The Viking challenge!
by Lari Don
I love a writing challenge. And taking on a horde of Vikings is probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced…
I also love retelling traditional tales: finding new words to tell old stories for today’s young audiences.
I’d been fascinated by Vikings ever since I read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen as a child. But when I was in Orkney researching one of my novels, I discovered the Orkneyinga Saga, written in Iceland more than 500 years ago about the Viking earls of Orkney. And soon I was retelling one particular Orkneyinga episode - the story of Earl Sigurd’s duel with Maelbrigte - to audiences of school children. But I didn’t tell the story the way the ancient Orcadians had told it out loud or medieval Icelanders had written it down.
Because this story was about a Viking invasion of Scotland being stopped by a brave chieftain of Moray, in a rather brutal way. And I was brought up in Moray, so when I considered a story about warriors invading the north of Scotland and battling against the men of Moray, I had fairly strong opinions about who were the real heroes. So I told it from the point of view of the invaded, not the invaders.
And I told Cate, over that cup of cooling peppermint tea, that there were more Viking sagas, and that I suspected they contained lots more exciting and vivid stories, possibly even stories in which I could side with the Vikings.
So, encouraged by Cate’s enthusiasm for drawing warriors, ships and monsters, I went searching for more Norse sagas. I found sagas about merchants, farmers, explorers, sagas about battles, ghosts and magic… And they were, as I’d expected, gloriously exciting stories.
But they weren’t kind or gentle or fluffy stories. Not at all.
I started reading as many Viking sagas as I could, marking any that I thought could be suitable for children. But I didn’t mark very many. Most of the stories were bathed in blood and driven by revenge.
However, the stories were fantastic! (And I love a challenge…) So I kept looking. And I found: a polar bear, a zombie, a magical bird, a riddling god, a dragon…
And I did, eventually, find a few stories which showed a gentler and more generous side of the Vikings, who were not just invaders and warriors, but also wordsmiths, farmers, parents.
I loved researching these stories. I love the originality and vivid nature of the sagas. And I did meet a handful of Vikings that I admired : a pacifist earl, a berserker babysitter, a brave swan girl… But I haven’t substantially changed my view of Vikings as bloody invaders, who revelled in their violent reputation.
So I hope that in choosing and reworking these stories for a young readership, I’ve shown the wonder of the Norse sagas, but I’ve also shown that Vikings aren’t just shiny muscly good-natured thunder gods in films. I hope I’ve reflected the glory of their oral culture and the achievements of their seafaring, but also reflected the darker side of their society and travels.
I hope that children who are fascinated by Vikings will find lots to love in The Dragon’s Hoard, lots to discover and think about. But I also hope that they might find a little bit of compassion for those who met the Vikings for real, not just in stories…
Lari Don is a children’s writer and storyteller. She was brought up in the North East of Scotland, and now lives in Edinburgh. Lari has written many collections of myths and legends, including Breaking The Spell (Frances Lincoln) and Girls Goddesses & Giants (Bloomsbury). She also writes adventure novels, including the Spellchasers trilogy (Floris Books) and picture books, including The Secret of the Kelpie (Floris Books). You can often find Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter and there’s more info about her books and events on www.laridon.co.uk