The Irish in Iceland

vikings audibleFrom A Brief History of the Vikings, by Jonathan Clements.

The Icelanders’ own records mention around 400 original settlers, over fifty of whom had names that implied mixed Irish ancestry, or Celtic nicknames denoting considerable time spent outside Scandinavia. Their slaves and concubines (the mothers of many later generations) were also predominantly Irish, some of impressively noble birth. The Saga of the People of Laxardal mentions a haughty slave-girl with no appreciation of her duties, brought to Iceland already pregnant with the child of her Viking captor. She is eventually revealed as Melkorka (Mael-Curchaich?), the daughter of the Irish king Myrkjartan (Muircertach?), kidnapped at fifteen years of age. Faced with feuding women and clearly unable to control his Irish mistress, her owner eventually installed her in a homestead of her own across the river, recorded as the now-deserted site of Melkorkustadir.

Not all of the Irish who accompanied the first settlers were ill treated. The Norse matriarch Aud the Deep-Minded, who figures large in the Icelanders’ tales of the first settlers, brought many Irish slaves with her from Dublin where her late husband Olaf the White had been king. After unsuccessfully relocating to Caithness, where her son Thorsteinn the Red was killed, Aud and her entourage gave up on the harsh life on the Celtic fringe and set out for pastures new.

Aud would eventually free several of her slaves and set them up on their own – freedmen including Vifil, whose great-grandson would become the first European to be born in America, and Erp, a thrall whose mother was supposedly Myrgiol, an Irish princess sold into slavery in Britain. Although such tales often have the ring of truth, it is important to remember who was telling them – later generations of Icelanders hoping to put a polish on concubine ancestors by inventing noble backgrounds for them. Irish names certainly persisted among the Icelanders for many generations, including Njall, Kormakr, Brjan and Patrek.

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The Enemies of Thor

From A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and in the US.

There were a number of ungodlike enemies with which the Viking deities found themselves in conflict. A major group of rivals, for example, are the Jotnar, or Giants, a race whose names often contain elements of shifty duplicity, cunning, and braggadocio. If the Jotnar were a race supplanted by proto-Scandinavians, then we might even guess at their original home, Jotunheim, in south central Norway. The Jotnar are despicable to Norse eyes, violent and uncontrollable, creatures of the mountains, formidable foes, yet whose females are often regarded as desirable brides – a conqueror’s view of the conquered. A leading adversary of the Jotnar is Thor himself, whose legends contain many hints that associate him as an unwelcome guest in the Jotunheim region. His mother, for a start, is a giantess herself, Fjörgynn, a mistress of Odin. In an area where goat herding is a paramount local industry, we find that Thor quarrels with his neighbours over deaths of his flock. He rides in a chariot pulled by goats, and is sometimes referred to as Oku-thorr, the Charioteer ­– in both Old Norse and Sámi, the words for thunder and a wheeled vehicle are punningly similar.

In Lapland, some shamanic drums show a male figure bearing a hammer in one hand and a swastika (thunderbolt) in the other, said to be Horagalles, the Norse Thor-Karl, or ‘old man Thor’.One of the most famous stories of Thor tells of his fight with a giant who leaves a piece of stone permanently embedded in his head. This may be a reference to a ritual at sacred sites of Thor, involving the striking of flint. In other words, with his red hair and beard, and his mastery of lightning, Thor may have been a fire god, whose trials in myth are allegories of the kindling of sacred fires, and the smiting of foes.

Other races in the Viking mythos can be seen as similarly conquered peoples, associated in the Viking mind with a native mastery of the local woodlands and hills. Such peoples are the huldufólk, the ‘hidden folk’ identified in different parts of Scandinavia by different names, and ultimately combined by later writers to form a menagerie of supernatural creatures.The álfar or elves, for example, and their dark cousins the dvergar, or dwarves. Both are occasional allies of the gods, the dwarves renowned for their skills in metalwork, the elves as occasional bedmates and tormentors. At no point during the Viking age was there any implication of diminutive size in either of these races – their role as the ‘little people’ of later centuries is thought to have been a function of the suppression of old religions with the onset of Christianity.

The Valkyries

From A Brief History of the Vikings, by Jonathan Clements.vikings audible

Death in battle in the name of Odin was not a bad thing, at least in the eyes of the devout follower. For Odin was also the Chooser of the Slain, the valkojósandi. He had female assistants who bore the same name in the feminine form, valkyrjur, or valkyries, the terrifying furies of the Viking world. On several occasions in the sagas, there are comedic moments when Viking men seem meekly accepting of a situation, only to have a woman goad them into action – a woman’s worth was heavily reliant on that of her man, and the Viking wives could be fierce in their attempts to preserve it. The last bastion of Viking machismo, it often seems, lay not with themselves, but in their wish to appease their women.

The Valkyries were this furious nature personified, betraying a surprising terror and reification of female power. Their names are a catalogue of the things prized most by the belligerent Vikings, the famous Brynhildr is Bright Battle, but there are 51 others in extant sources. As with the Eskimos and their apocryphal twenty words for snow, the Vikings had many terms for discussing conflict. There was a Valkyrie of drunken brawling, Ale-Rune, and another of Taunts. To the Viking mind Battle herself was a woman, as were War, Tumult, Chaos, Devastation and Clash. The names of other Valkyries invoke images of war-goddesses to be appeased, or moments of belligerence personified: Extreme Cruelty, Sword-Time, or simply Killer. The most ominous is the Valkyrie that invokes that moment just before all hell breaks loose, Silence. Even Skuld, the Norn of Necessity, is numbered among the Valkyries on three occasions, her name perhaps better translated there as Blame. More prosaic misogyny may be found in others: Unstable, and the minor but still influential figure of Bossy.

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Viking Smackdown

From A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and in the US.

The crucifix began to compete with the hammer of Thor as the must-have fashion accessory, and missionaries soon followed behind the trendsetters. In distant Iceland, for example, where missionaries had been visiting the remote communities since 980, the news of the conversion of Norway as a whole led many of the die-hard heathens to believe they were missing out on something.

When Thangbrand, a Saxon priest in Crowbone’s retinue, was dispatched to Iceland to spread the word, many Icelanders began to seriously consider converting. Others, however, spoke out against the Christians in the same manner as the Trondheimers of old. One Hedin the Sorcerer was slaughtered by Thangbrand the Christian soldier, along with all his retainers. A similar fate awaited Veturlidi the Poet, who composed a satirical verse about the missionary, for which he was cut down in front of his son.

Thangbrand met his match when his ship, the Bison, was wrecked on the eastern coast near Bulandness. There, he got into an argument with a devout heathen lady by the name of Steinunn, who asked him where his Christ was when Thor was causing his ship to be smashed on the rocks. According to Steinunn, Thor had challenged Christ to a fight, but Christ had not shown up.

Audible Vikings

vikings audibleMy Brief History of the Vikings is now out as an audio book, read by Mark Meadows. So now you can have eight hours of vendettas, and encounters with Halli the Sarcastic and Einar Paunch-Shaker, bellowing in your ears. This book is doing remarkably well for itself, written nine years ago and already on its third printing and a Kindle version, as well as editions in Spanish and Bulgarian. Not Norwegian, though. Never Norwegian.

Thor Blimey

And as I clock off today’s writing on my new book, I discover that my Brief History of the Vikings is being cited in today’s Guardian as part of the debate on Scottish independence, leading to a massive ding-dong over historical genetics in the comments section, with a whole bunch of people who have not read my book criticising things that aren’t actually in it.

“a book which made me look at British history – English, Scots and Irish, less so Welsh – in a very different light… which tells the story of three centuries of land-hungry expansion out of the cold north, which changed the world, especially ours.” — Michael White, Guardian

"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.