Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
We start our tale with Eric, so that's why he gets top billing on the good old character list. He's not the main focus of every story in this book, but he does make an appearance in all of them. So, what exactly is up with this Eric dude? Let's dig in.
Eric's story stretches across seven lifetimes, a couple name changes, and one gender switcheroo. Let's take a quick peek at what Eric looks like in each of his different manifestations:
Whew—that's a lot of lives. Okay, so obviously Eric is a different guy (or gal) in each of these incarnations. But are there themes that run through his whole existence? Things that reveal his character in each and every life he lives? You betcha. Ultimately, he's the same person showing up time and again, after all.
Throughout his various lives, Eric is usually associated with the same things. For starters, there's his name, which we're told means "the one king" and "forever strong" (6.6.25). Yup, that definitely fits with a guy who just keeps living and living.
Even the priest in the 10th century says that his name will work like a totem to protect Eric "not only in this life, but in other lives yet to come" (6.625). Oh, how true. Eric's name may switch slightly from lifetime to lifetime, but the root always stays the same—like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going and going.
There's also his favorite catchphrase: "so it is." Whenever he says this, it's as if he's sort of surveying and accepting a situation. It kind of reminds us of the line "So it goes" that follows every death in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The words are a sort of rueful acceptance—Eric isn't passive, by any means, but he's not one to fight fate either; when he recognizes his lot has been cast, he accepts it.
Since the perspective of each of these stories shifts, we get to see more than one side of Eric. Of the seven stories we get about him, Eric only tells us about himself in three of them (as King Eirikr, Erika, and Eric Seven). All our other info about him comes from folks who are outside looking in.
In 2011, Edward knows that Eric has some developmental disability, but he also believes that the boy "seems like he knows everything, but is saying nothing" (2.3.36). In 1944, David thinks that Erik pretty much hates him and Erik never says anything to change his mind… until he dies saving him. And in the 10th century, Melle tells us that her brother is much more fond of action instead of thinking.
Are you noticing a trend across the ages here? Eric holds back a lot and doesn't express himself too much verbally. If anything, most of the time it seems like he has something to say, but he's not letting it out. Of course, there is one person whom Eric opens up to over and over again… We'll give you a hint: She's really cute.
Eric's relationship with Merle throughout his lifetimes is super important. In fact, it's King Eirikr's love for Queen Melle that sets this whole story in motion:
"You cannot kill me. Do you not know my name? I am Eirikr. The One King! Forever Strong, and though you kill my body today, I will live again! I will live!"
He turns to his queen, to Melle, and his voice drops. "I will live seven lives, Melle, this is only my first."
The stars shine down on Eirikr, on his twitching body on the cold stone table.
"I will live seven times, and I will look for you in each one. We will always be together."
Gunnar raises the knife, and the moonlight gleams from its edge.
"I will look for you and love you in each one. Will you follow?" (7.3.54-59)
That's pretty powerful stuff, right? Even better, Eric follows through with his promise, meeting and loving Merle in every single life he lives. For a person of few words, he sure knows how to follow through on them.
Interestingly, the love Eric and Merle share is always different. In a few lifetimes, they are lovers, but in others they are family—mother and son, brother and sister. Their relationship is most distant in 1944, when Erik only ever sees a picture of Merle, though of course, it's a picture that inspires him to die saving her father, so it's kind of a big deal.
What does Eric's relationship with Merle tell us about him? That he's devoted, for one. You don't follow a girl across seven lifetimes if you're not a loyal and faithful dude to your very core. His love for Merle isn't just some everyday puppy love type crush; it's the kind that doesn't die. In the end, having Merle by his side allows Eric to accept death calmly, knowing that he has lived a few perfect moments in her arms. That's some intense amore right there.
Merle is also the only person that Eric can really be himself around. Remember how we said that Eric is a bit withholding around other characters? Not with Merle. In 2073, Eric can't stop himself from talking when he's around Merle, and in 1902, Bridget is surprised that her seven-year-old daughter strikes up such an easy friendship with the elderly Eric:
Bridget was amazed what they found to talk about, the young girl and the old man, but talk they did, while she tidied and cleaned and swept in the cavernous building that Eric had made his home.
Often, when she came into the room where they sat, the conversation would falter a little; when she left, she'd hear them chatting away again […]
It was as if Eric was the child and Merle the adult; his talk was fun, light, silly, and hers was, too, at times but scattered in her foolishness would be unexpected words of deep maturity, as if she were old beyond her years. (4.10.2-4)
Eric's loyalty and connection to Merle are the glue that holds the entire story together. More than that, though, it's what prompts him to seek her out without knowing it, to find her and love her in each life—it drives him forward. Their relationship may always be different, but it is also always loving, and readily so. So no matter what form Eric takes, we can see that he is not only super loyal, but also fundamentally capable of love.
Speaking of loyalty, there's something besides love for Merle that sets this whole story in motion and then keeps happening across Eric's lifetimes: a sacrifice. King Eirikr offers himself up to make sure that his people are taken care of:
Eirikr looked at his people, and saw the fear and the hope and the mistrust and the doubt and the anger on their faces.
He knew it for what it was.
For three years the crops had failed.
For three years there had been hunger, and famine, and disease.
They had killed many beasts, and two men had been blessed on the stone table, too, their blood going after the way of the foals and bulls before them.
It had made no difference. Still, nothing would grow […]
A foal, a man?
What difference does it make, wondered Eirikr, and yet he knew the laws, for he himself had helped shape them in his long time as king. (7.2.2-7, 10-12)
Yup, dude dies for his people. But again, this isn't just a one-time event for Eric—he's willing to give up his own life to help others time and time again. Besides loving Merle, it's the one big quality that he carries through all his lives:
Eric is also sacrificed in 2073, but he's somewhat less willing. Even when he realizes why the islanders are about to kill him, he knows that he doesn't want to comply. It isn't until he's trapped with Merle that he finally accepts death and allows the end to happen. In his defense, though, being forced to sacrifice yourself is a little different from volunteering, plus this is his last lifetime. In other words, in 2073, death might feel a little more final.
So, why is Eric so keen to give up on life to help someone else? Well, one answer could be that he knows (deep down) that he's going to have another go at it—it isn't until he's in his seventh and final go round that he starts to get some reservations on that stone table. But his sacrificial propensity also ties in with what Melle says about her brother in the 10th century—he "was always for doing, not for thinking" (6.4.12). In other words, Eric may not talk much or explore his feelings too often, but it's because he's a man of action. And sacrifice is the ultimate action.
Of course, this doesn't mean Eric's actions are foolish or poorly thought out—as King Eirikr, he carefully considers what should be done about the famine before deciding to sacrifice himself. But once he decides what to do, he doesn't back down; he follows through. So whether he's saving his sister or giving his last painting his all, once Eric commits, he goes all the way.
Seriously, this Eric is a super deep guy. Like, seven lifetimes deep.