6 October 2017

Guest Post ~ Giving Birth to a Shieldmaiden, by Marianne Whiting


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A young Viking woman picks up her sword and goes in search of retribution and justice. 

In 934 the English are fighting the Norse for supremacy over the North. Worship of the old Norse gods is challenged by Christianity. Traditional loyalties are tested and revenge can be swift and violent. In Cumbria a man is outlawed and killed. Faced with a life of destitution and servitude, his daughter Sigrid's only option is to appeal to the King of Norway to reverse his judgement on her father and allow her to inherit the family farm. But Norway is far away and Sigrid has only her wits and her skill with the sword to help her cause. 

Giving birth to my Shieldmaiden has been a long, sometimes painful, experience. I always knew I had to write a book about Vikings. It felt like it was my duty as a Scandinavian to educate the British about our shared heritage and rescue these deluded people from the notion that Vikings was all about the ‘rape and pillage’ by wild Northmen of peaceful, Christian Anglo Saxons.

It took a long time. Life got in the way; mortgage, career, travel. It took a dream to get me started. I dreamt that I woke up. I opened my eyes, it was dark, I could smell wood-smoke, wet dogs and damp woollen clothes. I could hear the rustle made when mice scurried among the reeds covering the floor. When my eyes got used to the dark I discerned tall rafters supporting a steep roof. I’m Swedish, I know a Viking longhouse when I see one. This was the 10th Century and I was very old. Aches and pains stopped me going back to sleep and I fell to reminiscing about my life.

The next morning, after waking up properly, back in the 21st Century, I began writing the story of Sigrid Kveldulfsdaughter. I don’t believe in reincarnation or spirits, it was a dream, nothing more. It doesn’t actually matter how it came about and when people ask if Sigrid is me, I just tell them that, although I may look it, I’m not over a thousand years old.

I thought my Scandinavian background and my past as a student of History would be enough and I’d get this book written pretty quickly. And the gods in Asgard laughed at my hubris.

Why, oh why, did I set the story in Cumbria? Of course I’d been to Buttermere on holiday and loved it there. But describing life there in the 10th Century threw up some difficult questions. Was it part of Strathclyde or Northumbria? To whom would the Viking settlers there pledge their allegiance? I assumed that the Cumbrian Vikings, being predominantly Norse, would support the Dublin kings in their claims on the crown of what I have called the Kingdom of Jorvik. Above all, I felt safe setting them against the Saxons. But what was their relationship to Strathclyde and the Scots?

Forget about nation states, forget about boundaries. This is a time of personal power based on a network of supporters. A centre of power, Jorvik for example, had its sphere of interest where its ruler collected tribute, could call up an army and keep law and order. That influence diminished the further from the centre you got. Several centres worked together as less powerful chieftains added their spheres of interest to the strongest one. A king was only as safe and as powerful as the support he was afforded by his followers. The commitment was based on mutual duties and rewards; the king was supposed to show generosity towards his supporters in the form of gifts of land and gold.

Sigrid lives in the area of Buttermere and Loweswater. This was a border zone between the interests of Viking Northumbria/Jorvik, Strathclyde and the expanding Saxons intent on conquering all England. It was difficult terrain for an army or even for tax collectors. The Norse Viking communities seem to have had a fair amount of independence or at least choice whom to submit to. There were local Thing gatherings and many of the Thing mounds where they discussed matters of common interest, voted and held law court have been identified. I decided that Sigrid and her family would attend the Thing at Fellfoot in Little Langdale.

The first book, Shieldmaiden, features the battle of Brunnanburgh. The problem here is that nobody knows where that took place. Eminent historians differ on the matter and here was I, a mere novelist, having to settle on a place. I did. Then a group including the Professor of Viking Studies at Nottingham University decided on a site on the Wirral. So, assuming they must be right, I re-wrote a whole chapter. I have since learnt about yet another possible site for the battle which I actually find more credible but what’s been put in print has to stand.

Historical accuracy is important to me. I learnt a lot of History through fiction and I believe that historical novelists have a duty to present to their readers a scenario that is at the very least not impossible.  But we can only be as accurate as the sources we use. The Vikings had no written language apart from the runes and the inscriptions on stones tell us very little:  “Thorstein went to England with Canute and died there,” for example. So most of the contemporary sources are manuscripts written by monks and priests. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles were commissioned by King Alfred the Great to give his family a history, to justify their claim to power and to generally make them seem good. Much of what’s written there comes under the heading of ‘well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

There are six versions of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and they sometimes disagree even about basic facts like the year of an event and the names of people involved. This held me up when I wanted to describe a battle at Leicester. Two separate dates 941 and 943, only the first name of the Viking king given: Anlaf. Unfortunately there were two Anlafs; one was King of Jorvik in 941, the other in 943. I decided there had been two battles, subsequent events made this quite plausible or at least not impossible.

Written sources are prone to be biased so you’d have thought that archaeology would provide some certainty. Not so. Finds have to be interpreted. To me and to most Scandinavians the notion of women warriors, shieldmaidens, is neither new nor overly contentious. Many graves contain evidence of powerful women and some of those also contain weapons. The ideas that ‘she must have looked after them for her husband’ or ‘they were ceremonial’ or ‘not actually weapons at all’, were all new to me. I was taught in school that both boys and girls in Viking times learnt to ride, swim and use bow and arrow, that when the men were away trading or raiding women needed to be able to defend the farmstead.

Likewise, I find it strange when people explain away the writings by Adam of Bremen or Saxo Grammaticus claiming they were told lies or misunderstood when people told them about warrior women. And that’s before we even get into myths and legends preserved in folk-memory. Most of all I have on occasion been saddened by the vitriol with which some people conduct what should be a grown-up discussion based on evidence. For myself I am satisfied that some women did fight and some women were warriors. As far as I know there’s no evidence for women taking part in raids but we know they accompanied raiding parties and invading armies of Vikings. Maybe it just made sense for them to at least be able to fend for themselves.

So I wrote a novel about a woman who became a warrior. I told it the way I dreamt it when I woke up in that longhouse and remembered a life as Shieldmaiden.

Marianne Whiting
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About the Author

Marianne Whiting was born and raised in Sweden and arrived in England in 1973 intending to spend a year doing a Masters degree at Birmingham University. She still lives there - and is still married to the no longer so young man who made her miss the boat home. Marianne has had poems and short stories published in magazines and anthologies but the Shieldmaiden Trilogy are her first novels. Find our more at Marianne's website 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, Marianne. I can't imagine going back that far in history to research a novel.

    ReplyDelete

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