(Everything that is beautiful, in the Norse world, is something that glints: sparks from ringing hammers, stars, gold and gems, the aurora borealis, tooled swords and helmets and armbands, fire, a woman’s hair, wine and mead in a golden cup.)
“Ragnorak Boy”, Michael Chabon
Oh, Norsemen and their mythology—it’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly unique. No wonder it’s been raided (ha!) so often when a fantasy writer wants a bit more bite in their worldbuilding. But we’re not looking at fantasy today, we’re looking at two different pieces of historical fiction centered around Norse mythology.
The Long Shipsby Frans Gunnar Bengtsson
Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships resurrects the fantastic world of the tenth century AD when the Vikings roamed and rampaged from the northern fastnesses of Scandinavia down to the Mediterranean. Bengtsson’s hero, Red Orm—canny, courageous, and above all lucky—is only a boy when he is abducted from his Danish home by the Vikings and made to take his place at the oars of their dragon-prowed ships. Orm is then captured by the Moors in Spain, where he is initiated into the pleasures of the senses and fights for the Caliph of Cordova. Escaping from captivity, Orm washes up in Ireland, where he marvels at those epicene creatures, the Christian monks, and from which he then moves on to play an ever more important part in the intrigues of the various Scandinavian kings and clans and dependencies. Eventually, Orm contributes to the Viking defeat of the army of the king of England and returns home an off-the-cuff Christian and a very rich man, though back on his native turf new trials and tribulations will test his cunning and determination. Packed with pitched battles and blood feuds and told throughout with wit and high spirits, Bengtsson’s book is a splendid adventure that features one of the most unexpectedly winning heroes in modern fiction.
This one is Eva’s fault, by way of Michael Chabon—notice that he contributes an introduction here? Long Ships is apparently one of the greats of historical fiction, and I don’t need to be told twice (by two different people whose opinion I respect) to pick it up.
The Long Ships was first published in English in 1943.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt
Booker Prize winner Dame Antonia Byatt breathes life into the Ragnorak myth, the story of the end of the gods in Norse mythology.
Ragnarok retells the finale of Norse mythology. A story of the destruction of life on this planet and the end of the gods themselves: what more relevant myth could any modern writer choose? Just as Wagner used this dramatic and catastrophic struggle for the climax of his Ring Cycle, so AS Byatt now reinvents it in all its intensity and glory. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods – a book of ancient Norse myths – and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.
War, natural disaster, reckless gods and the recognition of impermanence in the world are just some of the threads that AS Byatt weaves into this most timely of books. Linguistically stunning and imaginatively abundant, this is a landmark.
And this one is Teresa’s fault. As you have probably gathered, the relationship between reader and text is something I love, and considering my own history with mythology in general, this is calling to me quite keenly.
Ragnorak: The End of the Gods was published on February 7.