Thursday, May 18, 2017

Prince Dead: A Note on History

Just a reminder… Prince Dead is still on sale for $.99 on Amazon. As always, it is free to read for members of Kindle Unlimited and you can preview the novel here.

Note: This post is a re-print of the Forward from the novel which explains the decisions behind the presentation of some of the minor historical points. If you are considering purchasing, I hope this helps.

Author’s Note
The Vikings are a people whose history has been much clouded in legend, forgotten in time, warped by their enemies, and twisted in popular culture. Even their name, the Vikings, is incorrect to their people as it stems from the Old Norse word Vikingr, meaning freebooter, sea-rover, or pirate. Not all Vikings were pirates. Most were farmers, landowners, and craftsmen, but it is the few great seamen and the warriors who ravaged foreign lands whom are best remembered.

Gokstad Ship
Among our sources of knowledge about the Scandinavian people of the eighth to eleventh century are the rare rune stones. These give us records written in the actual period. However, they are scarce and, unlike other ancient languages, there is no Rosetta Stone to help in their deciphering. In fact, it would seem that what is recorded on many of these stones is street directions, which indicates that the majority of the population was literate, but tells us little else.

Detail from Oseberg Ship
We also have pieces recovered from archaeological digs. Among the most famous of these are the Oseberg Ship and the Gokstad Ship. Though they are only two of many vessels which have been unearthed, they are the most well-preserved, having been buried in clay. From these and other finds, archaeologists know that by the ninth century Viking ships had undergone vast improvements as compared to their earlier counterparts and were built for specific purposes. Some were large, robust vessels, equipped with sails and built for the open seas. Others were slim, fast war ships, wherein rows took the place of importance. There is even evidence of ships which seem to be built specifically for cargo.


The ship which provided the greatest inspiration for this novel was unearthed in the Skuldelev find. Skuldelev 2, as it is now known, was built in 1060, in or near Dublin and served the Danish for many years. At thirty meters long, it boasted an impressive thirty pairs of oars and could have transported 100 warriors. This proves that the shipbuilding techniques of the North could be and were transported to the British Isles.

Another famous set of relics is the Ulfberht swords. These unique swords were constructed of a quality of steel which was not to be reproduced until the Industrial Revolution. With a higher carbon percentage and less slag than their counterparts, the Ulfberht swords were far stronger and more flexible than their contemporaries. They were smaller than most other swords, but the inscription, "+VLFBERH+T” and its reputation must have made up for it in the minds of enemies. One hundred and seventy-one swords have been found to bear this name, yet few of these are actually constructed of the high quality steel and often, the inscription on those of lower quality is spelled incorrectly. From this, it may be assumed that the swords were famous and feared enough to produce counterfeits. The earliest found Ulfberht dates to 850 AD.

The last relic which was of particular interest to me while writing this novel is a jade Buddha, found on the Oseberg ship. The burial of the ship dates back to 834 AD. The Buddha proves the size, power, and wealth of the Vikings’ trade routes at this time. Caches of jewelry and personal grooming tools have also been found and inspired the descriptions of this novel.

The Sagas, many of which were recorded much later than they are purported to have happened and often in different countries than there origin, give us some idea as to the culture and beliefs of the Vikings, though, many assertions must be taken with a grain of salt. They are legends and myths which contain some truth, some exaggeration, some magic, and much entertainment. The laws and customs as presented in this novel, many of which seem too strange or modern to have belonged to the Vikings, may be attributed to these legends.

It would seem that while women did not have exactly the power and rights of men in Viking society, they were by no means under the same duress and oppression which other European women suffered during this period. They were often given their choice of husband, could ask for a divorce for almost any reason, and, married or not, could own property. To strike or otherwise harm one’s wife could bring legal fines and familial retribution upon a Viking. To in any way molest another woman could bring death.

It is also of note that this novel presents a small country under a king’s leadership. Most of Scandinavia was ruled by clans and chieftains during this period. Though general laws existed, it was often up to individual clans, many of whom lived together in great dwellings or settlements, to enforce them. There generally existed no strong legal or monarchists governments. However, kings, some powerful and some weak, cropped up throughout this period. Their rule was not easy, nor was it taken for granted. Divine right was not a concept among the Vikings, nor could lineage stand in the face of the greatness of other warriors, even were they born to poor origins. It is, in fact, this instability which led me to choose to present my hero as the heir to a newly won throne.

The hero is presented as a berserker. This word stems from the Old Norse word berserker, meaning “bear shirt”. These warriors were reported to work themselves into a blood-thirsty, insane, rage before battle and were often called the greatest of the Norse warriors. They are believed to have made up Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII’s Varangian guard, and that he would choose these strange men from so far away attests to how notorious they must have been. They were best described by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, “His men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.”

The history of the Celts of this period is cloudier yet than the history of the Vikings. We know what was written of them by their Roman invaders who surely were not the most unbiased source, and we know what was recorded once they came under Viking rule, but this era is not referred to as the Dark Ages without just cause.

The Celts are generally accepted to have been, if not a matriarchal society, than one in which women, at least, had relatively easy access to power. Queens Boadica, Tetua, and Onomaris attest to that. We also know that female warriors met the Romans on the battlefield. One Roman observed, “A whole troop of foreigners would not withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance. The wife is even more formidable. She is usually very strong. She begins to strike blows mingled with kicks as if they were missiles from a catapult...The voices of these women are formidable and threatening, even when they're being friendly."

We also know that Roman women were regarded so poorly that they were not even given their own names, and were instead called by the female derivative of their father’s or family’s name and then given a number if there was more than one daughter.

I considered all of this while forming my heroine. Rome certainly left its mark on the British Isles, bringing new politics, new food, new clothes, and new architecture. I believe that it is safe then to assume that even so early, the role of women in Celtic cultures was changing. I cannot attest to what extent or in exactly which circumstances these changes would have existed during the setting of this book, so I tried only to make educated guesses.

Roundhouse Reconstruction at National History Museum of Wales
The round, mud huts as described in the novel can also trace their origins further back to descriptions from Roman soldiers.

Catholicism was one thing which could be said to have changed the British Isles dynamically after the Roman conquests.  There were Christians in Ireland even before Palladius arrived in 431 as the first missionary bishop sent by Rome. St. Patrick and others helped to spread the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. However, to their chagrin, the new beliefs often mixed and mingled right alongside the old, pagan traditions. While religion is not at all a theme of this novel, we can deduce that certain practices and customs regarding everything from land management to marriage, death, and eating would by this point have been influenced by the Catholic Church.

All of the names used in this novel are accurate to the culture and time period, but many spellings have been changed to their modern form to help in the ease of reading. As to the language, it is needless to say that the English language was not yet in existence at this time. Since I do not fluently speak Old Norse or Gaelic, nor, presumably do many of my readers, it is a necessity that every word herein is an anachronism. Hopefully, I have struck a pleasant balance between modern English and the avoidance of any wildly out of place slang. The words and phrases given in Gaelic and Norse were translated to the best of my ability.

You will find that the exact dates of archaeological finds referenced here do not match up with some of the content of this novel, though they are often correct to within a few decades. This is because, though we often cannot prove that certain technology or customs existed in a specific location at this specific time, we also cannot prove that they did not. I have taken some creative license with the history regarding both of these cultures. Though I love history and research, and though I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my representation of these people, I am no scholar, nor am I a historian. My objective in writing was not to teach, but rather to entertain.

My characters must, in the majority of their ways, appeal to and be understood by modern readers. As much as I sometimes wish to, I cannot adhere to every custom of the age of which I know. Behavior that is too confounding, or that takes too long to explain only serves to weigh down a novel, as do explanations of some objects which are extremely foreign to us.

I have not filled the novel with explanations of the differences between a knarr, a karve, a faering, and a longship, nor have I expounded on the exact geography of any given region. That, perhaps, is best left to another writer with a different purpose and a greater education.

My hope is that this forward will help to explain some of the history to those who are unaware and caught off guard by this very unusual representation of the Vikings and Celts, and to beg the patience of those who find any anachronisms in my work.

I hope you enjoy,

Olene

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