Saturday, July 4, 2015

Need advice? Ask a Viking

In Odin’s Child (Chapter 13) young Odd Tangle-Hair and his friend Kalf Slender-Leg leave Iceland to go a-viking with a rag-tag crew in a stolen ship. Odd has lain hidden for many weeks in the house of Kalf’s grandfather, Hoskuld Long-Jaws. The half-blind old man is loath to let his grandson go on this mad adventure with Odd but Kalf insists: it is time for him to become a man. Finally, as he and Odd are on the point of leaving, Hoskuld relents, but lectures the boys on the ways of the wide world.

Kalf went to embrace him, but Hoskuld held him at arm's length and bent his brows sternly.

"Now Kalf, you must promise me. Stay with Odd. Never leave his side. And mind this too, damn it all. I am not a lecturing sort of man, but there are wise words in shriveled skins, and young dogs ought to heed ’em. You listen, too Odd. Keep silent in a strange hall. Answer lying with lies. And don't think that everyone who laughs when you do is your friend. When the ale goes round, drink your share, but don't hold on to the cup. Above all, never trust what a woman tells you or believe 'em constant, for their heads are turned on a potter's wheel and their counsels are cold. It takes sharp wits to wander in the world, you young dogs, and a fool is soon found out."

"Yes, Grandfather, yes," Slender-Leg answered impatiently to all this preachy stuff.

Hoskuld’s lecture is inspired by a collection of verses called the Havamal, or The Sayings of the High One. The ‘High One’ of the title is Odin All-Father, god of poetry, warfare, and magic. In one hundred and sixty-four short poetic stanzas Odin distills the wisdom of Viking Age Scandinavia. The Havamal is just one part of a larger work, the Poetic Edda, which contains most of what we know of Sigurd and Brunhilde and all those other legendary heroes who found their way eventually into Richard Wagner’s operas. From such a source, then, one might expect bravado and boasting, incitement to bloodshed and heroic sacrifice.  On the contrary, the Havamal urges caution, moderation, common sense, and the virtues of friendship.

A page of the single surviving manuscript of the Poetic Edda (ca. 1270)

Here is a random dozen verses, adapted from the translation by Carolyne Larrington  (if you follow me on Twitter you’ll see a new one posted every week or so.)

  • No friend is more trustworthy than a store of common sense.
  • The careful guest at dinner keeps quiet and listens.
  • Ale isn’t as good for you as it’s said to be; the more you drink, the less you know.
  • Don’t hold onto the cup, but drink moderately. No one will think you rude if you go to bed early.
  • Cattle know when it’s time to leave the pasture but a fool never knows when he’s had enough.
  • A foolish man in company does best to stay silent; no one will know that he’s ignorant.
  • If you don’t trust a man, laugh when  he does.
  • Praise the day at nightfall, a woman when she’s dead, ice when it’s crossed, and ale when it’s drunk.
  • A fool lies awake all night worrying. In the morning he’s worn out and things are just as bad.
  • Your own farm is better even if it’s small; everybody is somebody at home.
  • Never make another man’s wife your confidante.
  • One man can keep a secret, not two. Three, and the whole world knows.
  • It’s better to be alive than not; the living man gets the cow.
So, if what you want is guidance to a quiet, peaceful, and contented life…ask a Viking!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Odin lives!: heathenism today

At the beginning of Odin’s Child, Odd Tangle-Hair, the story’s narrator, tells us how Iceland adopted Christianity in the year one thousand. To avoid civil war between believers in the old religion and the new Christian converts, it was decided at the Althing that  year that one respected old chieftain would decide for all, and his decision would be binding on all.

The story goes  that he lay for a night and a day in his tent, his face covered with a cloak, while outside the people waited. When, at last, he came out, he gave his verdict. Let there be one law and one belief for all, he pronounced--and let it be the religion of the White Christ!

Odd’s father, Black Thorvald, alone of the chieftains, scoffed at the new faith and withdrew in fury to his distant farm, where, as time went by, he was consumed by anger and melancholy. Odd, whose mother was Christian, grew up torn between the two faiths. His mad father would lead him on night-long rambles up the slopes of Mt. Hekla, declaiming the ancient myths—and especially the myth of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods—in a howling torrent of words.
In the mornings [Odd tells us] I would reason with myself, for I am a reasoner by nature. If the gods were dead, or doomed, then why not let them go? Why not accept the Christian god as nearly everyone did and let life be simple? My mother believed in him, and she was a good woman.

No. Almost..., but, no. My father's hold on me was too great for that…For his sake, then, I thought, let these doomed gods have my prayers, for what little good it may do them. The White Christ has all the rest.

But does the “White Christ” (as Jesus is always called in the Icelandic sagas) still have all the rest?

Not quite, it seems—neither in Iceland nor elsewhere. The Norse gods live on in the hearts of a growing number of devotees. Nowadays they call the old religion “Ásatrú”—faith in the Aesir—a term invented in the nineteenth century at the beginning of the neo-pagan revival. Now in Reykjavik construction has begun on the first new temple to Odin, Thor and Frigg to be built in Iceland in a thousand  years. It will be a huge, cavernous space excavated into a hillside above the city and, when finished, will be available for weddings, naming ceremonies, and heathen holiday celebrations. Below, is the architect's plan for the temple and a group of contemporary heathens in Iceland. 



I am not a pagan myself, but as one who has studied and written about ancient polytheism, both Greco-Roman and Norse, I wanted to understand what motivates moderns who, like Odd Tangle-Hair, reject Christianity in favor of an older belief. Browsing Google Plus and Facebook, I discovered more than a dozen groups that advocate Ásatrú, totaling nearly 20,000 members if you add them all up (although I’m sure there is a good deal of overlap).

I posted a query to all of them, beginning “What drew you to paganism?” I received quite a few replies. Many of them began by first pointing out my error in terminology: the preferred term for believers in the Germanic gods is “heathen”, not “pagan.”

To quote briefly from some of the respondents:

“Myself, I grew up in an LDS (aka Mormon) house.  That never really
worked for me…I finally came to the conclusion that the Norse Gods and
Goddesses were calling me…”

“I feel the spirit of the world, the universe, coursing with energy through my spirit and soul.”

“I was drawn to it following my awakening out of Christianity and historical study with references from my Northern European ancestry.”

“…it's much more insightful [than Christianity] on how one should live and treat others.”

“…we can once again live as our ancestors did and continue a path of existence that will very well take us into a higher state of being…”

“I have always loved nature and adventure since I was a kid and this has been key in my embracing of old Nordic thought.”

“I get more of a personal connection to it than I ever did with Christianity, with Norse heathenry/ paganism I get a feeling of being connected to the past…”

“It wasn't until I felt safe enough to break away from the Church that I realized I was right all along and the Mary persona was created to conceal the worship of a very real goddess.”

“When I found Ásatrú, that's when the biggest puzzle pieces started popping up everywhere and even fit.”

“I was being groomed to be a Pentecostal pastor. I left because everyone was a hypocrite and wouldn’t hear it if you called them out.”

“Basically, it was a feeling of being connected to the past and feeling closer to my Celtic and German ancestry.”

 “The Gods are real. That's why.”

The themes that stand out are that heathenism is natural, ancient, ancestral, and more personally fulfilling than whatever faith the convert was brought up in. What is actually believed varies, as with any religion, from a literal belief in One-Eyed Odin and Red-Bearded Thor, to something  just vaguely ‘spiritual’. (There can be, of course, an unpleasant side to this too, where mystical “folkishness” shades into Aryan racism. But this is decried by almost all.)

If its presence on the Internet is any indication, Ásatrú is thriving and growing. A website called The Wild Hunt, is one of the most active voices in disseminating heathen news and advocating for heathen causes. A recent article highlighted a pagan lawyer who is fighting the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of “protecting the earth and its creatures”.  Another piece discusses the campaign to get paganism recognized as a religion by the U. S. Army.

How would Odd Tangle-Hair have felt about all this if we could bring him back to life? I like to think he would be pleased.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Saddle Sores: my day on an Icelandic horse

In Odin’s Child (chapter one) Odd Tangle-Hair and his brother bring their black stallion to a horse fight—a popular entertainment among Viking-age Icelanders.

Ahead of us a crowd was gathered for the horse fights. We worked our way to the front until the clearing lay before us, a haze of dust hanging over the trampled grass. At the edge of it the mares were tethered, while in the center two farmers, stripped to the waist and backed by a knot of shouting friends, shoved and goaded their snorting stallions into battle. It was a good match and we watched, shouting with the rest, until the loser, foam-flecked and streaked with blood, charged into the crowd, scattering spectators to right and left. Winning horse and master both threw back their heads and cried victory.

In the days before the White Christ came to Iceland, the winning horse would have been sacrificed to Frey, whose horse's prick fertilizes the fields, and the meat cut up and sold to the folk to eat. Christian priests had soon put a stop to that, but they were too shrewd to make us give up our sport entirely.

But if, reading this, you visualized a pair of huge animals such as Medieval knights rode to battle on, you would be quite wrong. The Icelandic horse is a short-legged, sturdy animal that stands only about 13 hands—that is, fifty-two inches—high. Technically, it’s a pony, although no Icelander would dream of calling it that.

Icelanders love their horses and go to extraordinary lengths to protect them. No other breed of horse can be imported into the country and, if an Icelandic horse is exported, it can never come back, for fear of bringing disease with it. The Icelandic language, it is said, has over a hundred words for the varieties of color and pattern of their coats. The horse plays a part in Norse mythology. Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and the hero Sigurd rode one named Grani, after whom Odd names his horse.

When I visited Iceland, I convinced myself that if a writer is setting his story in a period where people traveled on horseback, then you have to do that in order to get a realistic feel for how long it takes, and how hard it is, to get anywhere. Riding in a car just gives you no sense of that at all. I hadn’t been on horse since I was probably twelve years old but I was sure it would all come back to me. There are a number of stables in the Reykjavik area that organize horseback treks; I signed up at Ishestar for the all-day trek—a morning and afternoon session, punctuated by a delicious lunch (price included) of all the roast lamb you could eat. By the time I was through with lunch I would have happily called it a day. But no, I was committed, so I mounted up again.

Riding one of these horses is a bit different from what I remembered from my boyhood. For one thing, you don’t neck-rein them, as I was taught to do. Also, an Icelandic horse uniquely has two extra gaits besides the usual three (sort of like having two extra gears on a car), although I’m not sure I really found them. And we did it all: we saddled and unsaddled the horses twice, rode uphill and down, crossed streams, galloped along winding tracks through the spectacular scenery of south-western Iceland. Did I fall off? No. Did I almost fall off? Yes, two or three times. Could I walk when it was over? Barely.

But did I experience the contours and texture of the land as one of those hard-bitten warriors of a thousand years ago would have? Absolutely. And it was worth it.

Words and Pictures: reviving the illustrated novel

Once upon a time—long  before the term “graphic novel” was coined—novels written for adults and young adults came with pictures. It began with Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836), whose illustrations did much to popularize the book. Thereafter, all of Dickens’ novels were illustrated, as were those of Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson,  H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, and Jules Verne, just to name a few. A novel—at least, an adventure novel—without pictures was something incomplete. Artists used engraving, etching, lithography, mezzotint, and a variety of other processes to create illustrations that complemented the text.

This golden age lasted for about a hundred years. Toward the end of it, two great American illustrators dominated the field: Howard Pyle (d. 1911), who illustrated  The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and Men of Iron, and his student, N. C. Wyeth (d. 1945), whose illustrations for Treasure Island must still be impressed on every boy’s imagination.

 What put an end to this grand tradition? Possibly competition from the movies, or the invention of the modern comic book; certainly, the economics of the publishing industry.

Time, we say, to bring it back! “We” being me, and my illustrator, Anthony Macbain, and our very enlightened publisher, Kristina Blank Makansi of Blank Slate Press. Odin’s Child has five full-page illustrations, and we are planning for more of them in The Ice Queen and The Guardsman.

We hope readers will approve. And—who knows?—we may be helping to bring back an old and honored custom.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weak Knees:or, my adventures on Iceland's Mt. Hekla

In Odin’s Child (chapter three), young Odd Tangle-Hair follows his half-crazed father, Black Thorvald, up the slope of Mount Hekla, which looms above their Iceland farm. Thorvald is seeking peace from the demons that haunt him by communing with his dead ancestors, who live in the volcano’s fiery depths.

We had tramped for miles now [Odd tells us]and the ground was beginning to rise and leave the mist behind. A hundred paces ahead of me I could see his back bent over double as he toiled upward. I scrambled after him, my feet slipping on the loose pumice stones and the fractured lava rocks with edges like knives. I called his name but he went on as though he didn’t hear… Hours passed. Now I had come as far as the snow-filled crevices that reached like skeleton fingers down the blue-black mountainside. The going was very steep as I neared the top. My palms and knees were bloody. An icy wind tore at my clothes and wailed in my ears like the shrieking of ghosts…

            All true, except for the icy wind. It was actually warm on the day I made my assault on Mt. Hekla.
Two summers ago I and my wife and sons visited Iceland—a country that I have been studying and fantasizing about as I worked on Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga—and I resolved to confront this mountain of my imagination.
            I am not an outdoors-man, not a hiker, and I was, at the time, seventy-three years old. Mind you, this would be my third volcano. When I was thirteen and we lived in Italy, I hiked up Mt. Vesuvius (not a challenging climb, even my mother could do it). In my twenties, I climbed Mauna Kea as part of our Peace Corps training. That was a lot tougher, but I made it to the top (and I was a smoker in those days, too; nothing beats being twenty!) Now, with my son Anthony, who drew the illustration for the novel which you see above, I embarked on a day trip organized by the Icelandic tour company, Arctic Adventures. Though I was more than twice the age of anyone else in our group, I am happy to say that our guides—all of them young, slim, blond Icelanders—did not try to discourage me, as they might well have done. For that, I am grateful.
Mt. Hekla is about five thousand feet high—taller than Vesuvius but not nearly as tall as Mauna Kea. It is still very much a live volcano, and in the Middle Ages was believed to be a gateway to Hell.
I’d made it about half way up, after two exhausting hours of slipping on loose pumice stone, sliding into shallow snow banks, and lagging farther and farther behind the group. Finally, my guide, a very sweet young woman, whose name I no longer remember, gently suggested that maybe I’d gone as far as I could. Reluctantly, I agreed. Anthony and the others went on ahead, while she guided me back down the slope—gripping my hand the whole way and chatting to me in excellent English.
The others would not be back for hours. In the meantime, she took me in their little tour van over miles of washboard roads to the site of a reconstructed Viking long house: something I would have missed otherwise. So all ended well.

Anthony told me later that I hadn’t really missed much. There was no pit of bubbling lava at the top, as far as he could tell, and visibility was poor, so there wasn’t much to be seen from the summit. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the experience, although the Hekla I describe in my novel is still mostly the Hekla of my imagination.
And I  now own a pair of mountaineering pants from L. L. Bean made of wool about a quarter of an inch thick. I wore them again for the first time this February, during our brutal Massachusetts winter.
So, no experience is ever wasted.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why do I write about Vikings? Prince Valiant in the Golden Age of Comics

I was trained as a Classicist, my two previous novels are set in ancient Rome, I love the Mediterranean, I hate ice and snow and suffer through Boston winters with gritted teeth. How then do I happen to be writing about Viking Age Iceland in my latest novel, Odin's Child?

        It all goes back to Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, that wonderful comic strip written and drawn by Hal Foster from 1937 until the mid-1970’s.

       On any Sunday morning of my youth you would have found me lying on the living room rug with the comic section of the New York Journal American spread open before me. It must have been a dozen pages thick, or so it seems to me now. Those of you too young to remember the golden age of comics have no idea what you’re missing. Let me just recite the names. Flash Gordon, Tarzan, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates, Blondie, Lil’ Abner, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, Barney Google, Smokey Stover…and I could go on, but a tear is coming to my eye. What a loss that we don’t have these anymore, or anything to compare with them!

Above them all, though, was Prince Valiant. He had a page boy haircut, smooth cheeks, an ageless face; he lived in Ultima Thule with his blond wife, Queen Aleta, and a whole cast of Vikings and Arthurian knights. He fought barbarians, and occasionally dragons (though these appeared less often as the strip aged). Yes, it was all silly—but the art work! Foster was an amazing draftsman. No one could render castles or misty vistas or storms at sea or swirling battle scenes the way he could in those big panel illustrations. You could (and I did) spend long minutes studying every small detail of them, drawn into the world he created.

I never met him but my father once did and got from him an autographed drawing, which I reproduce here. I’ve had it for sixty-some years and it now hangs on the wall above my computer monitor. I look at it often as I create my own Vikings, my own Ultima Thule.