Walls and Houses

The march of historical novelists continues. Back in March, I reported on a visit by Kevin Crossley-Holland, promoting his new children’s novel, Bracelet of Bones. On the same occasion, one of the panellists had been Ian Mortimer (the time-traveller’s guide), who has just reviewed the latest novel by another of our recent visitors, Shieldwall by Justin Hill, which is set in England at the time of Svein Forkbeard and King Knut. I have to confess I am not a huge fan of historical novels, but it is interesting to find out what draws novelists to the period I, in a rather different way, am interested in. It is, paradoxically, often the very same things. A review of Bracelet of Bones in the Guardian a few weeks ago noted that its author ‘brought a poet’s love of words to this Viking adventure’. Something of the same came across in Justin Hill’s talk, and is also evident in Ian Mortimer’s review, in which he picks out some historical inaccuracies, notes the relentless preoccupation with blood and gore, but praises the ‘wonderful, poetic passages’. So it all comes down to poetry in the end. Hurrah. I look forward to reading it, and possibly the rest of the trilogy too.

Speaking of trilogies, I have just discovered the first volume of a projected Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, by Peter May. Its only Viking connection is that it is set in Lewis (the author revelling in the Norse place-names, possibly unbeknown to himself), but readers will know of my addiction to ‘Viking crime’, which I define as any murder mystery set in a part of the world that us true Norse and Viking ramblers like to visit, whether or not it has a Viking theme. It’s a very dark, psychological thriller, and I’m not sure what island reactions to it would be (the Stornoway Gazette has not reviewed it yet), but the descriptions of Lewis are well done, even if the plot is a bit lurid.

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Ragnarök Revisited

There were hints of an interest in Norse mythology already in her 1990 novel Possession. Now the distinguished novelist Dame A.S. Byatt is giving it her full attention, in Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, apparently already available as an e-book (what they?), but to be published as a real book on 1 September. In a long article in today’s Guardian Review, she explains why she chose this myth when asked by publisher Canongate to contribute to their myth series. She sees it as ‘a myth of destruction for our times’, which shows how ‘the world ends because neither the all-too-human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker [that’s Loki!] know how to save it.’ I particularly like the bit where she refers to her childhood experience of reading the Norse myths: ‘I didn’t “believe in” the Norse gods, and indeed used my sense of their world to come to the conclusion that the Christian story was another myth, the same kind of story about the nature of things, but less interesting and less exciting.’ Sounds like a book to look forward to, then.

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Viking Cats and Kittens I

As the proud slave of two Siamese (one pictured left), and general lover of all moggies, I have often wondered about the Vikings and their relationship (if any) with felis catus, the domestic cat. This is a complex topic which will involve archaeology and art history, as well as texts, and I’ll leave the difficult bits, as well as some of the more obvious references, to another post. In fact, I’m thinking of making this an occasional series. But today I’ll start gently with two very minor, but I think illuminating, feline felicities.

The Old Norse translation of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus compares Satan, crushed by the falling cross, to a mouse in a mousetrap, except that it doesn’t say that, it says mús undir tréketti, literally ‘mouse underneath a wooden cat’. There has been much learned discussion of whether this interpolation is native or patristic in origin, and Thor, the World Serpent, Leviathan and much else get dragged in. But who cares about all that – it’s the word itself that I like, for ‘wooden cat’ is of course a simple kenning. Trust those Vikings to make poetry out of an everyday object.

My other reference concerns an anecdote about Sigurðr slembidjákn Magnússon, an early 12th-century king of Norway who, according to an anecdote in Morkinskinna, was spending time on a farm in Iceland (eh?), when he helps a fellow-Norwegian beat an Icelandic farmhand at a board game with the following trick (quoted from Andersson and Gade’s translation, pp. 369-70):

The man who was playing with the Norwegian had a sore foot, with a toe that was swollen and oozing matter. Sigurðr sat down on a bench and drew a straw along the floor. There were kittens scampering about the floor, and he kept drawing the straw ahead of them until it got to the man’s foot. Then the kittens ran up and took ahold of the foot. He jumped up with an exclamation, and the board was upset.

Really quite a pointless anecdote, as the learned translators note, but at least it shows that kitten behaviour is as it ever was. (Funny thing about sore toes, too, remember Hrafnkels saga?).

But enough serious textual analysis. If you want to laugh (or at least smile) at something even more frivolous, I suggest you google ‘viking kittens led zeppelin’ and enjoy the video.

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