Saturday, 30 September 2017

Researching Vikings: battles, berserkers and bears – Lari Don

The Dragon’s Hoard has just come out in paperback, after a year or so of only being available in hardback. It’s quite strange, seeing the same gloriously golden cover, but holding a book that feels so different. But I like it! I hope it will be more accessible to more readers, now that it’s cheaper and easier to handle. (And it’s much lighter too, which is useful if you want to take it round the world on a dragon-prowed boat...)

But for me, even if it is lighter, The Dragon’s Hoard still carries the same weight of hard work and research. Of all my collections of myths and legends this is the one which required the most rigorous research. It’s a retelling of Viking Saga tales. Not tales of the Viking gods, but tales the Vikings told about themselves and their ancestors: tales of exploration, raiding, trading, battles and a sprinkling of magic.

I originally knew of the Norse sagas from the other side, because I come from an area that was a victim of Viking invasion. As a quine from Moray, I knew the Orkenyinga Saga told of the Earl Sigurd who invaded Scotland and was defeated by a chieftain of Moray. And on family holidays to Orkney I discovered the rest of the sagas - originally oral, then mostly written down in Iceland centuries ago - contained lots of other exciting and unusual stories.

So I thought: let’s do a collection of Viking saga tales for children! Kids love Vikings! This will be easy! (Actually, I didn’t think it would be easy. As a writer, I’m not drawn to easy, I like challenges. But I didn’t think this would be quite as challenging as it turned out to be!)

For a start, the Vikings weren’t very nice people. That’s really not a surprise, but the undercurrent of nastiness in many of these tales did surprise me. Most of the sagas are driven by greed or revenge or betrayal, and most of them are soaked in blood and death. Also, there are some very nasty tales of torture and incest. These are compelling and fascinating stories, but most of them are not suitable for children. (I didn’t want to tell some of them to my mum, either...) So I had to read a lot of sagas before I found a selection that could work for a middle-grade collection, and not just be age-appropriate but also exciting, interesting and give the wonderful Cate James varied scope for her fabulous illustrations.

But I did find them! I found zombies, polar bears, voyages to the new world, battles, berserkers, dragons, monsters and riddles...

The other main problem was my desire to present a balance of stories with strong female characters. Because it turns out that, just like most of the other characters in the sagas, Viking women weren’t very nice! I found women who sacrificed their own children, or were obsessed with revenge (yes, more revenge) or manipulated and schemed and conspired... There were lots of strong women, but there weren’t many heroines. But then I found the wonderful shapeshifting swan warrior Kara. And I decided to include the story of Eithne and her brutal style of parenting too, in order to reflect the reality of the sagas, rather than simply airbrushing the harsher women out.

I always put a lot of thought into selecting the stories I retell for my collections. Like any writer doing research, I always read far more than I use. And I try to balance finding stories that are suitable for my target readers and accurately reflecting the traditions I'm passing on. But it was far more of a battle doing this with Vikings than with any other tales I’ve tackled so far. Which is probably very appropriate...

And the Viking sagas – all of them, not just the ones in this collection – are extraordinary, exciting, compelling, original and possibly far more human than stories of more virtuous heroes and heroines!

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales, a teen thriller and novellas for reluctant readers. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

The artwork looks superb! Viking tales are pretty brutal, indeed, but why do you think you couldn't tell them to your mother? I bet she knows some stories that would curl your hair! ;-)

The Hobbit: A New Edition

Lari Don said...

The artwork is superb! And yes, you are right - as a children's writer, I never underestimate kids. Perhaps I shouldn't underestimate parents either!