Saturday, November 28, 2009

How I Came To Write 'The Bear-Wife'

During one long, lonely February, I sat by my big picture window, day after day, hour after excruciating hour, watching rain pour down from the sky and feeding my insatiable infant son.  I survived the ordeal, but only thanks to The Greenlanders.  The Greenlanders is Jane Smiley's 584-page novel about the mysterious demise of the Norse Greenland colony.  In the light shed by Ms. Smiley's considerable insight, though, that demise becomes considerably less mysterious and considerably more inevitable.  More rooted in human ignorance and blindness and cruelty than the historians could ever surmise, much less portray.  Was it somehow perverse of me to become so absorbed in this tragic reconstruction of a failed human endeavor at the very time that I should have been celebrating the miraculous beginnings of my own little human endeavor?  Maybe so.  But I chalked it up to my northern temperament:  had Ingmar Bergman ever been required to nurse a baby, he probably would have found himself reading The Greenlanders, too.

Several years later I came across a new translation of some of the Icelandic sagas with a forward by Jane Smiley, and, feeling a connection both to her and to my Scandinavian roots, I picked it up.  Right away, I was captivated.  The characters were flesh-and-blood, eating, sleeping, thinking, planning, sentient beings, just like we are, but almost in the manner of humanoids from one of Star Trek's alien worlds, their motives occasionally wouldn't quite add up, or their actions would sometimes seem a bit "off."  You see, the sagas were written in Iceland about 800 years ago and set 200 years earlier than that.  Light-years away from our world.  And the sagas are sparse in style; many things are unstated, left between the lines.  A contemporary reader would have understood, but the modern reader is left to rely upon her own interpretive abilities and her own detective work.  And, indeed, after some investigating, many of the characters did become understandable to me, and even admirable – even those whom we modern folk might characterize as petty, vindictive, cruel or just plain disgusting!

That volume of stories reinvigorated a connection with the people that I only half jokingly call "my Viking ancestors."  This connection is, to me, a very tangible thing, and I treasure it.  When I'm at home in Sweden I can stand by the graves of my people going back to Viking times and then some.  I've always wanted to know them, but is that even remotely possible?

I continued my detective work, reading Old Norse classics like Snorri's Heimskringla and the Poetic Edda, along with books on Norse religion, law and society.  By far the most inspirational work of modern scholarship that I came across was Neil S. Price's The Viking Way:  Religion and War in Iron Age Scandinavia.  Price challenges us to allow those ancient people their peculiarities, to allow them their profound differences from us, to allow them their own stories.  Captain Kirk would be proud!  Of course, it's easy to honor the prime directive when you know that Scotty can beam you up at any time.  But how did things work on the ground?  Human and animal sacrifice, piracy, evil sorcery, killings for vengeance or just plain provocation:  few stories end – or begin - without blood spillage.  At the same time, though, those people were dependent upon each other and they lived at close quarters:  warriors and traders, farmers and kings, Christians and heathens, slaves and priestesses.  The Viking Age was a productive age of travel and trade, of human craft and expression of all sorts, and its society had a moral equilibrium, one that nurtured it and fueled it and, indeed, drove it, at high-speed, for several centuries.  What was it all about?

Characters started coming to me, and that's when The Bear-Wife began.  It is set in a transitional time, at the meeting between the old beliefs and Christianity, the old political order and the new medieval kingdoms.  It is set in a transitional place, where the rocky Swedish west coast, the open farmland of the south and the forestland of the interior come together.  And it is set amidst the most significant transitional condition of all: life itself, which the Norse saw as a state of constant becoming. 

Where then, is home - the state of physical and spiritual rest?  That is what The Bear-Wife seeks to explore.

The main characters are Geerta, the orphaned daughter of a trader, raised in a heathen household by a Christian servant woman; Helgi, a young Viking warrior groping to understand the spiritual aspect of his vocation; Ragnar, his father, anxious about the plight of his prosperous estate and his chiefdom as he confronts his son's indifference and his own mortality; Fardan, an English missionary priest who struggles to advance his faith in a sometimes hostile setting; and Svanhild, a sorceress and former war-maiden who struggles with the absence of her husband and the uncomfortable nature of her role in society, which is to serve as an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds.  And then, of course, there's the bear.

Geerta and Helgi, cast out from their respective worlds, meet at the threshold of the bear's den, a place where death and birth are merged, and where the very human concerns of finding one's place and of fulfilling one's role can begin to be sorted out.  Together they restore the bear to his rightful place and in doing so are ultimately able to assume their own "rightful places."

Of course, my characters also operate amidst external events - some historical, some fictional, and some that were hatched in my mind to address the mysterious archaeology of the fictional Ragnar's district.  I hope that my characters are not only true to the world-view(s) of the time and place in which they lived, but are also in some way illustrative of a universal human desire to go home in both a physical and spiritual sense, to be at peace with one's duties and one's fate. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Flying Reindeer? Only in Siberia!

Our friends deliver “reindeer food” (oats mixed with glitter) to us every year so that the kids can sprinkle it on the lawn on Christmas Eve.  The people down the street have decorations out front that say “Santa, Land Here,” with red and green pseudo-landing-strip lights along their front walk. But where does the idea of flying reindeer really come from?

A while back I read Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People (see my review). Vitebsky writes from an anthropological, historical and personal perspective about the Eveny and Evenki people of Siberia.

Probably the most important aspect of their traditional culture is their relationship with reindeer. They rely on this partially domesticated animal for food, of course, but also for transportation.  Thousands of years ago the ancestors of the Eveny and Evenki trained reindeer to carry them and pull their sleighs.  During the winters, when the land was frozen “from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals,” reindeer could travel great distances.  Vitebsky testifies that their speed, especially when traveling over frozen bodies of water, is amazing, almost like flying.

But how does this connect with Christmas and Santa’s flying reindeer?

Vitebsky describes a traditional Midsummer ritual among the Eveny, in which people rode reindeer through a symbolic “gateway to the sky” between two larch trees.  He continues:

As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires.  Each person passed around the first fire anti-clockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses.  They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun’s own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.

Prayers were offered to the sun. Then, in a ritual that would bring renewal, each person rode a reindeer through the gateway up to a land near the sun. The reindeer were thus not only valued for transport and sustenance here on earth, but also as a way of reaching the source of life itself, and a way of attaining the blessings of life. Vitebsky explains that at the highest point in their flight, “the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.”

That these ideas are very, very old is proven by the existence of ‘reindeer stones.”  These standing stones date from the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago) and can be found from western Mongolia to 
Manchuria.  Other animals are represented, but reindeer predominate and they are clearly portrayed as flying:  “…neck outstretched and [its] legs flung out fore and aft…the antlers have grown fantastically till they reach right back to the tail, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head.” 

Interestingly, even after the area’s climate dried out, making it unsuitable for reindeer, its inhabitants still looked upon the animal as a mythical link with the supernatural: reindeer figured in legends and their imagery showed up in grave goods and in the tattoos of the Pazyryk people, where “the branching of the reindeers’ antlers sometimes looks like the feathering of birds’ wings, and on some of them each tine of the antler ends in a tiny bird’s head.”  Reindeer have also been associated with shamanic voyages.

Somehow along the way, though, it seems they got mixed up with Germanic pagan traditions of Odin, himself linked with shamanism, who was said to ride an eight-legged, flying horse and lead hunting parties through the northern sky in the winter, evidenced by the aurora borealis. Later came Christian traditions of St. Nicholas, whose feast day, December 6, is near to the winter solstice and who, like Odin, had a along beard and rode a flying horse. British legends of Father Christmas (a later incarnation of the gift-giving St. Nicholas) has him living in Lapland, a land of reindeer with a strong cultural connection to Siberia. How this all came to be is mysterious; it is a demonstration of the amazing way that traditions and legends are woven over time.

It also leaves us free to choose the strands that are most meaningful to us.

Winter solstice celebrations in northern countries have everything to do with renewal and rebirth, with the petitioning of the sun to return and once again bestow its blessings on the earth and its people. Last night, the longest night of the year, we attended a solstice party where a bonfire, good food and the conversation of friends served as symbols of the return of light and life to the earth.

I hope that your version of flying reindeer will bring you to a state of renewal during this dark season which, as of yesterday’s solstice, grows lighter and brighter every day.