Just a saga now . . .


This is just a saga now . . .

Saga. No, not the insurance company for seniors, but rather the 12th century Norse literary tradition. For those not familiar with Iceland’s Saga writing you don’t know what you’re missing. Briefly, a Saga is a bloodthirsty epic set during the Viking age and told with a dry, matter-of-fact wit . . . and usually more fact than fiction.

In my teens I fell in love with heavy metal (we’re still very close) and Vikings are a mainstay of metal music. Intrigued, I wanted to know what really lay behind the horned helmets, and after a bit of researching (no internet in them days) I stumbled across the sagas. Many scholars have written reams about Iceland’s great literary achievement, and so I won’t bore you with names and places that are hard to pronounce anyway, but what really stands out for me are the Sagas’ black humour, and it’s something I love to play with in Wildwood.

For example, in one Saga our hero is called Gunnar, who’s famed for his bravery and prowess, and his favoured fighting weapon – a halberd, a kind of short heavy spear. He’s barricaded himself inside his remote farm, surrounded by enemies determined to kill him – probably because he insulted someone’s beard, it didn’t take much to wind your neighbours into a killing frenzy in those days. Slightly nervous, and likely egged on by a vengeful wife waiting at home with a rolling pin, the leader of the lynch mob sends one of his men to see if Gunnar’s actually home – no point laying siege to an empty farm. Said doomed nobody duly marches down there and leans through the window (this is tenth century Iceland – the window was just a bit of wall without bricks). Gunnar is waiting inside, and leaps up and runs him through with his halberd. Shrugging off this minor unpleasantry, Gunnar’s foe marches back to the others.

‘Well, was Gunnar at home?’ demands the Lord.

‘I don’t know,’ replies the unlucky Viking, ‘but his halberd certainly was.’ And immediately drops down dead.

Not only is this wickedly black humour, but it exemplifies another saga value: stoicism. Stop whining and get on with it – even if you’ve been skewered. In the passage that follows, we lean more to the latter. Sunday, our witch hero, and Strike her thunder-sprite, have entered the berserks’ ice cavern intending to subdue them with an enchanted doll. They might tear her to pieces, but just like the greatest saga heroes, she quits whining and gets on with it . . .

She looked from her feet towards the centre of the chamber and saw helmets encrusted with rust, rotten planking that might have once been shields, and of course bones: thousands of bones. It all looked untouched and ancient, or so she thought until her gaze fell on something clearly out of place. A flurry of small black and white feathers spilled out of a sack and amongst them she saw a puffin’s head peering out. Its colourful beak was still vivid, as though the little bird didn’t know it was dead. Next to it she saw a severed human head. Mercifully it faced away and all she saw clearly was a balding pate with a tissue of wet hair clinging to it. This had happened very recently. “They’ve risen again,” she heard herself say. Finally her gaze strayed to a black pit lying at the cavern’s centre and her heart leapt. “Dragon!” she exclaimed, jumping back. Before them was a snarling face with bulging eyes.

“Wait!” Strike commanded.

She expected it to lunge, but after a moments’ disorientation her senses clicked. A carved dragonhead loomed out of the pit. The head was crude, being little more than a blunt curve with ugly eyes like those of a suffocating fish, and a gaping mouth of sawtooth fangs. The long neck was decorated with an angular criss-cross pattern that looked as though it had been carved with an axe rather than a fine chisel, and it disappeared down into the dark pit below. It was the decorative prow of a Norse longship. “I thought it was alive,” she expelled a long breath.

“Was it from their ship?” Strike asked.

She just shook her head vaguely, but if the cavern held more than just bones, if this dragonhead was a token of their past then part of these terrible monsters must still be human and that gave her hope. “They’re in there, in the pit.” She advanced with the way-beware, stepping deftly through the weapons, past the dead birds and the lost head whose face she didn’t want to see. Melt-water drizzled across her, it was freezing cold but she burned with fear.

“When I strike, the first bolt will blind them, be ready to close your eyes,” Strike instructed.

“Only if we have to, remember I want the way-beware to subdue them.” She crept closer. Blackness seemed to radiate from the pit in waves, carrying the smell of disease and savagery. The dragonhead towered over her and she could see tiny icicles hanging from its open mouth like whiskers. The wood was hacked, and studded with broken arrow shafts. It looked so fierce and ageless that it could have been Valgard himself. “Please, sing for me now,” she whispered and pressed a kiss against the way-beware.

Flowers of Fate – Book II of the Wildwood Witches

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