Eric Brighteyes

H. Rider Haggard — best known for his adventure tales set in Africa, like King Solomon’s Mines and She — wrote one of, if not the first, modern English sagas in the Icelandic model. (William Morris’ House of the Wolfings was published at about the same time, from I’ve read so far it also models itself on the Icelandic saga, though it is set in earlier times.)

Haggard wrote this shortly after a visit to Iceland, and he did his best to incorporate the best of the sagas — poetic descriptions of landscapes, seascapes, and battle, clever word-play and dialogue, and above all the muscular paganism of the Viking world — while leaving out the most tedious part (long catalogs of lineages and digressions about minor characters). So this is a lot more accessible than similar works like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the strong or Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s saga — both of which are excellent in their ways and worth reading too!

Haggard’s hero is a fairly typical type of saga hero: brave and honorable, strong and handsome, and doomed by tragic character flaws and choices. The story has a fairly simple set-up: two half-sisters both love the hero, and his choice between them causes the scorned sister to wreak a drawn-out, perfidious revenge.

Along the way Eric fights a berserker, makes powerful enemies who have him outlawed, and sets sail on a viking expedition where he joins the court of an English king. His fights against warriors, witchcraft, and the deadly forces of nature at land and sea, and eventually returns to Iceland to face his destiny.

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The pacing and action are excellent, and his slightly archaic language evoke the sagas well. The plot details all feel appropriate to the genre, but are also inventive and don’t just copy the sources. The elements of magic and mysticism are also appropriate, and reminded me of the more fantastic sagas like Grettrs Saga.

I listened to a dramatic reading of this via LibriVox, and the reader’s enthusiasm for the story made it an especially good LibriVox recording, though some of the voicing, especially for the female characters, was unintentionally funny.

So the above is what I posted to Goodreads.com for my review.  But what use is this book for D&D?

If you’re looking for ideas for use in a Vikings type campaign, there’s plenty of grist, of course, in terms of interesting places and events you could incorporate into a game, as well as names — Haggard does not fall into the all-too-common trap of using only stereotypical Norse names (Thorsson, Thorssonsson, etc.).  A number of characters are Finnish, and have distinctively non-Norse names; others just have very usual sounding names like Ospakar and Gizur — which are actually names from the Edda and so forth.  Haggard manages to pack in just about every trope you could ask for in a Viking saga: revenge killings, ‘holmgang’ duels, a wrestling match, berserkers, the Allthing, a doom-ring, chases and battles at sea, snow storms, outlawry, thralldom is inflicted, oaths are taken and broken, rune-reading, names and -nymics are bestowed, barrows robbed, a hall is nearly burnt, and on and on.  It is in fact a checklist of just about every interesting plot device you find the sagas, though in many cases Haggard uses them inventively.

The magical elements of the story are confined to a few spells/potions (a love potion, a fast-acting poison, a sleep spell, and a pact with a demon that causes a shipwreck) as well as numerous visions and foretellings (the introduction dryly notes that such things would probably be interpolations by later writers/editors of the legends), the occasional appearance of a familiar or and a magic/cursed sword.  An arresting event early on involves a severed head prophesying doom to the one who slew the owner, but for the most part magic is furtive, “off-screen,” and open to interpretation, so there is really nothing you couldn’t equally well steal for a game in a purely historical setting.

I found myself wondering too whether Tolkien had read this novel, or if it is a case of both Haggard and Tolkien using similar sources, because many events and characters could have walked right out of Middle Earth.  (The more I read stuff like Haggard, William Morris, and the like, the less original Tolkien’s work seems to me…or rather what is distinctively Tolkien’s is less interesting than the common sources they share.)

Anyway Eric Brighteyes is well worth a look!

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Published in: on July 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Riddles in history

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C.H.Gordon was a professional philologist, and worked as a cryptographer during WWII.  “Riddles in history” exemplifies the old saw about “all problems looking like nails to a man with a hammer.”

Gordon begins with a very interesting account of several important inscriptions that were initially rejected as fakes by Victorian era experts, but later verified by other evidence, mostly the discovery of other texts that show that the perceived errors in the supposed forgeries were not errors at all.  For example, a text might appear to have grammatical errors which are later discovered to be repeated in other authentic texts and not errors but regional variations or dialect.  He then explains that several inscriptions which have been rejected as dubious or even forgeries can be verified by later discoveries too — in this case by the uncovering of crypts and ciphers encoded in the texts themselves.

I was initially very interested to see what he came up with, but as I read on I realized he was attempting to “rehabilitate” some very widely rejected inscriptions and texts: in this case the Kensington Runestone, The Spirit Pond runestones, the “lost” Paraiba text, and the Vinland Map.  Gordon finds hidden codes that make sense of the inscriptions, because, he reasons, a forger would never think to encode secret messages in them, especially not messages that make sense only in light of more recent archeology.  Unfortunately it becomes evident very quickly that Gordon is doing extreme logical and philological gymnastics to make the codes “work”, and to find them at all.

For example, he examines the block of text in the upper left hand corner of the Vinland map and notices that if you count the words in each of the seven lines, you can then mark the letter that many characters from either end of the line to derive two “hidden” jumbles of letters, which are anagrams for a name that appears in the text, and a Latin phrase.  The phrase could be interpreted as an expression of faith, and this fits with the much more ancient practice of embedding such phrases in other inscriptions… “could, might, can, probably” are his favorite words, it seems. By the time I got to his “conclusions,” I realized he was almost, but not quite, in full Von Däniken mode.  Lookee here, this Aztec relief sort of looks like he’s wearing a phylactery, and the Paraiba text is Phoenician (with a hidden Jewish message) … so … Jews in Central America! This other Aztec figure has a beard!  European contact!  And that hat looks like a boat, and there is a bird in the picture, just like the story of Noah’s Ark!  He reaches and reaches further, getting further out into crankdom as he goes.

As an example of a serious, and well-meaning effort to support the idea that pre-Columbian contacts between the old and new world were more common that supposed, it’s a curious read.  There are some interesting maps, figures, and nice full-color plates of models of various ancient ships.  The bits on cryptography are interesting and explained so that a layman can understand them.  But the problem, I think, is that Gordon is so convinced that these inscriptions are authentic, that he goes looking for evidence until he creates it himself.  The human mind is excellent at finding patterns, as we know; even patterns that don’t actually exist.

Now just because Gordon is almost certainly wrong does not mean you can’t get something out of this for RPGs.  He gives some neat examples of acrostic and telestic cryptography that you might place in inscriptions in your dungeons, and the idea of pre-Columbian contact between the old and new worlds is a very common fantasy trope.

Published in: on February 25, 2014 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Viking bread!

From The History Blog, in a post on some Viking artifacts at a museum:

They even have bread loaves that appear to have survived thanks to carbonization, like the bread from Herculaneum. The Viking bread found in Birka, Sweden, was analyzed and the likely recipe recreated. It’s ridiculously healthy, made primarily from barley flour and including flax seeds. If you’d like to try your hand at making it yourself, here’s the recipe:

Viking Bread

About 150 g barley flour
About 50 g wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 100 ml water
2 tsp lard or butter
A pinch of salt

Work all the ingredients together into a dough and knead. If the dough is too wet or hard, add flour or water. Let the dough rest cold for at least one hour, preferably longer.

Shape the dough into flat cakes (about 1/2cm thick). Bake them in a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat, a few minutes on each side, or in the oven at 150 degrees, for 10–13 minutes.

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I’d replace the lard or butter with vegetable oil or margarine for Vegan Viking bread.  The flax seeds are kind of surprising.  I’ve been adding crushed flax seeds to my bread and pizza dough for a couple of years now, although I understand that baking them at high temperature I’d normally use probably ruins some of the omega-3 goodness.  I assume the above recipe calls for 150 degrees Celsius, or about 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  150 grams of flour is a little under 1 1/4 cups (1.2 actually) and the 50 grams is 2/5 of a cup, but a half cup should not spoil the recipe, just add a little more water. 100 ml is a hair over 3 1/3 ounces.  So if we were to Americanize the recipe, it should look something like:

Viking Bread

1 1/4 cup barley flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
2 tsp crushed flax seeds
About 1/2 cup water
2 tsp vegetable oil
A pinch of salt

Work all the ingredients together into a dough and knead. If the dough is too wet or hard, add flour or water. Let the dough rest cold for at least one hour, preferably longer.

Shape the dough into flat cakes (about 1/4 inch thick). Bake them in a dry cast iron pan on the stove over medium heat, a few minutes on each side, or in the oven at 300 degrees, for 10–13 minutes.

I’ll try to test this out this weekend!

I understand the British version of the recipe would be: “combine ingredients and boil until uniformly grey,” in fact any recipe can be converted to British style that way, or so I’ve heard.

Published in: on July 24, 2013 at 10:22 am  Comments (3)  
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Viking travel advisories

Scotland … not such easy pickings.

England … bad for your teeth.

Vinland … no rest for the wicked.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Film Friday: Valhalla rising

I finally got around to watching Valhalla Rising the other night and it rocks.

Imagine a 1960s black & white samurai film … it is lyrical and quiet like that, with sudden bursts of carnage.  Add homages to Aguirre, the wrath of god, and Apocalypse now (both in terms of  themes like war and religion and their hallucinogenic cinematography).

The central character, One Eye, looks a lot like Kirk Douglas’ character in The vikings, but remains enigmatically silent throughout.  Is he mute? We never know for sure.  Another character says he comes from hell.  His occasional  sardonic smile also evokes Clint Eastwood.  His physical presence in the movie is a bit like Toshiro Mifune in a samurai film — passive, but not torpid; a serpent lolling in the sun but always ready to strike.

The violence in this film is pretty strong, especially at the beginning where One Eyes uses his fists, teeth, a rope, and a rock to kill several other men, and later when another viking is disemboweled.  My wife found the sound effects disturbing — although she did not watch the film, she could hear the crunching bone and squishing flesh.

It’s pretty slow going most of the time, so don’t expect an action movie.  It is much more like Severed ways than your typical Viking story.

The whole thing probably has no more than 100 lines of dialogue, but combined with the five chapter titles (Wrath, Silent warrior, Men of God, The holy land, Hell, The sacrifice), the movie manages to suggest some deeper meaning.  I’m not sure whether the film as whole should be read as “saying” anything in particular so much as asking questions about religion, violence, revenge, and redemption, and man’s place in nature.  I suppose a few more viewings might help explain things, as there were many flash-forwards and visions, and what seemed to be obscure but meaningful shots of incidental things and landscapes.  The cinematography and framing of images is incredible at times, and it is a beautiful spectacle even if it all “means” nothing.

Maybe One Eye represents Odin, or we should read some kind of parable of a one-eyed man among blind men, or we should try to puzzle out the significance of the crosses, pagan images, and the pile of stones One Eye struggles to build later in the film.  Probably the fog and clouds of smoke that appear in key scenes, and the subtext of pagans versus Christians, and the attempted crusade, all fit together with careful interpretation.  Surely there is a great term paper for a film class here, or even a thesis…

I found this a lot more entertaining than Severed ways or Pathfinder (two other recent films dealing with displaced Vikings).  If the former has too little action and the latter too little artistry for you, this will be a perfect choice.

The title’s precise significance is a little hard for me to riddle out.  I think of the Kenneth Anger films Lucifer rising and Scorpio rising (neither of which I’ve seen but I understand both are acid-trippy) — perhaps evoking the brutality of the Vikings is the whole point? Is One Eye taking the others to Valhalla, or trying to get there himself? Does it signify the end of Viking paganism? (The Viking version of Christianity presented in the film is rather “pagan” too.)

This probably the most thought-provoking viking film I’ve seen (I know, dubious distinction…).

Published in: on August 19, 2011 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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The last Viking

I haven’t been reading much historical fiction lately — probably the last one was Steven Pressfield’s Gates of fire, which I enjoyed.  But I do love a Viking saga and Poul Anderson  delivers another great one with The last Viking

Anderson obviously loves the old sagas himself and most of his fantasy stories use a similarly laconic, poetic style like the sagas — at any rate The broken sword, The war of the gods, The tale of Hauk, and Hrolf Krakis saga do. Three hearts and three lions, “The gate of flying daggers,” and “The valor of Cappen Vara” do not.  I have yet to read The merman’s children.

Uniquely among Anderson’s neo-sagas, The last Viking has no fantasy elements, and almost all the characters are real people.  Anderson does a great job interpolating what various people might have thought and said, and the battles are usually vivid and exciting.  The last Viking tells the story of the incredible career of Harald Hardarda, the king of Norway whose death marks the end of the “Viking era”.

Honestly I never thought that much of Harald Hardrada — the other key players in the drama of 1066 seemed much more interesting.  William the Conqueror was a brilliant if brutal warrior and Harold Godwinson was a resourceful and tenacious underdog who had the terrible of luck of facing both William and Harald on the battlefield within a month’s time.  however, Anderson managed to make Hardrada, who could easily be cast as a villain, into a heroic, if not too sympathetic, character, that we can root for.  Knowing ahead of time that his enterprise in England is doomed, and having grown fond of Harald and his loyal followers along the way, make the final chapters especially engrossing.  The last stand of one of his warriors on Stamford bridge itself — an incredible but apparently true event — channels both the grim comedy of Gimli & Legolas’ contest on the walls of Helm’s Deep with the tragic end of Boromir.  But I suspect this has more to do with the common sources of both Tolkien and Anderson than anything else.  (Another one of the characters in this saga took part in the battle of Maldon, pointing to another common reference point for Tolkien and Anderson.)

I guess the fact that this saga was written as a trilogy is what keeps reminding me of Tolkien.  Honestly I pretty much never read anything that is not complete in one or two volumes because I’m so sick of all the trilogies we were subjected to throughout the 1960s onward in fantasy fiction.  Everyone had to try to be a damn Tolkien, and seemed to think writing more was writing better…  But Poul Anderson did not stretch this saga out into three books; he crammed it into them.  Harald Hardrada did just about everything a Viking could hope to do in his life time, and travelled most of the Viking world (he never made it to Iceland, Greenland, or Vinland, but he adventured in Russia, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Holy Land, not to mention ravaging Denmark, England, etc.).  He encounters characters that range from the utterly despicable to the noble, and as I’ve found in all of Poul Anderson’s stories so far, both the heroes and villains are entirely human and can be both sympathetic and abominable … like real people, I suppose.

I ploughed through these three volumes of The last Viking in the last couple of weeks (using just the free moments I have at lunch breaks and so forth) and strongly recommend it.

Published in: on August 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hrolf Kraki’s Saga by Poul Anderson

Short review: This book rocks.

Yeah, this happens at the end

Poul Anderson is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers.  I am much more into the fantasy side of things.  The first book of his that I read was The high crusade (which blurs the line a little by featuring space-faring medieval knights).  That book was fairly light but entertaining.  Then I read The broken sword which is as dark and brutal as any authentic saga, with a heavy dose of fantasy, and which presents what I still think would be an awesome setting for gaming, combining elements of Viking, Celtic, and medieval mythology and folklore into a mostly coherent world.  (The fact that Anderson always manages to make all of his characters sympathetic — even his villains — goes a long way too.)  Since then I’ve read some of his other fantasies (War of the gods, Three hearts and three lions, The armies of elfland),  a bit of his short stories and some science ficiton but I’d been hunting forHrolf Kraki’s saga for quite a while.

I can’t understand why this has been out of print for so long, but I finally found a copy of the Ace paperback at a booksale a couple of months ago and ripped through it earlier this month.

Anderson’s goal was to ‘recover’ this saga, which exists in partial and sometimes contradictory pieces spread among poetry fragments, chronicles, and other sagas.  He also worked in historical and legendary events from the period in which the saga would have occured (the main characters are probably based on real historical people, as is the case with most if not all sagas).  Anderson works in related story lines, and related legends, so that Beowulf, among others, figure into the story as well.

He uses the framing device of having the sagas related by a heathen storytelling in a medieval times, which allows him to add some explanations of things like Viking customs and architecture, but I did not find these inclusions distracting or pedantic.  (I have read, though, on Wikipedia in an unreferenced note that “some” have criticized the book for giving explanations about characters’ feelings and motivations.  Maybe Anderson engages in this more than an authentic saga might but have read a good number of Icelandic sagas in translation I did not find this to be all that noticeable; in fact I thought he was very restrained by any modern standard.)

Anyway what we get is the story of many generations of characters who are all fairly realistically drawn.  Magic and monsters are featured, in about the proportion you might find in the more ‘romantic’ sagas like Grettr the Strong.  There are several pitched battles, described in vague but rousing terms. There are a number of duels and single combats.  But much of the action takes place in conversations and intrigue, so that this should appeal equally to fans of sword & sorcery and fans of modern fantasy.

It certainly makes me want to read more real sagas, and Anderson’s three-novel series The last viking (about Harald Hardrada), as well as re-read The broken sword.  And then to run a Viking campaign, probably with ‘winter phases’ like Pendragon and mass battles and generations of characters.

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 2:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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my dark ages project

Just a quick post to tie together the three 1066 armies and a static page with more information on how I assembled the armies.

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 11:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Deliver us, oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen”

Hide the gold and silver, and lock up your able-bodied youths (who will be enslaved) and maidens (who will be… well you know), here come the Vikings with their Land-waster banner. My banner is based on a sail design from a second-hand souvenir dragon ship , which was made in Norway or Denmark.

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Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 12:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thirty-odd odd Norse magic items

Back in high school, or possibly junior high, I started compiling a list of Norse mythology’s people, places, & things as I found them referred to in various books.  Sadly I stopped before I began reading Norse sagas and romances off and on a few years later, so the list is mostly what I found in a few encyclopedias (I think — I may have ripped off other sources, my notes are sketchy and filled with misspellings!)

The following is a list of magic items I thought I might incorporate into a Norse campaign using the much-maligned and possibly unplayable Fantasy Wargaming rules.

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Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 11:37 am  Comments (6)  
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