What if the Norse religion of the Vikings had overcome Christianity? That is one of the questions Ian Stuart Sharpe explores in his debut novel, The All Father Paradox, which is the first in series he calls the Vikingverse. The CEO of Promethean, a Canadian technology firm, his first foray into writing recently earned him the 2018 Cover of the Year from The Qwillery. We had a chance to interview Ian about his novel and his interest in the Norse mythology.
There is a great line in the 2007 movie version of Beowulf: “The time of heroes is dead: the Christ god has killed it, leaving nothing but weeping martyrs and fear and shame”.
But the movie quote resonates with us today because it speaks of loss and longing. The time of heroes has passed, and we will never see their like again. By extension, we, the viewer, acknowledge our world is one we view through a lens of fear and shame.
Of course, the only Biblical references in Beowulf manuscript are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. Beowulf’s own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the “Father Almighty” or the “Wielder of All.”
Imagine for a moment that you are Beowulf. You live in a world that you believe is coming to a fiery end: Ragnarok. Ragnarok is the end of everything: the very gods themselves will perish. Nothing will be spared – not hope, not dreams, not your culture, nor your children. Would you be paralyzed into indecision and fear?
Yet for the Vikings, the tale wasn’t suffocating. It was a call to action. Just as the gods will one day die, so too will each of us. The skalds told us that the gods will ride out and face their doom with courage and bravery, and so should mortal man. The inevitability of our demise was our spur to great and noble deeds. The time of heroes.
It was only when Christian influences invaded this age-old worldview, in the 10th and 11th centuries, that rebirth and renewal became part of the equation. Ragnarok ceased to be anything more than a changing of the guard, a symbolic switch to a more palatable and rewarding theology. “You will get your reward in heaven” was the original Project Fear.
I found the dichotomy between these outlooks, and the fact they co-existed for a time, to be fascinating. And when you look at the crazy circus show around us, with global temperature rises about to make Ragnarok a reality, the only sensible outlook is to act like a Norseman. Face the inevitable with courage and bravery and make a difference. That’s what makes them worth writing about.
The All Father Paradox is your debut novel. How long did it take you to write?
Months, maybe six all told. And two years from starting to type to hitting the shelves.
A novel is a moment. A snapshot of time. My alternate universe is born of global warming, and insects vanishing, and nations howling in outrage at each other. I wanted to hold up a cracked mirror to the here and now, and that came with a sense of immediacy of purpose.
But what I really wanted to do, was to tell a story that involved the sweep of history. To look at case and effect, to tell the story of our language and our sense of place. To reclaim the time of heroes that is rooted in early medieval literature.
What kind of research did you do before/during the writing of The All Father Paradox?
There is a wonderful word: hoodwink. It encapsulates all the research I did. Nowadays, we recognise it as a con, a deceit or a hoax. But it once meant “to cover the eyes” – often a prisoner would be hoodwinked with a hood or blindfold on the way to the gallows. Perhaps that’s the ultimate trick, to disguise the end of life.
History is about perspective. It is a source of endless wonder to me that even individual words can change their shape and slide into a new meaning. Watching that transformation of thinking, looking at how what we believe changes, and then finding the connections between those changes was the bulk of the research.
For instance, I love the fact that Odin is known as the Hanged God and the Lord of the Gallows, when he is the greatest hoodwinker of them all.
Your book re-imagines the history of the world with Norse mythology replacing the Roman Catholic Church as the major historical building block of the past two millennia. Can you tell us a little about what went into reconstructing history? What are some of the results of this?
Let’s focus in on Christianity for a moment to answer that. Let’s get right back to the start of it all.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.
It’s one of the fundamental beliefs of most of Western society. Soon enough we have the Tree of Knowledge and the first man, Adam. And then God created Eve, by removing a “rib” from Adam’s body and fashioning it into the first woman.
But according to Norse myth, Ask and Embla are the first humans (from Old Norse: Askr ok Embla)– male and female, respectively, the “Adam and Eve” of Norse mythology.
The three brothers Vili, Vé, and Odin, are the creators of the first man and woman. The three deities found two tree trunks, perhaps driftwood, lying on the beach. They took the wood and from it created the first human beings; Ask and Embla. One of the three gave them the breath of life, the second gave them movement and intelligence, and the third gave them shape, speech, hearing and sight. Further, the three gods gave them clothing and names. Ask and Embla go on to become the progenitors of all humanity and were given a home within the walls of Midgard.
Now look at the subtle difference. The Bible’s “She shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” versus Gylfaginning’s equal partners. The first one always seemed – to me at least – to have a kind of preordained glass ceiling built right in at the get-go. Imagine a more equitable role for the sexes played out over the centuries along the Ask and Embla model, born of the tree, whose very names mean Ash and Elm.
So what went into reconstructing history? Let’s just call it a root and branch review of the fundamentals.
Working in the video game industry for many years, is there any inspiration from that time that went into writing this book?
Certainly, I’ve played some amazing games over the years and there has been a noteworthy resurgence of Norse related games recently – the Banner Saga, Expeditions: Viking, Northgard. My kids are now old enough to tackle Skyrim. When I am I always think of Iain (M.) Banks and some of his great scenes, seemingly born of too many nights on a PC. And so, I’ve certainly led armies and conquered worlds, from Civilisation to Crusader Kings. I even spent a whole month trying to get authentic looking screengrabs of the fall of Rome and Constantinople using Attila: Total War. I’ve posted a few on the Vikingverse Facebook page.
But actually, playing games is a distraction. It is problem solving and task completion, rather than inspiration and world-building. I can honestly say that the pen is mightier than the pixel.
There are several popular books that that retrace history, such as The Years of Rice and Salt. What sets the Vikingverse series apart from other speculative fiction retellings?
The Year of Rice and Salt is a compelling example of the alternate history genre, based on a world where the Black Death killed 99% of Europe’s population, instead of a third and the Mughal Emperor Akbar being the last character with a real-world counterpart. Robinson’s take on alternate history is that because it “is set in the same lawful universe as ours, its science must be the same [and] because its people have the same basic human needs, their societies resemble ours”.
The Vikingverse takes a different mindset. As we note on the book jacket, in this new Vikingverse, “the storied heroes of mankind emerge in new and brutal guises drawn from the sagas”.
I think the best way to show off the differences of the alternate history is to keep real-world counterparts – icons of the ages – beyond the point of divergence. For instance, I take Albert Einstein – who is mentioned a few times in the book – and deliver him back as Aðalbriktr Einnsteinen, which is the Old Norse version of his name. And as his name is different, his science is different, his world view is different, the driving mythology is different. After all, this is not a universe of fear and shame; this is the time of heroes renewed.
And one where the Gods really do play dice.
Photos courtesy Ian Stuart Sharpe