Archives for category: Norse Myth

This week I’m recommending “The Incompleat Enchanter”, a light-hearted Fantasy Classic which makes ideal holiday reading. It consists of two novellas co-written by a pair of well-known American SF/Fantasy authors: Lyon Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Both novellas recount “the Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea”. “The Roaring Trumpet” sends him to the world of Scandinavian Myth and “The Mathematics of Magic” to the world created by Elizabethan author Edmund Spenser for his epic poem The Faerie Queene. These stories were first published in the magazine Unknown in 1940. The book version, under the title of “The Incompleat Enchanter”,  came out in 1941 and has been reprinted many times. You can now get this, and its two sequels, as ebooks.

“The Roaring Trumpet” introduces Harold Shea, a young psychologist at the Garaden Institute. He’s bright but bored. Harold keeps trying new things, like learning to ski and fence, but it isn’t enough. He longs for a real adventure and to meet his dream girl. Harold’s older colleague, Dr Reed Chalmers has a solution. He has invented a syllogismobile – a mathematical formula for shifting people into parallel worlds with very different natural laws. Chalmers’ theory is that in a world “where all minds were attuned to receive the proper impressions, the laws of magic would conceivably work.” Harold decides to use Chalmers’ formula to transport himself to the world of Irish myth. He intends to go well prepared, packing a colt revolver, a box of matches, a torch and the Boy Scout Handbook.

The formula works and Harold is thrilled to find himself in a strange landscape with a cloaked horseman approaching. Unfortunately, the horseman is Odinn the Wanderer. Harold has accidentally arrived in the world of Scandinavian myth just before the final battle between the gods and the giants. Meeting the haughty Norse gods, and the warriors who serve them, is an humiliating experience for Harold. Everyone regards him as puny and useless. Harold tries to impress the gods by claiming to be a powerful warlock but finds that none of his modern gadgets will work. The gods still take him along on a quest to recover two magical weapons, the Hammer of Thor and the Sword of Frey. Harold teams up with the friendliest of the Norse gods, Heimdall the Watcher, and begins to understand how the laws of magic function in the Norse world. After he and Heimdall are captured by the Fire Giants, Harold uses both magic and psychology in a daring escape plan…

During the epic battle of Ragnarok, Harold was suddenly flung back into his own world. In “The Mathematics of Magic”, Harold is keen to go on another adventure and this time Dr Reed Chalmers wants to come along. After perfecting his “structural theory of a multi-universe cosmology” Reed thinks it’s time to seek a more enjoyable life in a fictional world. Harold suggests the one created by Spenser for his immensely long (but unfinished) poem, The Faerie Queene. This is a part-Classical, part-Medieval world filled with kings and queens, knights and damsels, witches and monsters. Harold and Reed hope to win a place for themselves by helping the Faerie  knights of King Arthur and Queen Gloriana to defeat the evil enchanters who are their chief enemies.

Harold’s fencing skills come in handy as the adventurers encounter ill-tempered knights, ape-like monsters known as Losels and a Celtic tribe keen on human sacrifice. Reed thinks that he’s mastered the rules of magic but his spell-rhymes rarely produce the expected result. When he tries to conjure up a single fierce dragon, one hundred gentle vegetarian dragons appear instead. Reed has been distracted by falling in love with a beautiful damsel who turns out to be a creature made out of snow by a witch. Meanwhile, Harold has met two potential dream girls – the golden-haired warrior Britomart, who can defeat almost any knight, and flame-haired archer and hunter, Belphebe. Unfortunately, they are both already betrothed. Reed and Harold’s plan to infiltrate the headquarters of the evil enchanters doesn’t go too smoothly either. Is there any hope of a happy ending for these “incompleat enchanters”?

L.Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) and Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) were close friends who met in 1939 because of a mutual love of war-gaming. They started writing together almost straight away and produced five Harold Shea stories between 1940 and 1954, later published in book form as “The Castle of Iron” and “The Enchanter Compleated”. In these stories, Harold and his companions visit the worlds of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (with a side-trip to Coleridge’s Xanadu), the Finnish Kalevala and, finally, Irish myth at the time of the famous “Cattle Raid of Cooley”.  According to Sprague de Camp, Pratt provided most of the backround information. They would then work out the plot together before Sprague de Camp wrote the first draft and Pratt the second. This unusual method of collaboration doesn’t produce elegant prose. What the two writers mainly shared were fertile imaginations and an irreverant sense of humour.

In the introduction to the 1975 reprint of “The Incompleat Enchanter”, Sprague de Camp described the Harold Shea stories as “sword and sorcery” fiction long before the term was invented. They are packed with exciting action scenes but I would classify them primarily as Comic Fantasy. I don’t often recommend books in this genre because humour is such a personal thing but if you enjoy early Terry Pratchett novels such as The Colour of Magic, the misadventures of Harold Shea will probably make you laugh. Some of the humour is quite broad. For example, in a world where spells have to be in verse, Harold defeats the terrifying Blatant Beast by reciting “The Ballad of Eskimo Nell” at it. He then spends the rest of the story trying to avoid explaining this erotic poem to virginal Belphebe. In “The Roaring Trumpet” Pratt and Sprague de Camp were working from source material which is already full of rumbustious humour. Much of the comedy comes from mythical beings such as giants and trolls talking like American gangsters and from over-confident Harold’s humiliations. He’s given the nickname “Turnip Harald” after unwisely asking for some vegetables with his boiled pork.

In “The Mathematics of Magic” the comedy arises from the contrast between the solemn source material and the farcical way that it’s treated. Spenser wrote beautiful stately poetry but no-one has ever praised him for his sense of humour. The Faerie Queene is an allegory in which the leading characters are meant to embody virtues such as Chastity and Justice. Pratt and Sprague de Camp have fun with characters who take themselves far to seriously, such as a virtuous wife Amoret who bores everyone with her endless tale of woe (“Oh , the perils I go through!”) and enthusiastic enforcer of the High Justice, Sir Artegall, who rarely stops to think before he jousts. The Harold Shea stories may be light reading but they are based on a detailed knowledge of myth, Fantasy literature and anthropological research on magic. Fletcher Pratt knew all about the ancient ideas of magic working through laws of Similarity or Contagion and he must be one of the few people in history to have read the whole of The Faerie Queene for pleasure (I never have).

Harold Shea has the distinction of being one of the few fictional characters to be killed off by another writer – by L.Ron Hubbard in 1941. His creators decided to ignore this piece of literary rudeness but it seems prophetic that the founder of Scientology would disapprove of Shea’s ingenious uses for his psychological training – such as persuading a troll that he needs a nose-job and teaching Dame Britomart how to boost the fragile male ego. Even Sprague de Camp describes his hero as brash and conceited but Harold does mellow and become more likeable after marrying his dream girl.

The attitude towards women shown by the American males in these stories now seems prehistoric but fortunately Spenser, who lived and wrote during the reign of a formidable queen, had provided some strong female characters to work with. In The Faerie Queene, the damsels rescue the knights as often as the other way around and Belphebe, who is thought to be based on aspects of Elizabeth I, makes a spirited and attractive heroine for “The Incompleat Enchanter”. The Harold Shea series was revived in the 1980s by Sprague de Camp and other writers but these later stories mainly lack the charm of the originals. So, my advice is to stick with the first three books. Until next time…










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…


Are you feeling that you might have seen too much of your relatives during the holiday season? Then let me recommend a bracing Icelandic saga. Reading `Egil’s Saga’ is almost certain to make you think your own family isn’t that bad after all. Take this example of Viking family life – Skallagrim loses his temper while playing a ball-game. He kills his opponent, breaking every bone in his body, and then turns on his twelve year-old son, Egil. Egil’s foster-mother  intervenes to save the boy’s life, so Skallagrim drowns her. Egil then kills his father’s favourite farm-hand in retaliation and `for the rest of the winter father and son spoke not a single word to each other, for good or ill.’  After a difficult childhood, Egil grows up to be a fascinating anti-hero. The historical Egil lived in 10th century Scandinavia but his story was written in the early 13th century, probably by the great Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, whose `Prose Edda’ has inspired so many Fantasy authors. Since I’m guessing that not all of my readers understand Old Norse, I’ll be suggesting some translations to try at the end of this review.

Egil doesn’t appear until quite late in his own saga. The early chapters describe how Egil’s family came to settle in Iceland and explain the origins of various disputes and feuds that will dominate Egil’s life. The story begins with a bad-tempered man named Kveldulf (Night-Wolf). After a youth spent as Viking raider, Kveldulf settles down in Norway and has two very different sons. Thorolf is blond, handsome and cheerful but his brother Skallagrim is dark, ugly and surly. At this period King Harald Fair-Hair is forcibly uniting all of Norway. Thorolf becomes one of Harald’s followers but Kveldulf and Skallagrim refuse to serve or trust the king. Two brothers who believe that they have been cheated out of an inheritance by Kveldulf, turn the king against Thorolf. Murder and a blood feud ensue and Kveldulf and Skallagrim emigrate to Iceland to escape the unjust rule of King Harald.

Skallagrim prospers among the independent farmers of Iceland and has two sons – another tall handsome Thorolf and big, black-haired and ugly Egil. From an early age Egil shows great promise both as a warrior and a poet. The two brothers go on Viking raids together and encounter King Harald’s heir, Eirik Bloodaxe and his sorceress wife, Gunnhild, who try several times to kill Egil. In England, the brothers serve in the army of the noble King Athelstan. When Thorolf falls in battle, Athelstan gives Egil two chests of treasure in compensation. After Egil marries his brother’s widow, he tries to claim her disputed inheritance in Norway but Eirik will not support him. The feud between Egil and the royal family of Norway grows bloodier. So when Egil is shipwrecked and forced to seek shelter at Eirik’s court, can he keep his head?

The Icelandic Sagas – there are around forty of them – have been called Europe’s earliest historical novels. They are largely based on traditional tales about historical figures, though`Egil’s Saga’ includes poems which were probably composed by the real Egil. The history may not always be reliable but the quality of the story-telling is. If you are wondering why I’m classing `Egil’s Saga’ as Fantasy rather than Historical Fiction, it’s because Egil is a magic-user and his story is set on the borderline between legend and history. Egil’s grandfather Kveldulf is rumoured to be a shape-changer descended from Trolls. Essentially, he’s a were-wolf and his son, Skallagrim, is safe enough by day but becomes strong and ferocious once the sun sets. Egil himself is represented as a man with a split-personality rather than as a shape-changing monster, though he is said to have an unnaturally large and thick skull. Raised by a foster mother who was a `great sorceress’, Egil uses magical runes to curse or to heal. In one bizarre scene he sets up a horse’s head on a pole as part of a spell to turn the guardian spirits of Norway against Eirik and Gunnhild.

I’m also recommending `Egil’s Saga’ because I think it will appeal to lovers of Heroic Fantasy – a group I’ve been neglecting lately. If you like stories which are fast-moving and full of violence and treachery, you should enjoy this saga, especially as it comes divided into bite-sized chunks which I find addictive. You will have to get through some lists of ancestors but even these are enlivened by the wonderful Scandinavian habit of identifying people with intriguing nicknames, such as Harald Grey-Cloak, Olaf the Peacock, Thora Lace-cuff, or Hallbjorn Half-Troll. In recent times there have been attempts to rebrand the Vikings as peace-loving traders and farmers rather than brutal raiders. This saga shows very clearly that the same people were all these things during the course of their lives. Egil and his relatives are part-time pirates. Sometimes they go abroad to trade or to fight as mercenaries and sometimes to raid. During a visit to what is now Latvia, Egil sums up the Viking way by urging his companions to `act the warrior’s part, kill everyone we can get at, and grab all the loot we can carry.’

Trying to work out the honour code these men live by is one of the challenges of reading `Egil’s Saga’. Slaughtering or burning whole households seems to be all right if you do it to strangers, but marrying a fellow Viking’s daughter without permission is regarded as seriously naughty. A quarrel over grazing rights can lead to neighbours killing each other’s slaves and children, while everyone seems to agree that failing to offer guests decent ale is an offence worthy of death. Yet the saga also includes many outstanding examples of selfless courage, kindness and generosity. The story may have a particular appeal to American readers, since it  has an over-arching theme of independent-minded pioneers defying increasingly tyrannical kings and settling a harsh new country where everyone is to be equal (except for the slaves). `Egil’s Saga’ was actually written at a time when the rulers of Norway were exerting their authority over Iceland, so the saga looks back to a golden age of freedom and independence. The author was honest enough to depict this golden age as far from peaceful. The two Thorolfs are ideal Viking heroes –  brave, noble and generous – but they die young and tragically. It is the `dark’ members of Kveldulf’s family, such as Skallagrim and Egil, who survive and prosper through cunning and ruthlessness.

The best thing about `Egil’s Saga’ is the complex character of Egil himself. He’s more serial-killer than warrior. He commits his first murder when he is six years old and his last when he is eighty. He is often morose and always prone to drink too much. He never forgives an enemy or an insult and he’s greedy for land and wealth. Remember those chests of treasure Egil was given in England? He’s as determined as any pirate never to share his treasure with anyone, which gives a final dark twist to his tale. Yet Egil is also shown to be a learned man and a great poet. He is a bashful lover, a devoted father and a man who will do anything to help his friends. When Egil visits a new place, you are never sure whether he is going to massacre his hosts or end up swearing eternal friendship with them. His unpredictability makes his saga an exciting read.

There have been two English translations of `Egil’s Saga’ published in the Penguin Classics series. The earlier one by H.Palsson and P.Edwards (1976) is still easy to find in paperback. The more recent version by B.Scudder (2005) is also available as an ebook. Alternatively, you could download a much older translation (1893) for free from the Icelandic Saga Database or listen to this being read out by an `Icelandic bookworm’ (The Saga Project). These are both the sort of websites which restore my faith in the Internet. I’ll be back in a few weeks time, after a trip to Malta. In the meantime, I wish everyone a Happy New Year and look out for an ebook based on this blog in 2015.