Research

Liquid fire

Guess who this is? (Hint: it is I) Floradorp New Year’s celebration, 2013/2014.

As a kid, I was incessantly bullied. I was fat, bad at all sports, extremely introverted, wore thick glasses, I lived inside books and mixtapes I made. I was so smart I excelled at everything (but sports) but not smart enough to understand that always knowing all the answers and bragging about how I never had to study for tests didn’t make me popular. (Emotional intelligence was not strong in this one at the age of 7.) So I avoided the other boys. I was both alone and lonely most of the time, my companions being books and music, but twice a year I would be rewarded with magic.

Back in the 1980s, every worker was sent on subsidised vacations. We’d pick one out of, I don’t know, three near identical locations, and go there for two weeks, paying silly money – think €10 per day for a family of three. Certain traditions were always observed during those outings. The first evening without rain would be the “evening of friendship,” where the kids would be obnoxious together, adults would get drunk, then at some point the kids would get sent to bed.

Except me.

My Norse Gods: Frigg

The Ten Worlds will be less of a series and more of a universe I am building based on the Norse lore and surviving resources, which I then alter to fit my needs. Today I’d like to introduce you to Frigg, the wife of Odin – if I were in charge of casting the inevitable TV adaptation, I’d choose Tilda Swinton.

 

Frigg is – to quote Our Troth:

the most motherly […] she is the closest thing to an All-Mother the Northern folk know.

Frigg does not get a lot of space in the Norse lore, sometimes even being seen as an aspect of Freya (I disagree with this). Baldr is the only child of hers that is actually named. The long-haired, peace-loving, gleaming Shining One, dies in rather awkward circumstances. After Ragnarök, when the worlds of the Gods come to an end, some of them survive – and so do a man and a woman – led by Baldr, the long-haired, bearded, peace-loving embodiment of goodness, one who returns from the dead, the son of God (and Goddess). Those stories have been written down by Christians after the Viking era was long over. Some scholars believe that Baldr is a kenning for Jesus, added to the Sagas/myths by Christians to symbolise the fall of the Norse Gods and the rise of… well, Jesus. I agree.

I removed Baldr completely from my version of the pantheon. Frigg’s description of ‘the most motherly’ coming with lack of clarity as to whose mother she is exactly made me wonder: what if the answer was ‘nobody’s’? What if the one who craves motherhood the most, becoming its embodiment, the Goddess mothers and pregnant women call upon, were unable to have children of her own?

Independent people

Today is Icelandic National Day (Þjóðhátíðardagurinn), also known as the 75th anniversary of Iceland becoming a republic independent from Denmark. As it happens, two years ago we were in Iceland on that day. We missed everything.

When I first came to Amsterdam, the Pride canal parade was taking place. I spent the entire day record hunting. In Iceland, at least, we went into the country… okay, the Golden Circle… then, when we returned, we discovered something strange. There were Icelandic flags everywhere. Every single store was closed, streets – empty, every restaurant open and filled with people. We finally sat in a pizzeria (very traditional…), where I pulled out my phone and found out what was going on.

 

Independent people

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, which made Iceland the nation with the most Nobel prize winners (i.e. one) per capita, was the second book I read as research for Storytellers. I did not understand a lot of metaphors back then, missing on all the political allusions, my confused eyebrows wandering higher and higher until all of my hair transported itself to the back of my neck. Once I did more research I ended up with a three-page treatise on Jón Sigurðsson, Iceland’s most famous politician of all time, the leader of Icelandic independence movement. I had to cut that out from the book for obvious reasons – its title wasn’t Icelandic History for Beginners – and it wasn’t until our visit to Iceland’s National Museum a year later that I understood exactly how important Jón was.

A Special Communication from Bjørnheimr

It’s not you, it’s me.

I know I’ve been quiet. I’m going to do my best to improve communication between us from now on, ‘k? I’ve been going to therapy and I feel I’m almost ready to…you know? You don’t know? Communication, Bjørn… well… yeah, I’m almost ready to commit to posting on the blog again. Don’t leave me! We can work it out!

I fought the law and I won!

Some of you know I was stuck in a legal case for a very long time. It didn’t seem so bad at first, except for the fact that I am allergic to officials and lawyers, but I had #faith that I would simply win. That didn’t happen. The appeal took forever and a day, and my allergy got worse. Then finally I got the letter, found out that I won the case, and realised how little else I actually accomplished in those last months. I mean, apart from finishing, designing, then publishing a book, promoting it as well as I could, working on its soundtrack, dealing with legal stuff and with health issues both mine and those of my family members, working on the next book(s) about which in a moment, accidentally networking (I am allergic to the word “networking”, but it transpires that being nice to people on social media and interacting with them is also called “networking”, even if I am not wearing a suit), preparing a large online contest (I am, uh, just about to start working on it, but I’ve done a lot of thinking, OK?), and I just got tired typing this…

*a brief nap follows*

….yaaaaaawnyway, now that the case is over I am experiencing a strange empty feeling. I got so busy with it that I forgot what I was even fighting for, until I got it. In my head the upcoming decades were a parade of lawyers and hearings. I was keeping myself busy half-heartedly rewriting the same work in progress, then in the last weeks things slightly escalated, and now I am writing four books at once.

*awkward silence*

New Ásgard, who dis?

The first and second are two parts of the same story, but each of the books is a different genre. The first part is historically accurate fantasy, the second – historical fiction with fantasy elements. (This translates to “less Gods and worlds, more mortals and discoveries of Iceland”.) For the first part I took certain Norse myths and sagas and decided to expand them into a novel, as the way they were originally written tends to be a bit like this:

The troll stole my mead
So I killed him
And his hamster
The end.

My take is a bit more of…literary fantasy, if that even exists. I’m less interested in the troll-killing part and more in motivations (what’s so damn special about this mead?), personalities (are trolls nice and fluffy?), side characters (how did the hamster feel about the whole ordeal?). Still, fantasy is fantasy, and while I have a tendency to describe the battles as “once everything was over…”, some readers might not appreciate that.

The second part largely concerns itself with the discovery of the new Ásgard, also known as Iceland, by Hrafna-Flóki. This is where the historical accuracy becomes really important. On one hand, the research will help with the worldbuilding thanks to the fact that Earth already exists and so do the maps. On the other, there are currently ten books staring at me menacingly from the side table. I’m…just about to start on them very soon…

Icelandic summer

Today is sumardagurinn fyrsti – the first day of summer in Iceland. Since 1971 the first day of summer is a national holiday, complete with celebrations, parades, sporting events. At +13 Celsius (55.4 Fahrenheit) it’s a really warm summer day as well. I am not joking.

When we first came to Iceland in June 2017, the temperature on the day of our arrival was +14 Celsius. We saw boys on skateboards, having fun on the street, wearing tiny tank tops. I was dressed in full leather from head to toe and wouldn’t say that I was in danger of overheating. We asked our landlady whether it was normal for kids to dress like this in sub-Arctic temperatures. She explained that +14 in June was, in fact, a heatwave. She wasn’t lying. On the day of our departure it was +7 at the Keflavík airport and +29 when we arrived in Amsterdam (40 degrees Fahrenheit difference). This was how I discovered that I was now old enough not to cope with heat well and realised with a startle that I preferred the cold.

First day of summer in April? Sounds legit

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll probably guess: I’m going to go a thousand (and a bit) years ago, then talk about the Norsemen.

Blacksmithing: An axe and a death

My first forge welding class with Casper Prager.

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Karl stopped travelling. He also stopped paying much attention to Gunnar, focusing entirely on Sóley. Gunnar was now free to work at the forge whenever he felt like it, unnoticed, alone, happy. He found a machine grinder operated with a pedal and figured out how to sharpen his knife with it – his third knife, and the first that was almost completely straight. Once he was done, he threw it into a corner, ready to start on the next one, determined to get it right, before realising he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast many hours ago.

They took turns on the “bed” downstairs. Gunnar couldn’t decide which one he preferred. He felt oddly uncomfortable when sleeping upstairs with his mother, filled with a dreadful feeling that even her snoring expressed anger about something he had either done or not done. The night after, though, he would change his mind and decide that it was nothing compared to the physical discomfort of the new “bed”, which was a mostly flat pile of turf covered with a sheepskin. Also, when he stayed downstairs, his parents fought incessantly, quieter than before, but loud enough to be heard through the wooden ceiling.

“Your nerves,” Karl would say again and again. “Have you been drinking the herbs?”

“Like I’m a fool! I know they are poison! You want to get rid of me, so nothing stops you from seeing the others!”

“There are no others. How am I supposed to prove it to you? I don’t go anywhere anymore, except when I have to go to town…”

“Do you think I don’t know what happens in town?!”

“Nothing, I buy food, other necessities, then come back home as fast as I can.” Karl’s voice was becoming lower and quieter. Gunnar knew what that meant and shivered in his cold bed.

“I don’t believe you! She, they buy it all, then give it to you so you have an excuse!”

“Sóley, you’re being unreasonable. Please try the herbs. Your nerves…”

Gunnar finally dozed off, only to wake up with pain in his neck, his whole body stiff, cold. His left hand, which he slept on, was asleep and the pricks of pain started a moment later when blood found its way back. It was May, but the walls would only become warm for about two days at the end of August. They seemed to always be covered with a thin layer of frozen mold. Tonight he would be sleeping upstairs, where the wooden walls, cold as they were, didn’t feel so… slippery. But that meant he would be sleeping next to his mother…

*

In the morning, Gunnar grabbed a piece of bread and a mug of coffee, then retreated into the forge as quickly as possible. It was becoming his favourite place on Earth. Here nobody ever interrup–

Someone knocked on the front door and the boy nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Is Karl there? I need that axe.”

“Ah, it’s… it’s almost ready, I…”

“He didn’t do it,” said the man flatly. “Tell him I’ll be back tomorrow and it better be ready.” He departed, shaking his head, and Gunnar stared behind him before returning inside and picking up the axe. Its blade was cracked, and when Gunnar squinted he could see the crack was deeper than it looked, becoming thin as a hairline, but still present. Maybe it would be possible to simply remove some of the metal using the grinder…? It would be a bit smaller, but perfectly good…

A few minutes later he had to interrupt his parents.

“Good God!” exclaimed Karl. “You could have lost an eye! What have you done?”

“I was just trying– this man came, and he was asking–“

“Of course he was,” interrupted Sóley. “Your father makes a lot of promises, but never delivers on them. Come here. You’ve got a piece of metal in your forehead, how did you even do that, fool?”

“You can’t sharpen a broken axe,” said Karl, as Sóley huffed, puffed, and put iodine on the wound. Gunnar tried and failed not to hiss in pain. “The edge is made of hardened steel. It’s much harder, hence the name, but it breaks. As you can see.”

“It’s a miracle he can see at all! A bit lower, and he would never see anything again. Because someone doesn’t even–”

“We’re going to do it now,” announced Karl. “Sóley… please try the herbs, at least one time, just to see whether they help a bit. Gunnar and I are going to fix that axe right now.”

Blacksmithing: Gunnar makes a horseshoe

Icelandic model horseshoe, decorated. If you bought one of the (sold out) super deluxe boxed set editions of Storytellersthis is what you’re going to get.

Read Part 1

This time, to Gunnar’s relief, Karl was away only for two days. Mother always got upset when father left, but this time she seemed to be upset with Gunnar for some reason. He didn’t like his mother very much and it seemed that she felt the same towards him, even though both maintained the facade of politeness that came with clenched teeth and white knuckles. It was her own fault, decided Gunnar. If she didn’t start fights with father, he wouldn’t have to go away to get some peace and quiet.

When Karl came back home, all smiles, he handed her a book. Sóley threw it on the table without even looking. Gunnar knew what would happen next. He’d be sent upstairs, to bed, and his parents would fight again. Why did mother have to be like this? Father brought her a present. At least they were quiet enough for their voices to become background noise and Gunnar fell asleep, the unfinished nail under his pillow.

*

“How are your hands? Still hurting?”

“Nay. They’re perfect,” said Gunnar and immediately began sweating at the thought he’d be forbidden from working at the forge ever again. “Never better. Excellent,” he said, avoiding his father’s doubtful gaze, hiding his shaky hands behind his back.

“Good! We can make your first horseshoe then.”

The boy relaxed at first before grasping the full sentence. “A gleaming horseshoe,” he mumbled, trying to sound happy.

Karl looked at him oddly. “Gleaming? Where did you get that from?”

“Eh… a story?”

“What story?”

“The one with the gleaming horseshoes, clearly,” snapped Sóley. Karl winced, but kept smiling. Gunnar turned his eyes away, staring at the forge door. It was locked, like always, but maybe he could somehow get his hands on the key, then work at night… no, they would hear that, maybe when father was away… but then, mother hardly ever left the house…

“Good,” said Karl. “We’ll make a gleaming horseshoe.” He chuckled and Gunnar blushed, although he didn’t know why.

Deconstructing \’Vikings\’: Rollo

Warning: contains multiple spoilers for Vikings seasons 1-5!!!

Old Norse: Hrólfr, played by: Clive Standen

In Vikings, Rollo serves as a frenemy/adversary to Ragnar, his famous brother, only to end up becoming a French aristocrat. Part of this is even historically correct. Rollo was born either in Norway or Denmark around 860, i.e. five years before Ragnar’s possible death, was a Viking, and became the first ruler of Normandy (“the Land of the Northmen”). As Snorri’s Heimskringla mentions, when he grew up into adulthood his name was extended to Göngu-Hrólfr, “Rollo the Walker”, since he became too heavy to be carried by a horse. Remembering that Heimskringla is a Saga, I would also assume that he was the most handsome, wise, and brave of all the men who were too large to ride any horse.

Rollo is possibly the most… adapted of all characters in Vikings. First of all, there’s the problem of Ragnar and Rollo being brothers, despite the fact that Rollo was born in 860, when Ragnar was at least in his sixties. Second, I am almost certain I saw the TV Rollo on a horse. Third, we know for a fact that he existed, but in this particular case unpacking the differences between history and History could fill a book three times as long as this one.

The earliest historical event noting Rollo’s existence is his leadership over the Vikings who laid siege to Paris in 885-886. At this point I already get a headache, because it immediately throws the chronology of Vikings off the cliff. The series depicts Ragnar, Rollo, the invasion of Paris, Rollo’s marriage and subsequent leadership of the French, glossing over the fact that Paris was invaded twenty years after Ragnar had died.

Iceland 99 years ago

The reason why Storytellers will be released on March 28, 2019 is simple: the last words of the book are “March 28, 1920”. On one hand, this BEGS for me to wait another year. On the other, it allows me to swap “20” with “19” in the upcoming second trailer. (Watch the first one here.) 99 is a round enough number for my needs.

In 1920, Iceland was a very different country. Not just because it lacked airports and tourists. In addition to already looking like a different planet, Iceland was also following what seemed to be parallel history, where modern and traditional ideas regarding the genders were reversed, where the war was a fantastic development… and what else?

The Great War

In 1920, Iceland began to experience a major, unexpected financial crisis. The first World War was known in Iceland as “The Great War” – not just size-wise great, but the first time ever Iceland experienced true prosperity. While other countries were busy fighting, Icelanders did what they’ve always been doing – fishing, herding sheep, producing wool. Now, however, they were also exporting all those things, and the demand was huge. Once the war ended, though, the other countries began to rebuild their own economies. Almost overnight, at the end of 1919 and beginning of 1920, the prosperity ended.

Do you have Viking blood?

The last time I was asked “do you have Viking blood?” was four days ago. I can’t remember what exactly my answer was, but I did write the question down to use for a blog post later.

My DNA-based ancestry report is all over the place. So is yours, by the way. And everybody else’s. Most importantly, there is no “Viking blood marker”, although I’m sure 23andme etc. wish they could sell that, and somebody probably does. Still, there is a chance you have Viking blood indeed, even if you have no Scandinavian blood at all. In fact, that might increase your chances…

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings series on TV shares a certain characteristic with novels, books such as The World of Vikings, etc. Namely, the TV focuses on epic battles (and half-naked men and women, and amazing hairstyles, but I digress), longboats, settlements that never lasted too long. There are few craftsmen, farmers, animal herders who are mentioned other than in passing or when a blacksmith needs to make more axes faster.

Surprisingly, this is a correct representation.

The noun “víkingr” (feminine version: “víking”) means “pirate”. There is a reason why “Viking Age” is considered to be a clearly defined period between 793-1066 A.D. The Norse neither suddenly appeared in 793, nor did they die out in 1066. When used as a verb, (a-)víking meant raiding by sea. Farmers and craftsmen were not, er, viking around – unless they were particularly brave, I suppose. (I’ll admit I haven’t researched that yet.)

The exact date when the Viking Age began is known to the day: on June 8th, 793 the raiders invaded the monastery in Lindisfarne. They didn’t call themselves “Vikings”, same as they didn’t refer to their language as “Old Norse”. At the beginning they would raid, take what they could, then return home. Soon enough they discovered that they didn’t just have to take gold – there was land to be settled as well, in warmer climate, with more fertile soil. The raids started to turn into explorations. This would eventually lead to the discovery of America by Leifur Eiríksson – curiously enough it happened when he was on his way to bring Christianity to Greenland and got lost.

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