This week I’m recommending `The Sleeping Army’ – a children’s story which contains more interesting ideas than many Fantasy novels published for adults. In 2011 British author Francesca Simon took a well-earned break from her wildly popular Horrid Henry series to write a story inspired by a famous hoard of 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces from Norway found buried on the Scottish island of Lewis. Most of the `Lewis Chess Set’ is now on display in the British Museum. You can see drawings of some of the pieces on the hardback cover of `The Sleeping Army’. This book, and its 2013 sequel `The Lost Gods’, are also available in paperback and as ebooks.

`The Sleeping Army’ is a `what if’ story. In this case – `What if people still worshipped the old Norse and Anglo-Saxon Gods…’  Twelve year-old Freya Raven-Gislason lives in modern London with her mother, Clare, who is a priestess of Woden. Freya’ parents are acrimoniously divorced but her father Bob gets to look after her once a week. One Thorsday night Bob has to take Freya into work with him at the British Museum. Bored at being left alone in a gallery `dedicated to exploring the spread of Wodenism as a major religion throughout Europe’, Freya can’t resist blowing a silver horn displayed next to the Lewis Chessmen. The sound of the horn brings some of the chess pieces to life and Freya is sucked into a vortex with them.

A king and queen from the chess set have turned into a boy and girl called Alfi and Roskva, and a knight has split into a berserker warrior called Snot and an eight-legged horse.  Alfi and Roskva tell Freya that they are human bond-servants of Thor and hustle her onto the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard, the home of the Norse Gods. Freya is excited by the idea of meeting her gods but when they reach Asgard it seems derelict. Alfi and Roskva realize that they must have been away `sleeping’ as ivory chess pieces for a very long time. When the gods and goddesses do appear, they are shadows of their former selves. A doddery Woden/Odin is pleased that a hero has at last sounded the Horn of Heimdall and woken his Sleeping Army, until he realizes that the `hero’ is a whiny girl and that only three of the army are awake.

The Norse Gods have lost their eternal youth because the goddess Idunn, who keeps the Apples of Immortality, has been imprisoned by the giant Thjazi. Loki the Trickster was sent to bring her back but, contrary to the legend Freya has been taught, he never returned with the lost goddess. Freya is told that she must go to the realm of the giants, with Alfi, Roskva and Snot in order to rescue Idunn. If they don’t succeed within nine nights, Freya will join the others as an ivory chess piece and sleep with the magical army until another hero blows the horn. On her terrifying journey to Hel and back, Freya will encounter a giant eagle, wolves, a dragon, the Queen of the Dead and deceitful Loki, the most dangerous deity of them all…

I’ve had replicas of several of the Lewis Chessmen sitting on my book-shelves for years. I always wondered why their faces looked so glum and now I know. Alfi tells Freya about being `frozen in that place of dead things for years and years and years…Listening and waiting….’, though it does mean that he’s learned to speak English and knows how to ask `Where are the toilets?’ in dozens of languages. Simon’s publishers obviously think of her as a comic writer, so the covers of all her books are designed to make them look like jolly romps. In the case of `The Sleeping Army’ this is misleading since the story is rather a sombre one, filled with genuinely frightening episodes. There are passages of broad humour based on the original myths, such as Freya nearly drowning in the piss of an angry giantess, but many of the jokes are of the grim kind that the Norsemen themselves would have appreciated. Snot’s idea of a cheerful poem is one in which an enemy is hacked to pieces `Ready for the eagle’s snack’. There is even a joke about my favourite Viking, the murderous poet Egil Skallagrimsson (see my January 2015 post on `Egil’s Saga’).

Elements of the plot of `The Sleeping Army’ are taken directly from Norse mythology and in an afterword Simon recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s `brilliant, poetic re-telling’ in `The Penguin Book of Norse Myths’. Plenty of modern Fantasy authors have drawn on Norse myth. What makes Simon unusual is that she tries – very successfully – to convey the mindset behind the myths. Her ancient characters do not have modern attitudes and one of the main differences is that they don’t expect life to be easy or fair. Norsemen and women believed that Fate was stronger even than the gods. Bickering brother and sister, Alfi and Roskva, have suffered the harsh fate of being taken from their family to become the permanent slaves of quick-tempered Thor, while Snot has been separated from a beloved wife and forced into an eternal cycle of violent death and resurrection as a warrior of Woden. As Roskva says, `The Gods do what they like. We mortals live with the consequences’. Very reluctant heroine, Freya, constantly moans about how hard her own fate is. She gets sternly told to accept her fate with courage and hope to be remembered for her noble deeds. It’s not the kind of advice that you find in most modern children’s books.

The idea of putting Norse deities into the modern world is not an original one but Simon stands out by refusing to make her deities likeable. They are arrogant and cruel and show little but contempt for the beings they have created. Her repulsive Loki is nothing like the Wrong but Romantic figure so dashingly played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Thor and Avengers films. The only deity treated with sympathy is Loki’s daughter Hel, who has been sent to rule the unheroic dead. She is shown as part monster, part lonely girl. Freya may not be obvious heroine material (she hates nature and any form of outdoor activity) but when she succeeds it is because of human qualities such as the cunning of the oppressed, the courage of the desperate and the ability to show compassion.

Another unusual feature of `The Sleeping Army’ novels is that Simon has imagined what the old Norse religion would be like in an era and culture in which most people are not at all religious. Priestess Clare’s `throng’ mainly consists of a few old ladies and her ex-husband has become an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ `The Gods Delusion’. In `The Lost Gods’ there is some particularly sharp writing about trendy clergy like Clare who don’t really believe in their own deities and wouldn’t recognize them if they turned up in her own living room (as they do). The second book contains more humour and satire than the first but it also explores the difference between ancient and modern ideas of fame. So, don’t be put off by the covers or the fact that the leading character is a twelve year old school girl who wants to rid the world of `war, hunger, football and beetroot’. This is a series worth trying whatever your age may be. Until next time…