I love time-slip novels, and was excited about the premise of The Wolves of Woden, which brings together two fascinating periods in history and legend: World War II Newfoundland and Arthurian England. Alison Baird weaves a tapestry in her settings; her descriptions both depict and suggest the strangeness of Jean’s seeming temporal disruptions, the uncanny sense of each world being more real than the other. Her characters are well-drawn, too, and her plot tight and interesting.
So why, I ask myself, did I not enjoy the book more? The problem lies, I think, in exactly that sense of neither world having obvious primacy over the other. Jean’s life in Annwn seems more important while she is there, and the reader can engage most easily in the fantasy nature of the narrative, but yet the text suggests that Jean’s role in Annwn is actually an important quest not only for Annwn, but for Newfoundland as well.
Baird has created parallel universes, not different temporal situations, for her protagonist to move between. In Annwn, where magic is known exist, they understand that their world is real, our world the shadow; in Newfoundland, Jean cannot discuss Annwn, for no one would believe her. The connection between the two worlds, too, is posited as real: what happens in Annwn is not only reflective of, but also causal in what happens on the battlefields of France. The suggestion—voiced by the Shade of King Arthur, no less—is that through her pivotal role in overcoming Woden in Annwn, Jean is responsible for the hope that comes into our world: in The Wolves of Woden, our “hope” lies explicitly in the Americans entering the war in 1941, which enabled the ultimate defeat of Germany. While the concept of a causal connection between the medieval, magical battle in Annwn and the very real carnage of World War II is interesting, the linkage is rather complicated and thus less effective than it might be. Sacred weapons are transported into our world, and then back, changing magical properties in their journeys; despite her magical abilities, Jean has no control over her passage between worlds, but is taken from Newfoundland when she is needed in Annwn; people we care about die in both worlds, as the Nazis and the Lochlannach violently invade the lands they would conquer. I am never sure—even in the end—what Jean’s real role in Annwn was or will be: the premise for her involvement is not sufficient. Jean is taken into Annwn on a number of occasions, and returned to Newfoundland once Woden’s forces are vanquished. That battle over, and with the Americans entering the war in Europe, the text suggests, all will be fine and ultimately return to normal. While it seems possible to accept the trope of “the return to normal life” in the fictional setting, familiarity with World War II history does not permit such as simple view regarding our world. Despite the ultimate defeat of Nazism, four full years of horrific war seem to be trivialized somewhat by Baird’s comparatively short fantasy battle. Perhaps for younger readers, historical knowledge will not impinge upon a sense of hopeful closure for Jean… but is the lack of historicity required doing them a disservice?