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.