Why I Love Writing Historical Fantasies
All the books I’ve written so far have been historical fantasies. This may not always be the case – and my current WIP is something rather different. But I do love the richness of fantasies set in the past. My trilogy ‘West of the Moon’ takes place in the Viking Age, and I’m sometimes asked why. Well, obviously the sagas provide great material for exciting stories. If I ask schoolchildren to describe what Vikings mean to them, hands shoot up, and they say things like: ‘bloodthirsty’, ‘raiders’, ‘killing people with axes’.
All this is true, but the Vikings were also farmers, sailors, discoverers and poets. I’m fascinated by the paradoxes of the age. Here are these energetic, independent, self-reliant people, bursting out of Scandinavia and sailing all over the world, to Byzantium, to Russia – raiding the British coast, discovering and colonising Iceland and Greenland, crossing to North America. Yet their appetite for adventure isn’t romantic so much as intensely practical; it’s all about things we can understand – obtaining goods, winning land for farms, settling down in a new place to raise families.
Norway and Iceland didn’t adopt Christianity until around 1000 AD. That’s incredibly late for Europe as a whole, so there’s this tension between pagan and Christian ideas, amulets with the cross on one side and Thor’s hammer on the other so that people could hedge their bets. We’ve become so used to a Christian (and post-Christian) Europe that it’s really intriguing to take a peek into this mirror where things are different. (So different, that many people vaguely assume the Vikings are sort of … prehistoric.)
The Vikings accepted that the world was a violent, unfair place - even their gods weren't immune from destruction - and they believed there was no point in making a fuss. The best thing was to earn the respect of gods and men. “Cattle die, kindred die: every man is mortal. One thing never dies: the name of a man who has done well.”
And we can share their admiration of those who did their best to live up to that motto, often with grim humour.
“Bury me on that headland where I thought I would build a home,” says Thorvald Eiriksson, mortally wounded by an arrow, in the Greenland Saga. “I seem to have hit on the truth when I said I would settle there.”
His courage is attractive, but in modern terms Thorvald richly deserved his fate: he'd just murdered several Native Americans as they lay asleep. Another hero, Iceland’s great poet Egil Skallagrimsson, was six years old when he deliberately killed a playmate with his axe. Violent, ruthless, canny, yet the author of a heartbreaking poem on the death of his son who drowned at sea, he wasn’t a man you would be happy to have living next door. I thought of Egil when I wrote the character of Harald Silkenhair, my hero Peer’s enemy in the third part of ‘West of the Moon’. How do we stand up to the threat of violence? What is true bravery? These are questions the Vikings were deeply concerned with, and so are we, however different our answers may be.
But of course, ‘West of the Moon’ isn't confined to gritty, bleak history: it's also a fantasy. So I was able to bring in all kinds of wonderful creatures and characters from Scandinavian folklore: trolls and nisses (household spirits like brownies), ghosts and merfolk. Scandinavian trolls are not much like the stupid, slabby Fungus-the-Bogeyman type trolls you might be familiar with from the Harry Potter books, or even from ‘The Hobbit’. They are elf folk, unpredictable and dangerous, ranging from human sized, or even giants, to quite small creatures – all of whom need to be treated with great caution. Some lurk around farm buildings or make raids right into the farmhouse on Christmas Eve – there’s a famous story in which one such unruly band is scared away by a white bear. Some haunt wild places, mountains and hills; while others live in burial mounds.
Nisses are more approachable. They live in the household and perform tasks in return for bowls of food – but they are touchy, easily offended little things who love playing tricks and practical jokes. They can be affectionate too, becoming very attached to certain individuals or animals – in one story, a Nis is so fond of a particular white mare, he steals sackfuls of corn from a neighbouring barn to give the animal extra feed. When the suspicious farmer catches him, the Nis bursts into tears and leaves forever. And of course, all the farmer’s good luck goes with him…
I could go on and on for ever, but I’m running out of space. All I can say is that I love writing historical fantasy because of its wonderful range of moods and situations – the freedom to move from hard-hitting Viking adventure to comical, homely little hearth-spirits, to the love-tragedy of a seal woman who deserts her mortal family to return to the sea. Not many genres offer so much, and if you like that kind of thing as much as I do, you might just like my book...!
Thank you Katherine for such a wonderful post. It is so lovely to read how passionate you are about historical fantasy.
To my lovely bloggers, make sure you come back tomorrow for a giveaway!