A couple of years ago when I was preparing to write ‘Troll Blood’, I spent months in the Bodleian Library (I live near Oxford) happily burrowing through 16th century accounts of Jesuit missionaries in early Canada, and 19th century volumes of ‘The American Anthropologist’ and ‘The Journal of American Folklore’.
For the new book I’d decided to send my two main characters, a Viking age boy and girl called Peer and Hilde, over to
Vinland ( North America) on a Viking ship. In the two earlier books, ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, rather than using myths and legends about Norse gods, I’d drawn on Scandinavian folklore concerning trolls and nixies and other such creatures. Peer and Hilde and the other characters are ordinary people who live in what to them is an ordinary world. It just so happens that, as well as wolves and bears and storms and other natural dangers, there are also trolls and water spirits and ghosts – all things that people of that age firmly believed to exist.
It seemed to me that it would be fascinating if, on the characters’ arrival in Vinland, they were to meet not only Native Americans – whom I based, for reasons too complicated to go into here, on the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – but also some of the creatures which we in the Old World would term supernatural, which may have been part of the belief systems of the Native Americans of that time (the early 11th century).
Note my careful language. I realised from the beginning that it might be a ticklish business to approach a culture so distinct from my own. I can claim Scandinavian roots; and in any case European legends and mythologies are so diffuse, so interpenetrative, and so widely-used already that no one of European stock need feel shy about incorporating one myth or another in a modern story. It was a different matter when I considered trespassing upon the sacred ground of Native American cultural stories, many of which have been lost, misappropriated, or misrepresented by early missionaries, amateur anthropologists and modern writers alike.
And in trying to research these stories – I use ‘story’ here in preference to ‘legend’ or ‘myth’ which are words carrying a freight of possible meanings including ‘untruth’ – I soon discovered the frustration of coming across vaguely attributed ‘Indian Legends’ without any sources or any indication of where and when – if anywhere, ever – the stories belonged.
One online site, for example, calling itself ‘Algonkian Legends’ mentioned a creature called an ‘Oonig’. It was, according to the site’s author, a water spirit: half red and half grey, with one eye. Wonderful! I could well imagine incorporating such a creature into my book. But – the site gave no reference. Could I find a source for the story? Could I hell. For all I know, the author made it up. And yet it’s sitting there online, claiming to be a part of ‘Algonkian’ folklore.
I decided from the outset that any creature I mentioned in ‘Troll Blood’; any custom, any belief I attributed to my Native American characters would have to be referenced. In the
edition – unfortunately not in the US edition – there’s a long appendix in which anyone interested can see exactly where I got the information, and, if they wish, go and check it out for themselves. And I preferentially used 19th and early 20th century accounts of interviews with named Mi’kmaq people. In that way I could be fairly sure that the accounts were trustworthy. UK
Even so, there were pitfalls, some obvious, some less so. One 19th century collector of Mi’kmaq folktales used them to attempt to justify his theory that they had been influenced by Norse mythology brought over by the Vikings. In his eyes the stories were ‘superior’ to other Native American stories, and ‘therefore’ must have been affected by European influences.
But even after all efforts to sieve out the worst offenders, mistakes were easy to make, as I found out when I had the manuscript vetted by a prominent scholar in the field. I had frequently used the word ‘spirits’ in describing the Native American ‘supernatural creatures.’ She explained to me that the word was inappropriate, that the spirit/body dichotomy was not a Mi’kmaq concept, and neither was the concept of the supernatural. Instead, stones and trees, plants, animals, people and what we would think of as supernatural entities are all seen as natural. I couldn’t use the word ‘spirits’. I had to use the word ‘persons’ instead.
I was glad to comply. I found the whole experience of learning about the Mi’kmaq culture profoundly interesting. It wasn’t a matter of political correctness. It was more like taking off my shoes when entering a mosque. It wasn’t my culture: nobody asked me in: the least I could do was to try my utmost not to misrepresent it.
Did I succeed? I hope so. Should I have tried? I think so, although others will disagree. I wanted to write about the interaction of the Vikings with the Native Americans – which we know occurred – and to do so, I had to try and understand both cultures. Should I have written a historical fiction without any ‘fantasy’ elements? Again, perhaps – but ‘history’ without any suggestion of the belief systems of the protagonists is hardly history at all. Like writing a book set in the Middle Ages without any references to Catholicism, saints, elves, devils etc.
Watch this space.