"as the northern realm of Noros came into clearer view and the main characters delved
The three main characters, Torin, Bryn, and Grimsa, are inspired by the three central figures of Norse Mythology: Odin, Loki, and Thor. Other characters throughout the book reflect familiar Norse personalities in a much looser sense: Freya, Frigg, Heimdal, and the dwarven brothers Brokk & Eitri to name a few. Certain events, such as a drinking contest in an enormous mead hall, are directly based on specific myths, in that case Thor’s Journey to Utgard. Torin’s obsession with riddles (part of his Odin-like nature) culminates in a duel of riddles to the death with a giant king; this is inspired by scenes from The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and from Vafþrúðnismál in the Poetic Edda. The epic poems recited in the book are structured around some of the poetic rules of drottkvaett, the ancient court meter of viking skalds; further, many treasure and place names are direct or close translations of Old Norse words. And, of course, the entire book centers around defending the human realm against giants and trolls which is a classic heroic task of both Norse gods and Viking heroes.
"the entire book centers around defending the human realm against giants and trolls
"any readers who have had the pleasure of bathing in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon will recognize its influence on the underground baths visited by the characters in Gatewatch"
Distinctly lacking in The Gatewatch are Viking longships and the northern sea because the story takes place high up in the mountains. This, of course, will be remedied in future sequels, the first of which is already well underway. For now, find the first three chapters on the website and stay up to date on publication details and future novels by joining The Gatewatch mailing list.
In a viking’s mind the sword lay next to the spoken word. Wielding words with skill was as important as wielding a blade; a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke. If injury was intended then every viking knew that a well-crafted insult aimed at an enemy could fly farther and sink deeper than any hand-fletched arrow. Intelligence could be measured by one’s ability to interpret poetic riddles and, for those seeking glory, a deed enshrined in verse would outlast the richest treasure. Therefore, no study of the Viking Age could be complete without considering their poetry.
"a clumsy phrase could lead to more bloodshed than a misplaced sword stroke"
The end-rhyme pairs love/of and day/say in an ABAB scheme satisfy, to the modern ear, what poetry should ‘sound’ like. Each line has either six or seven syllables which demonstrates a fair amount of consistency between lines.
"Modern song lyrics and traditional Western poems are primarily defined by
By contrast, the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration instead. Both of these were made easier by the fact that Old Norse as a language has less phonetic diversity than modern English. Since there are literally fewer sounds within the language it is much easier to find rhymes and alliteration in Old Norse. Skaldic poetry also featured over one hundred distinctive structured verse forms, each of which had its own strict set of rules. One of the most popular forms was dróttkvætt, also known as ‘court metre’.
"the skaldic poetry enjoyed by vikings centered around internal rhyme and alliteration"
While it is nearly impossible to re-create within the English language I will give an approximation of my own making based on a set of five dróttkvætt-like rules.
With those five rules in mind, here is an example of how they can be applied and what (with a great stretch of the imagination) viking verse might have sounded like.
Attempt to construct a verse of your own with these five rules and you’ll find it a synapse-stretching task. However, a skald would not consider the verse above to be dróttkvætt at all as it does not strictly follow the additional rules of the form. In conversations with doctoral students of Norse literature I have heard these skaldic forms described as ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however, Viking Age skalds were famed for being able to improvise such forms on the spot.
“skaldic forms [were] ‘hyper-complex’ with ‘draconian rules’; however,
In addition to these challenging structural complexities skalds were famously known for their use of a unique poetic device known as a kenning. Kennings were metaphorical phrases that alluded to Norse myth and culture. For example, the ‘whale road’ is a kenning for ‘the ocean’; the ‘sea of swords’ is a kenning for ‘battle’; ‘Freya’s tears’ is a kenning for ‘gold’. The best skalds might employ a double kenning, a reference to a reference. A phrase like ‘the venom of the battle snake’ employs the kenning ‘battle snake’ for ‘sword’, presumably making its ‘venom’ a kenning for ‘blood’. Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’. While triple or even quadruple kennings may have existed, scholars such as Peter Hallberg declare that the intimate knowledge of Norse culture and skaldic traditions needed to decipher these kennings makes them practically inaccessible to the modern reader.
“Therefore, by saying ‘the venom of the battle snake’ the skald simply means ‘blood’”
For more on poetry in the Viking Age Joshua recommends Old Icelandic Poetry: Eddic Lay and Skaldic Verse by Peter Hallberg.
It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact, tell you far more about that culture than the stories themselves. What kind of stories do we tell today? I sense futility, anger, hopelessness, selfishness, and defeat in most of them. A sense of embarrassment about the story we are currently telling through how we live is already openly acknowledged: how often have you heard people shudder as they ask what their grandchildren might say of us and how we treated the environment, or nuclear science, or genetics research? But there are other cultures and with them other stories that we might tell instead.
"It is my firm belief that the kinds of stories a culture tells will, in fact,
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose? Couldn’t the strength of Thor, the cunning of Loki, the beauty of Freya, the keen senses of Heimdal, or the wisdom of Odin divert this terrible disaster? No. The gods are doomed and each must live under the shadow of this impending apocalypse. Does that sound familiar? I think we might have more in common with the ancient Scandinavian story-tellers than most people imagine.
What sort of people tell that kind of story? What kind of culture lets their heroes lose?
So what is the response of Odin and the gods to their plight? Do they give up? Do they lay down their swords and surrender to their inevitable end? Do they drink themselves blind in light of the doom that awaits? No. Odin plots ceaselessly to seek out the bravest and wisest warriors to join him in Valhalla where they constantly prepare for Ragnarok. Thor continues to beat back the frost-giants with his hammer Mjolnir and Heimdal remains ever-watchful at his post atop Bifrost. And, of course, the iconic viking warrior emulates the Norse gods: despite the odds he fights, more concerned about finding a good end than in trying to avoid it.
So I offer this thought: if the stories we are telling today are not the sort we’d like people to remember us by then let’s look back and find stories worth telling. After that, when we are ready, we’ll embrace a new way of looking at the future and learn face the inevitable challenges that lay ahead with courage instead of cowardice. Then we’ll start telling stories worth living.
For more on Ragnarok Joshua recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation of the Norse Myths.
Joshua Gillingham is a Canadian author from Nanaimo, BC. He writes Norse fantasy, Celtic songs, and non-fiction essays about writing craft.