In light of these depictions, you may be surprised to learn the historical source material for dwarves in fantasy, the Norse myths, portray them as unequivocally evil. Though not even the Norse gods enjoy the benefit of the doubt with Odin himself being nicknamed Bolverk (Evil-Doer), dwarves were viewed as particularly vile. At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men; with such repulsive origins they might be viewed as a symbol of the greed, lust, and violence that marked most of the Viking Age. (And if you think that is an ignoble birth then consider the fact that Ymir spawned giants out of congealed sweat in his armpits...)
"At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men..."
"The dwarven brothers tied him to the chair and cut his throat so they could catch his blood in a vat.
"Mighty Fenrir is brought low when the gods call on the dwarves to craft the strongest chain of all;
There she comes to the dank cave of four dwarven smiths who are admiring their latest creation,
In my own writing I have worked to honor the original conception of the dwarves as presented in the Norse Myths while taking care to remain sensitive to the historical contexts in which the myths have been abused. Particularly heinous are the propaganda posters used to instill hatred toward people of Jewish descent during World War II; an honest evaluation of these political weapons will admit some clear lines being suggested between people of Jewish descent and the dwarves from Norse Mythology. Further, some adaptations of Wanger’s ring cycle clearly present Norse dwarves as pseudo-Jewish type characters which is yet another example of the toxic racism that led to one of the darkest chapters of human history.
Instead of abandoning the myths to those who would weaponize them for ill purposes,
Were they metaphors for human lust and greed? Were they archvillians to flesh out a world full of heroic gods?
For more on the history of the Norse Myths and their modern interpretations, Joshua recommends
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Dr Heather O'Donoghue.
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"I’ll be honest and admit that there is something rather lovely about a good whisky!"
If I could, I would love to spend an afternoon with Ernest Hemingway. My uncle introduced me to his work at a young age, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises was incredible and the first novel he gave me, I’d never read anything quite like it. Hemingway had a wonderful ability to describe human nature, how complicated we are as beings, and how destructive we can be to one another. I also fell in love with his descriptions of each new landscape and location.
"Hemingway had a wonderful ability to describe human nature, how complicated we are as beings,
We have discussed our mutual interest (i.e. obsession) with all things related to vikings on several occasions, but I’d like to know where it all started for you. Were you always drawn to viking history and the Norse myths? Was there a particular author, book, or event that first sparked your interest?
Growing up I was very lucky to have a wonderful grandfather who shared many authors, books and ideas with me from a young age. He encouraged me to read as often as possible and to try many different subjects. He had a love for history and genealogy, Norse myths and sagas were a deep interest he passed on to me, on both sides of my family there are links to the Viking past of Ireland, Scotland and the Scottish islands. I remember sitting as a child and looking at the bookcases filled with leather bound books and the smell that comes with old worn pages, my grandfather introduced me to Tolkien and The Hobbit, to the tales of Erik the Red, and the Saga of the Volsungs, for that I’ll always be grateful.
"I remember sitting as a child and looking at the bookcases filled with leather bound books
Children of Midgard, as told through Liv’s eyes, offers a unique female perspective of the Viking Age world which is so often presented through male-dominated narratives. Recent archeological discoveries have also stoked increased interest in women of the Viking Age and continue to broaden our perspective of the diverse roles they played in that society. What sources would you recommend for readers who want to learn more about women in the Viking Age?
We are currently experiencing a very exciting period regarding the discovery of archaeological evidence, conversation, and theories of women in the Viking age. With Liv, I wanted her to remain a strong individual while observing the fact that she had to make decisions based on the fact she was a woman caring for a child on her own in the Viking era. From reading the sagas and poems of the Norse I knew women were strong characters, they were driven and capable, but I knew I needed to delve a little deeper than that. I read the Gragas, which is an amazing document, if a little heavy at times! I also read a number of books by well known names including Judith Jesch, Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir, Carolyne Larrington, Hilda Ellis Davidson, Jesse Byock, Anders Winroth, Gwen Jones, and possibly a few more! I have a book addiction!
"From reading the sagas and poems of the Norse I knew women were strong characters,
In our last conversation you mentioned that you had been digging into the research archives to learn how children were raised in the Viking Age. Have you come across any major differences between how children were raised then and how they are raised today? Would you adopt any Viking approaches to child-rearing over today’s culturally accepted wisdom?
I don't have children myself, so I certainly would not claim to have experience of, or know, what the best method for bringing one up in this day and age might be. That being said I have the joy of children and teenagers within our extended family, and what I have noticed is their curiosity, appreciation for honesty, and wonderful imaginations. I think children are extremely adaptive and in many ways develop strategies and mechanisms to deal with situations that can surprise adults. In some ways I think that applies to children in the Viking era, their childhoods were not what we would consider very long, particularly easy going, or free from labour. From the sagas we have glimpses of situations young girls and boys found themselves in, that violence played a part in their lives which is significant given the world in which they lived, and again the Gragas (medieval Icelandic lawbook) is a marvellous tool giving us an insight into how the law regarded them.
"From the sagas we have glimpses of situations young girls and boys found themselves in,
"I quickly started to realise that even though there might be great distances and cultural differences present in various myths and legends, there were also similar ideas, characters and messages."
If I could suggest any materials for readers and listeners to try it would be the works of Joseph Campbell, Hilda Ellis Davidson, and perhaps podcasts that look at philosophy as well as history, myth and legend, it might give them the sense of discovery it gave me. My goal with the podcast is to share and encourage the tradition of storytelling, to fire an interest or curiosity in our past and provide glimpses into the world in which our ancestors lived.
"My goal with the podcast is to share and encourage the tradition of storytelling,
What can you tell us about your next big project and where can we find more information about your writing and your podcast?
Currently I am editing my next manuscript which is due for release this summer, it's an exciting project that I’ve been developing over the past few years. The art of storytelling is such an important part of my life, and I wanted to create that intimate feeling of being within a circle by the campfire, the magic of hearing tales that perhaps no-one else had ever heard before, and I think this new book is what I had imagined. The podcast is going from strength to strength, my listeners are wonderfully supportive, I’ve really enjoyed discussing so many ideas and stories we all have to share. I’ve been very fortunate to have friends, both new and old, on the show and the community that I’m so very lucky to be a part of is wonderfully talented, encouraging and enthusiastic. Gosh, so in short, a new book and lots more podcasts!
Siobhan Clark's The Children Of Midgard is available in Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and on Amazon.
She also has a limited number of signed copies!
Follow her on Twitter at Siobhán Clark (@siobhancoda) and at the Myth Legend & Lore Podcast (@LoreMyth)
Find the Myth Legend Lore Podcast on iTunes or Podbean
"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.