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.