By Gillian Polack
When an historian who is a novelist reads the books of others, oddities sometimes emerge. In my case, I’m a Medievalist and a novelist, but I’m also someone who researches how narratives are pulled together. I wrote a book recently on the history in fiction, that demonstrates the research side of my life. I simply turn this inside out and upside down for my fiction: my novels test boundaries and play with ideas.
Fortunately for you, my novels aren’t what my columns here will be about. I’m going to look at novels, mostly one at a time, and talk about how they show us the Middle Ages. One day I might talk about food, another about cloaks or politics. I thought a good place to start, however, would be at the very beginning. Food and politics can wait. I want to explore how fiction gives us viewing platforms to see the Middle Ages.
Whenever we read about the Middle Ages we interpret it through our own vision of what the Middle Ages should be. For so many of us, that vision was created by our reaction to the stuff of childhood. Books, games, TV, movies: all kinds of stories. I’ll look at different types of novels and how they show us the Middle Ages for at least the next six columns. Eventually I’ll turn to small things, but I want to explore why we think about things in a certain way before I look at the precise things we think about.
Today I want to look at one of the books from my childhood. What it says about the Vikings still resonates as this behind-the-scene imaging that newer stories get compared with. The book that will start the whole cycle, then is Henry Treece’s 1955 Viking’s Dawn.
The story is about a young man called Harald Sigurdson. He embarks on his first Viking voyage, full of danger and violence and just a little mystery. The year is 750 CE. Treece explains that this is the beginning of the Viking era.
Treece describes Harald Sigurdson’s voyage as in his introduction as “a voyage made by a shipload of northmen”. It’s a good summary.
The whole of Treece’s introduction brings together his view of the Middle Ages as used in the novel and explains what we, as readers, take away about the Middle Ages from this work. Treece says that it’s “perhaps wrong” to think of his northmen as “Norsemen or Danes or Swedes or Finns or Lapps.” He creates a conflated generic Nordic culture for the novel, noting differences in characters’ background while bringing them together across impossibly long distances and with languages that are not close at all. He has used popular history very effectively to create a generic Viking that has commonality with other Vikings. The distances between the place the Finnish crewmember comes from and the actual voyage is not counted, nor are linguistic issues.
Some of this interpretation shows what most people knew about Vikings in the 1950s. Treece has an educated view of them. Some of it is lazy research. Most of it answers the question, “What history do we need in this story?” Treece has created a world for his Vikings that meets the need of his story and only draws directly from history where drawing directly from history also meets the needs of the tale. This is what most writers do in fiction: we write a world for the novel. One of the things I shall explore in this column is how each writer creates their particular Middle Ages and how that Middle Ages works at story feel.
Treece’s story is, from the very first sentence, an adventure. A rollicking, murdering, dangerous adventure. It begins, “Two figures stood in the darkness, a man and a boy.” The darkness lifts to show us the story that is the boy’s life. The Vikings are the encapsulation of this adventure historically. Stories about pirates in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century can also encapsulate this.
Everyday life is secondary to drama. The land law and the oral lore of the various Nordic people are secondary, too, as is the type of law and how it works and what position these seafarers actually played in the communities they touched.
Viking’s Dawn has the flavour of the decade it was written in, when the shape of stories reflected different cultural demands and when the stories of Vikings were considered tales of adventure. The world of books in 1955 is a long way removed from that of 2018. This novel was sold as a children’s book and was found on the children’s shelves in libraries for many years. The level of violence and the shape of masculinity in this novel would make it a far more dubious purchase for current primary school children.
The difference between the reading needs of children and the Viking stories, and the difference between the work being done by historians and archaeologists and what tales we heard of Vikings were both very pronounced during that decade.
In the in 50s and through to the 1960s, the image of Vikings was intensely important. It was one of the critical aspects of the popular Middle Ages. The 1958 movie, The Vikings, was far more about adventure than about known history. Like Treece’s novel, adventure was paramount.
Despite this, the two stories are not quite the same. Treece’s path is a bit more careful than the filmic one. He is still part of that same creation of a mythical Viking. Kirk Douglas could be a player in his novel.
That decade of Vikings has informed a lot of our current Viking stories. Our knowledge of the people and the time has changed, but that underlying type of adventure with strong men and much fighting is still current. Treece’s small novel encapsulates many of the elements that we still associate with this aspect of the Middle Ages.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack