Inspiration: ‘The People of the Black Circle’ by Robert E. Howard

downloadWhen I wrote my first self-published short story, The Hound of the North, I wrote it in a conscious imitation of the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard. In it I imagined the real-life King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, as a Conan-like figure fighting against dark supernatural forces with only his imposing physical strength and indomitable will. This idea struck me earlier this year while I was reading through Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Harald Sigurdsson, the saga that outlines the life of Harald Hardrada.

In it I was struck by how much Harald resembled Howard’s fictional Conan. Both are physically impressive specimens. Both are sons of barbarian cultures from the north, Harald being a fearsome Viking and Conan being a blood thirsty Cimmerian. Both embarked upon a life of adventure and raiding, with Harald having served in the guard of Yaroslav of the Kievan Rus, the Varangian Guard of Byzantium, and being crowned King of Norway, while Conan has been ‘a mercenary, soldier, a corsair, a kozak, and a hundred other things,’ including finally being crowned King of Aquilonia.

Now that I am finally starting my second project with Harald Hardrada as its main character, I thought it necessary to revisit the Conan tales of Robert E. Howard. Today I picked up and read my favorite Conan story, The People of the Black CircleWhereas The Hound of the North was a general homage to the sword and sorcery legacy of Conan, my next tale is going to be a direct homage to this specific yarn.

I love this story for many reasons, the characters, the setting, the plot, the sense of the strangeness and incomprehensibility of magic. These will all be things the I will try to emulate in my next yarn.

The Conan tales take place in the mythical Hyborean Age, a previous age of the Earth that was destroyed without leaving any relicts of its existence. The Hyborean Age is, in effect, a fictionalized Earth with cultures similar to those that have existed at various times and places in our history. Most of the time, these cultures have names that leave little guess as to what they are supposed to represent in our history.

The People of the Black Circle takes place in the wilds of the Himelian Mountains. There Conan has risen to being a warlord of the Afghulis. When Yasmina, the Queen of the Vendhyan Empire, wishes to enlist Conan’s help in exacting revenge on a circle of wizards that makes their home in these mountains, a raucous adventure ensues. Conan ends up abducting the Queen, riding through the mountainous terrain on horseback while evading various hostile tribes, making makeshift alliances with these hostile tribes, assaulting the tower of evil wizards, and the tale ending with a massive battle between the forces of Vendhya and their rival empire.

There are a few things about this tale which I want to specifically work into my next story.

Wild terrain and hostile tribes. I think this is what I loved most about this story. I loved imaging Conan riding through the mountainous terrain while being assaulted on every side by barbarous tribes. I loved, even more, that Conan had to constantly deal with these tribes, at times killing them and at other times working out alliances of convenience with them.

Strange magic and a hostile stronghold of magicians. One thing that I love about Conan stories is how weird the magic is. The magic is not meant to be comprehended by the reader or by Conan, it is meant to just be accepted. Those who try to understand the magic are ultimately corrupted by it. Conan may receive help from magical beings and magical items, but he mainly defeats it through his physical strength and mental will. I loved Conan’s assault on the tower on Yimsha.

Conan fighting for a woman. I am an old romantic at heart and I loved that Conan’s main motivation in this tale was ultimately free Yasmina from the clutches of the People of the Black Circle. He may not have the most romantic of notions, but, in the end, he was fighting not for wealth, but for the liberty of a woman he lusted after.

A big climatic battle at the end. The tale does not end with the destruction of the People of the Black Circle, but with a massive cavalry battle between the forces of Vendhya, their Afghuli allies, and the rivals of the Vendhyan Empire. I love these type of set pieces and this will be how I want to end my next tale.

Later this week I will go over how I plan to incorporate these themes into the life of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway.

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A War for Your Attention

iPhone-Notification-BadgesYou are sitting at home, ready to relax and read a good book. However, before you sit down and crack open the pages, you think to yourself that it would be fun to look at your Twitter feed one last time. So you take out your phone, open up the Twitter app and scroll through your feed. You read through the tweets that interest you, maybe get a little outraged at some news event or another, then close the app.

When you are on your home screen you notice that there is a notification in your email app. You open it up and see that you have a dozen or so junk emails, you read one or two and then quickly send the rest to the trash. When you return to your home screen there are is a notification alert for Facebook. You open up the app and read the notification that a friend you have not talked to in three years has posted a picture of his cat.

You close the app down and put the phone back in your pocket. Somehow fifteen minutes has passed and you cannot recall anything you just did. The emails, the tweets, the Facebook posts, all of them were so unremarkable that you have forgotten anything they said.

When you finally get around to opening the book you were going to read, there is a nagging feeling in your mind that you are missing out on something, that there is important news that is going on at this moment, that you are wasting your time by reading. You think about your phone in your pocket. Before too long you pull it out again and go through the above motions again, checking your notifications, reading tweets, and maybe posting an inane status.

This is a common occurrence with me, I’ll admit. I am a social media junkie always looking for my next fix. I am an addict and when I sit down and think about it, seriously contemplate why I engage in social media, I am at a loss. Rarely do the posts offer something concrete that improves my life. Instead, I mostly forget what I scrolled through. Social media posts, by design, are short and disposable. They are meant to rile your emotions, but offer little substance beyond that.

Compare browsing through Twitter to spending the same amount of time reading a good book. While you are reading your twitter feed your thoughts are bouncing between differing topics with the rapidity that it takes to read 142 characters. You never really get any time to seriously contemplate a topic or an idea. A book on the other hand allows you to engage with deep ideas for an extended period. When you are done with a session of reading you feel like you have accomplished something, you feel engaged with the world. When you are done with your twitter feed you feel like you have wasted your time.

Why then, do we gravitate towards social media and scorn deep reading? Ultimately its the same reason why, if given my druthers, I would prefer a breakfast of donuts to steak and eggs. The donuts are nutrient free combination of sugar and fats, whereas the steak and eggs are nutrient dense and will not wreck havoc on your endocrine system. The donuts, however, were designed to hijack the reward centers of your brain. Eating steak and eggs may give you pleasure, but they will not give you the addictive ecstasy of a donut.

Like the donut, social media is designed to hijack the reward centers of your brain. The social media companies know that they make money when they have your attention, for it is only when your attention is directed at their apps that you see their advertisements, which pay their bills. Your attention is finite, so they must do as much as they can to make sure that your attention is directed their way as often as possible.

Why do you think you receive Facebook notifications for things that do not involve you? Why will Twitter send you a notification over a tweet from someone you do not even follow? These companies know that that little notification icon sends a message to your brain that an action needs to be completed, that notification needs your attention and needs to be wiped out. It also give your brain a little dopamine hit.

Social media is designed by the smartest people on the planet to be as addictive as possible. No wonder we find it almost impossible to get away from it. There is a war for our minds and most of us do not even realize it.

Well, actually, Leif Erikson discovered America…

leif-erikson-4Today anyone who is remotely interested in the Viking Age probably saw their fair share of posts regarding Leif Erikson. It is today, October 9th, that Americans of Norse descent proudly proclaim that the New World was not discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by Leif Erikson around 500 years previously. 

Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, a real estate swindler who conned some Icelanders into moving to Greenland, which is famous for not being green, by giving the island its contradictory name. According to the sagas, around the year 1000 some men saw land to the west when they were blown off course while sailing to Greenland. When they told Leif about this, he set up an expedition, and sailed to the new land himself, eventually naming it Vinland.

For a long time, there was skepticism about theses claim. With the discovery of Norse settlements in Canada in the 1960s, it is all but confirmed that the sagas are correct, the Norse did discover the Americas in the 11th century.

So should we tear down all of the statues of Columbus and loudly proclaim him a fraud? He was not the discoverer of America after all. Should the pride felt by Italian Americans be stripped away and given to Norwegian Americans? Perhaps, neither groups should feel pride, after all, neither Columbus or Erikson actually ‘discovered’ America. The land was settled long before either sailed across the Atlantic.

The above is nonsense, of course. One of my pet peeves when studying history is the obsession of ‘firsts’ and ‘ends’. Another question that bugs me is ‘when did the Roman Empire fall?’ Was it when Alaric sacked Rome in 410 AD? Or when the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, was deposed by Odoacer in 476 AD? Or perhaps it was when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453?

In reality, it does not matter when the Roman Empire ‘fell’. What really matters is that during the fifth century the power of the Western Roman Empire was eventually eroded because of repeated barbarian invasions and the Eastern Roman Empire continued on for another thousand years. The details and trends of history are what is important, not any definitive statement of the ‘end’.

The same can be said for the ‘discovery’ of America. It really does not matter who discovered it. The important trends to learn about from history are that the Americas were settled by Eurasians some time in the last 10,000 years, the Norse sailed extensively during the Viking Age, and that the Americas were conquered and settled by Europeans after Columbus’ voyage. ‘Firsts’ in the end are not too important. Ultimately it is arguing about semantics.

But, to rile up my reader, I will say that Leif Erikson’s voyage to America was fairly inconsequential in the end. The Norse may have set up a few settlements in Canada, but the settlements did not persist. They were quickly abandoned. The Norse did not have a huge impact on the Native Americans and were quickly forgotten once they left.

Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, on the other hand, had huge ramifications that can be felt to this day. It was his voyage that brought knowledge of the Americas to the European consciousness, which brought about the conquest of the continents.

In then end, yes, Leif Erikson did sail to the Americas, which was a great achievement for the Norse civilization and tells of their sailing prowess, but his voyage is deservedly a footnote of history.

Amon Amarth in the Twin Cities

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I spent this past weekend up in the Twin Cities visiting friends. Last night we had the opportunity to see the Swedish melodic death metal band, Amon Amarth, play at the Skyway Theater in Minneapolis. Amon Amarth is frequently referred to as a Viking metal band, but should probably be thought of as a death metal band that uses Vikings and Norse mythology for lyrical inspiration.

I have been a fan of Amon Amarth for over a decade now, but it has been awhile since I have seen them in concert. It was obvious from the start that they have experienced a lot of success since the last time I saw them (in 2010, I think). No longer are they just a ‘normal’ band that plays in front of a banner with their band logo on it. On this tour they had an elaborate viking helmet (with historically inaccurate horns on it) as their set-piece. In addition they had a couple of Viking re-enactors come on stage and do some mock battles for a few songs.

Their setlist was somewhat disappointing.  They performed four songs from their new album, ‘Berserker’, which I am not a huge fan of, and only performed one song (‘Runes to my Memory’) from my favorite album by them, ‘With Oden on Our Side’. They did do a couple of my favorites (‘The Pursuit of Vikings’ and ‘Twilight of the Thunder God’) for their encore.

Still, although I did not approve of their choice in songs, I enjoyed the show immensely. Skyway Theater was a great place to see a metal show at, the theater is sloping and has a huge balcony, so everyone can get a good view of the stage. The band had a lot of energy and did everything they could to engage the crowd. I’ll admit that I am a sucker for ‘crowd singalongs’, which they did a couple of.  They played fourteen songs, which kept their set at a respectable hour and a half, long enough to feel like you received your money’s worth, but short enough to not drag on.

Overall, it was well worth the time and money.

Old Norse Words of the Week: Spjót, Fleinn, Geirr

Spjót neuter spear, lance

Fleinn masculine pike, spear; dart, shaft; fluke of an anchor

Geirr masculine spear

IMG_0972 copyThis week’s words (we’ve missed a few weeks because I’ve been lazy), are three different words for one of the most common weapons of the Viking Age, the spear.

The most common word for spear used in the sagas is Spjót, which is one of Jesse Byock’s 246 most common words in Old Norse that he commands all students of the language to memorize.

Fleinn seems to refer to a smaller spear. It also refers to a dart. Fleinn being a homonym of spear and dart, probably (at least in my opinion) means that this word refers to a spear meant for throwing.

Geirr is a less common word for spear than spjót. It is the origin for the word atgeirr, however, which is translated as halberd in most translations of the sagas. Others translate atgeirr as thrusting spear. So this makes me think the geirr would refer to a larger spear, meant more for melee combat than ranged combat.

In Njál’s Saga, the character Gunnar runs around fighting with an atgeirr in one hand and a sword in the other, in one of my favorite weapon combinations given in a saga. One of these days I’ll have to try it out at a reenactment.

A Map of Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms.png

As of late I have been reading the book Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede. This book was written in the 8th century (700s) by the Northumbrian monk, Bede. It is one of the foundational documents of English Literature. It was originally written in Latin, but translated into Old English in the 10th century.

Reading this book has piqued my interest in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. So to help myself along with this I made myself a handy map of the British Isles in Inkscape. When I make a map like this my goal is to make a historical map that looks like a fantasy map, hence why I use the Lord of the Rings inspired Aniron font. Feel free to use.

 

‘The Last Kingdom’ First Impressions

the-last-kingdom-58c3a79a43ff1One of my friends has been pressuring me to read Bernard Cornwall’s “The Saxon Stories” for a long time. The series of novels takes place during the Viking invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain in the late 9th century. It has Vikings, it has Anglo-Saxons, its about the conflict between paganism and Christianity, what is not too love.

Unfortunately, I have a stack of books a mile high to read, so I have not gotten to them yet. However, while I was relaxing on my couch today after getting back from work I noticed the series The Last Kingdom, which is based upon the aforementioned book series, on Netflix. I fired up the first episode and watched. Here are my impressions of the first episode. There will be spoilers, you have been warned.

The series begins in the year 866 AD on the shores of Northumbria, the northernmost Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The Danish Jarl, Ragnar, leads a force of Vikings to the city of Eoferwic (York). On they way he kills the firstborn son of the Northumbrian Alderman of Bebbanberg, Uthred. Uthred quickly renames his secondborn son Uthred and names him his heir before running off and giving battle to the invading Vikings.

The elder Uthred and the other lords of Northumbria are slaughtered in a quick battle, where they are outmaneuvered by the Vikings and stopped by their formidable shield wall. The younger Uthred, who followed his father to battle against his wishes, is captured and then raised by the invading Danes. Uthred grows up among them, seemingly renounces his Christianity, and becomes the adopted son of the Jarl Ragnar.

After living with with Vikings for about five or six years and being fully incorporated into being a Dane, Uthred runs off to have a one night stand with a thrall girl. While away the Viking village is attacked by another Viking, Kjartan and his son Sven, who have a disagreement with Ragnar and Uthred going back years. Kjartan and his men torch the village, kill Ragnar and most of his family, and take Ragnar’s daughter captive. When Uthred returns, he takes vengeance on an Anglo-Saxon and vows to retake his lands, thus starting the series.

Overall, I am not quite sure what I think about the series. I will definitely have to watch a few more episodes before I decide whether it is worth my time or not.

One thing I did like was how brutal it showed the Vikings being in their sack of York. It showed them raping women, killing people indiscriminately and in brutal ways, and generally being brutes. I get annoyed when modern interpretations of Vikings steer away from their flaws (they were brutal raiders after all) and present them as just a cool biker gang that might be a little rough around the edges.

The costuming was fair to bad. They did show the vikings as having colorful tunics, which you don’t get a lot of the time. If I remember correctly, you saw a fair number of blue or red tunics.

On the negative side, it seemed like every Viking and his brother wore some horrible leather armor of some sort. Vikings did not wear leather armor. I’m not sure if I saw anyone wearing chainmail, which would have been the only armor that they wore at the time, and, even then, only the extremely wealthy would have worn it.

As far as weapons are concerned, it seemed like far too many Vikings brandished swords, which would have only been wielded by the extremely wealthy. You did see some axes, which would have been a common weapon. The most common weapon on the battlefield would have been the spear, and that definitely was not shown.

And, finally, one more gripe, and this will be an extremely picky gripe. The main Viking antagonist was named Kjartan and he is a Dane. The name Kjartan originates in Laxdæla Saga, where Olaf Peacock names his son Kjartan after his Irish grandfather, Mýrkjartan. Laxdæla Saga takes place during the Christianization of Iceland, around the year 1000, so over a century after the time where The Last Kingdom takes place. Kjartan would not have been a name in use by the Danes at the time.

That last point is extremely picky. I’m sure that the writers just looked through a list of names from the sagas and picked out one that looked good. I really cannot fault them for it, but its fun to show off some times.

I’ll continue to watch and give further impressions later.

 

Old Norse Word of the Week: Jötunn

Jötunn masculine giant

In Norse mythology a jötunn is an enemy of the gods. The word is typically translated into English as giant, and while some jötunns were gigantic in size, not all of them seem to have been. The interplay between the jötunns and the gods was complex. Sometimes they fought and killed each other, while at other times they married and had children together. The world itself was created out of the corpse of the jötunn, Ymir, who was slain by Odin and his brothers.

Old Norse Word of the Week: Sverð

Sverð neuter sword

The word Sverð is one of the most common words found in the Icelandic Sagas. It is a cognate, meaning that both words have the same ancestor, of the Old English word Sweord, which is where we get our English Word Sword.

The common sword in use at the time would have been a single handed double edged sword with a blade about 30 inches long. Viking swords had small cross guards that were more there to prevent your hand from sliding on the blade than to provide hand protection from another weapon. The sword of the viking age was definitely meant to be used in conjunction with a shield.

Below is a picture of my viking sword. IMG_0149.JPG

 

787 AD: The First Viking Raid

A.D. 787. This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The reve (30) then rode thereto, and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not what they were; and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation. – The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Viking Age is usually said to start in 793 AD with the raid on Lindesfarne, however that is not the first time the northmen are mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The first contact of the Anglo-Saxons with Scandinavians occurred in 787 and it does not read like a typical Viking raid. There are no burning churches, no massacres of innocent civilians, and no taking of slaves. Instead we read of three ships sailing to an island in the English Channel., one of the king’s servants riding out to meet them and take them into custody, and the Danes proceeding to kill him. Violent yes, but not something that would have been recorded if not for subsequent history.

In his book, The Vikings, Robert Ferguson argues that the incident was a response to the massacre that took place at Verden in 782 AD, where Charlemagne forcibly baptized 4,500 Saxons and then had them beheaded. News of this massacre must have circulated throughout the Germanic world and the northmen at Portland had probably heard of it. When these ships docked at Portland and then were to be taken to the king’s town, perhaps they thought that they were to be forcibly baptized and then executed, thus they killed the reve, Ferguson postulates.

I do not know if the northmen at Portland feared forcible baptism and execution. The Saxons killed at Verden were massacred because they were rebels, not simply because they were pagans. Surely there had been enough contact between Christians and pagans at the time for them to know that they were not forcible baptized and executed on first contact. It seems more likely in my mind that this was a misunderstanding between the two sides that escalated. We don’t know why the northmen came to Portland. Perhaps they were traders, or maybe they merely lost their way.  It does not seem like they came with hostile intent, for they met with the reve before killing him and left without carnage.

This cultural misunderstand at Portland, however would explode six years later, however, when the first actual Viking raid would occur at Lindesfarne.