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In Historical Fantasy, When Does History End and Fantasy Begin?


The Hanged God trilogy book covers: Northern Wrath, Shackled Fates, Slaughtered Gods

Image: Solaris

In its published format, The Hanged God trilogy is unapologetically epic fantasy, featuring Vikings, gods, giants, fire demons, and magical runes, but the story did not begin that way. At the beginning, I believed that I was setting out on an epic quest to write historical fiction, with an emphasis on the historical.

I wanted the story to be as accurate to the time period as possible. Ironically, it was precisely this wish that eventually caused the entire series to pivot into the realm of fantasy. A development I could not have predicted as I prepared to write the tale, scouring through legal documents from Iron Age Scandinavia to discover how the Vikings truly lived.

I researched the Viking Age for months. With my nose buried in research papers, I toured museums, attended Viking festivals and even ended up joining the wonderful crew of the reconstructed Viking warship, the Sea Stallion. I learned not just what the Vikings did, but how they did it. I knew what foods they enjoyed, how they built their ships, dyed their clothes, how they lived day to day, and what took their fancy. As I learned more about Viking Age people, I even began to understand why they raided.

This last “why, oh why” is our main point of interest.

There are many arguments that historians use to explain why ancient Scandinavians started to go on raids. One example is that Viking Age Scandinavia had a growing population that the land could no longer support. Folk needed to search elsewhere for opportunities, so they took to the sea and fought to earn a right of settlement abroad. Others argue that the promise of riches must have lured many out to sea.

These are both great arguments to explain why they—the Vikings—collectively acted as they did. However, what interested me more than their collective choice, was the choice of the individuals. Why would a singular young Viking Age Scandinavian decide not just to leave the shores of home to trade abroad and to see the world, but specifically to pick up a spear, join a crew, and engage in combat, risking their own lives?

Many must have left for their first raid and never returned, yet it was a culture-wide movement. So many more continued to try their luck in battles abroad. Were they just violent people at the core? I wondered and pondered this as I turned the page of my newly acquired translations of Old Norse myths. As I stared blankly at the ancient text, the key of eureka turned in my mind and Pandora’s box opened before my very eyes. For here was the justification, lying on the table before me. The myths. The gods. They were the answer.

If the core belief of a regular Viking Age farmer was that in order to get to go to the really cool afterlife where they would get to feast with their mates all night, every night, they absolutely need to die in battle, then that is a good incentive to sail out and find (or start) some battles. I could imagine large bands of friends joining the raids together, because they had decided that there was no way that death was going to be what divided them.

Whether the mythology came first and pushed the Norse people out at sea to search for battles, or whether it came afterwards, as they returned from war, to help justify their actions, we may never know. Either way, the Viking way of life, the life as a Nordic raider, is intrinsically connected to the Norse belief system.

Christian rulers in neighboring lands who suffered the constant attacks of raiding Vikings understood this well. Attempts to convert the Norse attackers were underway for centuries. Some attempts were more violent than others. Eventually the tactic succeeded, although it took centuries to convince the fierce raiders that White Christ could be cool. Soon after Scandinavia officially converted to Christianity (soon in historical terms), raids fizzled out and the Viking Age came to an official close. Without the core belief system, the practice of raiding died out, instead of adapting to the new challenges warriors met abroad.

Of course there is always more than one reason why things happen as they do, but when I looked at Vikings after this, I could so clearly see how many of their actions were deeply rooted in their myths and their belief in magic. Yet, even the learned Christian population had a belief in what we today call magic. Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote the first history of Denmark in the 12th century, wrote that Odin was not a god, merely a wizard and that one must understand before reading his historical account that giants did indeed exist in ancient Denmark. Saxo argued that the presence of giants was clearly evidenced by the stones which had been erected thousands of years earlier to make passage graves throughout the lands.

When even Christian scholars centuries later believed so ardently in magic, how could I ignore it? I took to re-reading the Norse stories with fresh insight. In the myths I found reasons for everything.

A reason they did not feel remorse at killing, a reason to go out and search for battles. Even a reason to value one kind of death over another. There was magic in the stories, and when I walked around the forests of Denmark afterwards, and visited old passage graves built five thousand years ago, the landscape seemed to wake up with magic. The roots of the Norse legends were interconnected with the landscape and with their actions in such a way that I could not separate one from the other. I realized that I could not write about the Vikings without writing about their belief systems.

I did try. Yet, it felt disrespectful not to take their belief system seriously. It felt like I was calling my characters stupid for believing in multiple gods, and specifically for believing in Thor who has gained a bit of a different image in modern day media.

By dancing around the question of their beliefs in gods and magic and not fully embracing it, I was making my characters feel like they had no convictions at all and no reason for acting as they did either. I needed more of their beliefs to feature in the story to justify their actions.

That is how I first added a bit of magic. It started as small mysterious occurrences. A belief that the gods were watching. Two ravens cawing in a tree were referred to as Hugin and Munin, the two trusted ravens belonging to the god Odin. Omens and small signs.

Gradually I expanded upon some of the magic I had read about in the sagas, because it felt like it belonged. Runic magic, which could put strength into an object and that quickly evolved. Soon the wind was whispering in Runes and another character had Forefathers stuck inside their mind, and then, it finally happened… a god made a physical appearance on the page.

At that point, I could no longer pretend that I was writing historical fiction. I was like a Norse warrior who had died in bed, arriving in front of Helheim’s gates—I had no choice but to accept my fate.

So, I leaned into magic and fantasy. I referenced myths, some openly and some in more obscure ways, and I welcomed the gods into the narrative. The biggest irony of all is that it was only when I let the magic take over my story and mixed the myths into the historical research that the story actually felt real and convincing.

Only when I included the real beliefs of people in the Viking Age, did their actions make sense. Only then did the story finally feel exactly as I wanted it to feel—accurate.

The Hanged God trilogy is available now from Solaris publishing.


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