Let us die in the doing of deeds for his sake;
let fright itself run afraid from our shouts;
let weapons measure the warrior’s worth.
Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us:
memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands unforgotten,
high under heaven, the hero’s name.
–from Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson
If I had to choose a favorite sub-genre of fantasy literature it would be those writings showing the clear influence of ancient Northern mythology. Fantasy critic Lin Carter once described a group of writers including the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and William Morris as being possessed by “The Northern Thing”; I too am firmly in that Icelandic grip of iron. There’s just something about tales of pagan heroes possessed of grim northern courage, set against a backdrop of bleak fjords and smoldering mountain peaks and gray lowering skies, that make me want to hop on the nearest dragon-headed longship and go a-viking.
Following in no particular order are my top 10 favorite northern stories. These are stories inspired by northern myth (the Prose and Poetic Eddas), legend (the Icelandic Sagas), or history (the Danish invasions of England), and sometimes all three at once.
1. The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson. Arguably the greatest fantasy novel without the name J.R.R. Tolkien on its cover, The Broken Sword combines Norse mythology, inexorable tragic fate, faerie races vs. encroaching humanity, and Christianity vs. Paganism in a bloodthirsty, unforgettable saga.
2. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson. Anderson makes his second appearance on this list, the only author to do so. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is a terrific, too little known novel that moves with the speed of lightning (just 260 pages) and hits with the impact of Thor’s hammer. It’s also a retelling of the life and times of an actual Danish king of the same name, and is rendered even more powerful and mythic with its tragic Arthurian overtones.
3. The Saxon Stories, Bernard Cornwell. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a Saxon youth captured and raised among the Danes, who then proceeds to spend the next several books in this yet-unfinished series fighting alternately for both sides in war-torn 9th century England. The Saxon Stories features Cornwell, a brilliant historical fiction writer, at his near-best (though I still prefer his Warlord Trilogy) with Viking raids, shield walls, axes, dark ages combat, hall-burnings, and general mayhem galore. Great stuff.
4. Eaters of the Dead, Michael Crichton. Crichton was best known for his tales of science fiction, including Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Congo, Sphere, and The Lost World. But my favorite is his Eaters of the Dead, a retelling of the supposedly authentic travels of Arab Ibn Fadlan and his experiences among the Northmen circa 922 A.D.. Equally or even more so than the ripping story it tells, Eaters of the Dead is a fantastic read due to its up-close examination of viking culture, religion, and philosophy. And it’s highly quotable, too. One of my favorites: The deeds of dead men are sung, and also the deeds of heroes who live, but never are sung the deeds of ordinary men.
5. The Sea of Trolls, Nancy Farmer. One of the better young adult books I’ve read, The Sea of Trolls pushes the genre’s envelope. Although there’s no sex and gore, it does contain a hefty measure of violence and plenty of suffering, fear, and loss. Even so I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it for teenage or adult lovers of Viking-inspired stories. The tale follows the story of a young Saxon boy named Jack and his sister Lucy, captured in a Viking raid led by Olaf One-Brow. Much adventure ensues.
6. American Gods, Neil Gaiman. A ex-convict known as Shadow is approached by a large, bearded, one-eyed man named Wednesday, who turns out to be none other than Odin the All-Father, chief god of the Norse pantheon. Wednesday hires Shadow to be his assistant in what we soon find to be a coming great war—a modern-day Ragnarok—between the old, dying, mostly forgotten gods of dozens of ancient cultures, and the new “American Gods” of wealth, technology, television, and sex. A brilliant book and a marvelous reworking not only of northern myth, but many other cultures as well.
7. Eric Brighteyes, H. Rider Haggard. Recommended to me recently by Jesse Willis of SFFaudio.com, Haggard’s 1890 novel is now one of my favorites. The Icelandic sagas at their heart share a bleakness of vision—a belief that fate is unchangeable, and that all roads end in darkness. In Eric Brighteyes fate is depicted as a tapestry woven by the Three Fates, aka the Norns. Our lives are as threads in this grand but finite pattern, shorn off by the weaver at the Norns’ appointed time. Eric is the archetype of the Nordic hero: Blond, handsome, fearless, and mighty in arms and feats of strength. Yet for all his strength he too is subject to the same forces that rule all men.
8. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation). Beowulf can be read for its straightforward yet compelling story, but the real reward of the ancient epic poem is its wonderful language. Heaney’s translation is a joy to listen to: Great warriors are “wreckers of mead-benches” and kings are “generous ring-givers.” The ocean is a “whale road,” the sun “the world’s candle,” a gleaming sword a “battle-torch.” Favorite quote: For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let anyone who can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark.
9. The Frost Giant’s Daughter, Robert E. Howard. While not accorded one of Howard’s best short stories, The Frost Giant’s Daughter has always resonated with me due to its Northern elements—a clash of Vanir and Aesir on a white illimitable plain, ice-choked mountains, bearded giants, Conan in pursuit of the fair-haired goddess Atali, and the intervention of the god Ymir, who whisks his daughter away from the young Cimmerian’s clutches. It’s a beautifully written interlude by one of fantasy’s best authors.
10. The Children of Hurin, J.R.R. Tolkien. I was tempted to pick the entirety of The Silmarillion, but The Children of Hurin is Tolkien’s version of “The Northern Thing” in its purest distillation. Tolkien was heavily influenced by Northern myth and it’s none more evident than in The Children of Hurin. Heroic and studded with mighty deeds and feats of arms, but bleak, tragic, and ultimately fruitless, this is Tolkien in his darkest (and most Northern) hour.
As much as I love “The Northern Thing” there are some northern stories which I have not yet read (but mean to one day). These include Robert Low’s Oathsworn series, E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong, and The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson.
What are your favorites?