out and fight them just at that particular moment.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: King Rolf again - and the Sorcerer King, too.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: King Rolf and his valiant if quarrelsome heroes.
  • Shiny New Australia: The Big Bad offers one of his minions China as a reward for his service.
  • Traffic Wardens: The heroes find their vehicle has been clamped while they were in the museum. The king responds to this by drawing his sword and cutting the clamps off. All bystanders cheer.
  • Translation Convention/Translator Microbes: The heroes think they are still speaking perfectly good Old Norse, and so is everyone else- but Hildy hears them in English. The King explains that his wizard, Kotkel, put a translation spell on the heroes. Since it's unclear when this happened relative to them waking up, either trope may be in effect early in the tale as the Vikings converse in their mound.
  • Unfortunate Name: The Sorcerer-King considers his given name, Eric, to be this. Rolf seems to agree that it's not much of a name for an Evil Overlord.
  • The Unintelligible: Kotkel the wizard. When he talks, he sounds like "a coffee grinder," "a hierophantic lawnmower," and so on. His speeches have to be interpreted for Hildy because, A) the above-mentioned translation spell misfired when he tried it on himself (so that his mirror now speaks all languages), and B) in any case, he has a speech impediment and mumbles.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Angantyr and Bothvar, among the Vikings. Actually, Angantyr and almost anyone (he's a rather miserable sort of fellow). Subverted with Danny and his film crew, who really do despise one another.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Viking Brynjolf has this power to an extreme degree. His default shape is a grim man with an axe, but he changes into everything from a huge bear, wolf, and eagle to a chess piece (they lost the rook). He can also assume the appearance of other humans, including uniforms, giving him Magic Pants.
    • When Hildy gets the heroes gray flannel suits as a disguise Brynjolf turns himself into an exact replica of said self but with narrower lapels and all around better tailoring.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Investigative reporter Danny Bennett thinks he's been kidnapped by the CIA (the Vikings are temporarily wearing grey suits), when in fact he's fallen in with mythical Norse heroes on a quest to save the world from evil.


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