For Scribble City Central's twenty-third Fantabulous Friday, I am delighted to welcome one of my favourite authors of all time, Kevin Crossley-Holland. I've known Kevin for many years, and was lucky enough to be part of the editorial team working on his master oeuvre, British Folk Tales, (or as it is now, The Magic Lands). He has won more awards than you can shake a stick at, including the Carnegie Medal, and has just taken on the important post of President of the School Library Association at this crucial time for the health and salvation of all libraries in the UK.
All that aside, Kevin is, for me, THE master of British and Norse myth and legend. His writing combines a deep love and understanding of the way story and words combine to make an irresistible whole, with a passion for the kind of meticulous scholarship and research which makes a book sing with authenticity. He has brought all of these talents to his latest work, The Viking Sagas. The first of these, Bracelet of Bones, was published last year, and the second, Scramasax, comes out at the end of this month from Quercus. I've been privileged to read an early copy of the latter, and I can tell you that once started it was unputdownable. The Viking Sagas follow Solveig, daughter of Halfdan on her journey from her home in Trondheim through the Baltic States and finally (at the end of Bracelet of Bones), to Miklagard, which we now call Istanbul. Scramasax takes Solveig and the reader further still - though I won't put up any plot spoilers. Both books are full of excitement, danger and tremendous storytelling skills.
It will not, I think, spoil anything to tell you that Kevin's own journey towards these books started with the discovery of Viking runes reading 'Halfdan' carved on a high balustrade in Hagia Sophia. By such things are a writer's inspiration and imagination fed. The two sagas which evolved from this small but serendipitous discovery are written with the eye of a poet and the language of a bard. Solveig is a compellingly attractive character, brave, determined - herself a creator - but what I liked most of all about her was her questioning mind. She does not accept that things are the way they are, nor that she cannot change them, and in Scramasax particularly this questioning and thoughtful attitude comes through very strongly. Her clear-eyed appraisal of Harald Hardrada's character is a perfectly judged piece of writing - and her reactions to seeing the bloodier side of war for the first time are both moving and viscerally poignant. I think she will speak to teenage readers in a way that they will recognise and relate to emotionally, even though she comes from a time so far away from our modern age.
Equally important for a writer of historical novels is the ability to envision 'how it would have been', to make those dry, dusty nuggets of research come to life. As always with writing of this sort, the devil is in the detail, and Kevin does not fail here either. His accurate description of the way it would feel to be in a dromon during a squall of the island of Chios made me feel as seasick and scared as if I'd been in the hold with Solveig and the horses myself - there are many such moments of 'drawing in', throughout these novels - small perfect touches which bring the books to vivid life.
Another thread woven through both books is that of religious myth, (there's a very subtle nod towards the great Snorri Sturluson, who wrote the Edda and the Heimskringla over a century after these books were set). The delicate tensions and balances between Norse, Christian and Muslim beliefs in that period are deftly handled, but it's the Norse stories of the gods which catch and hold the reader's imagination. There's no one better than Kevin at recreating those particular myths and it is with great pleasure therefore that I hand you over to him now to tell you about
Monstrous Serpent of Midgard
KCH: Who or what could be more ghastly than the three children of the Norse trickster Loki and his giant-mistress?
The first is the huge wolf Fenrir who can only be bound with magic ribbon made by the dwarfs from six things: the sound a cat makes when it walks, a woman’s beard, the roots of a mountain, a bear’s sinews, the breath of a fish and a bird’s spittle.
The youngest is Hel. Above the waist she’s a beautiful pink woman, and below the waist a greenish-black corpse. Her bed is called Sick Bed and the curtains around it Glimmering Misfortune. She rules the world of the dead.
The middle child is an absolutely terrifying serpent called Jormungand – an Old Norse word meaning ‘huge monster’. Odin, father of the gods, takes one look at him and hurls him down from his kingdom, Asgard. He drops him into the churning ocean surrounding Midgard (Middle Earth), and there the serpent grows thicker, and more gristly, and longer and longer, until he’s able to encircle the whole earth and bite on his own tail.
Jormungand and Thor, god of the sky and of law and order, are deadly enemies, and two of the racy, ice-bright myths tell of their encounters. The third and last one is still in the future.
First, Thor goes fishing. He uses for bait the head of Heaven Bellower, a black ox, and Jormungand takes it. Thor hauls him over the gunwale of his boat and whacks him on the head with his hammer, but the serpent tears himself free, and sinks back to the bottom of the sea.
When Thor travels to the world of the giants and wrestles there with a grey cat, he has no idea that he is actually wrestling with Jormungand in disguise. ‘When you made him lift that paw,’ the Giant-King later tells Thor, ‘Jormungand all but grazed his back on the sky’.
In a terrible battle before the end of the world, gods and humans and giants and dwarfs and monsters will fight, and Loki will join in, sailing in a boat made of dead men’s fingernails and toenails. That’s when the Midgard Serpent and Thor will come to grips for a third time. Gaping Jormungand will slither up on to dry land, spewing venom…
Ah! What glorious stories these are, the myths told by the Vikings and first written down by a 13th-century Icelander, Snorri Sturluson. Lying on my bunk bed, I heard some of them as a boy from my father; later,I read retellings of them; and then, after camping for part of one summer in Iceland with my two young son, I spent four years making my own versions (The Penguin Book of Norse Myths).
I don’t really like snakes or sea-snakes. They make my stomach loop the loop. I don’t even like eels (except to eat). And I don’t like evil Jormungand – not one bit. But somehow I knew about him long before I heard stories about him or learned his name. I met him in my dreams. I met him at Whipsnade Zoo. I met him in the stories of 'The Lambton Worm' and ‘The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh’ (in Old English, wyrm means dragon or serpent) and in the great poem, Beowulf. I met him in the Garden of Eden. He was always there, and he always will be, for as long as you and I live.
SCC: Thank you, Kevin, and I hope this will be the first of many future visits to Scribble City Central. As always, you have fired imagination and my mind is filled with pictures - I'm sure all my lovely blog readers will feel the same way.
If you'd like to read Kevin's books, you can buy them by clicking HERE.
Next week: Holly Black, New York Times bestselling author of Modern Faerie Tales and The Curse Workers series, talks about K for Kelpie. See you then.