Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Interview with M. D. Lachlan (Wolfsangel), Part Four

Click here for Part Three of the interview.

KS - Although your book weaves together the stories of many deeply-constructed individuals, Vali is arguably the "main character." There are two Vális in Norse myth. One is the son of Odin who will avenge his father’s slaying by the wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok and go on to survive the Twilight of the Gods. The other is the son of Loki, turned into a wolf by the gods. He kills his brother Nari (or Narfi), and the poor fellow’s guts are subsequently used to bind his father Odin in his cave of torment. Wolfsangel, with Loki as the father of both Vali and Feilig, clearly uses the second of these myths. That explains Vali’s name, but why did you call his brother Feileg? The closest I can come to interpretation is jeg feile – Norwegian for “I fail.” Is his name a coded foreshadowing of his inability to stop the tragedies at the end of the book, or is there some other reference?

M. D. Lachlan (a.k.a. Mark Barrowcliffe)

ML - Félagi or Félagr are names meaning "fellow" and it’s an adoption of those – as I generally prefer to avoid accents whenever I can. I thought there was a source for it in one of the sagas but, like you, I can find no trace of it now, which is annoying. Again, I go back to the academic/creative writer thing. I don’t have to do a glossary so I don’t keep track of my references.

KS - Early in Wolfsangel, the Viking characters come into violent contact with people they refer to only as "West Men." The term comes from the Old Norse vestmenn, which referred to the Irish. Despite what is in the publisher’s blurb, the actual text never specifically calls them Saxons – Anglo or otherwise. When your character Vali participates in his first Viking raid, is it meant to be an Irish village, an Anglo-Saxon village, or is it modeled on the historical raid on the Lindisfarne monastery off northeast England’s Northumbrian coast? You have said that the book "begins roughly at the dawn of the Viking era, which is 793. That’s when the first Viking raid began on British shores, anyway." This is, of course, the date of the Lindisfarne raid - which leads me to believe that Vali is actually participating in this historical event.

Unfortunately for the monks, Lindisfarne Castle wasn't there in Viking times

ML - It is modeled on Lindisfarne. I couldn’t find out if the Vikings actually used the name "Saxons," so I settled on West Men as a generic term. I found it very difficult to establish exactly what the monastery would have looked like at this period – the people at the Lindisfarne museum didn’t really know, so I had to base my description on other, contemporary descriptions of monasteries. It’s not meant to be Lindisfarne exactly because it’s a flatter island, and it’s made clear (I think) that raids are already underway.

KS - Wolfsangel features terrifying berserks "from the northern cult of Odin the Frenzied" who drink a mind-altering mushroom soup to enter a state of battle madness. The most prominent of them is Bodvar Bjarki – named for Bödvar Bjarki ("little bear of battle") who appears in the Icelandic Hrólfs saga kraka and Saxo’s History of the Danes and may share a common origin with the character of Beowulf ("bee-wolf" = bear). While the Icelandic, Danish and English characters are heroes, this berserk is definitely a villain, and is more like the wicked berserks fought against by Egill Skallagrímsson and Haldan, the champion of Thor. Was there a specific literary or historical figure that you modeled this character after?

Berserker chess piece found in Scotland (from circa 1150)

ML - I don’t find him villainous. I find him a bit stupid but he has a strong moral code and is prepared to die by the laws he lives by. He’s not a coward and, though he likes a scrap, there’s nothing other than his opposition to Vali that qualifies him as villainous. He’s an antagonist, but is that the same as a villain? He kills some slaves they can’t fit on a boat, he picks unnecessary fights, but he’s bound by his oaths and he seeks fame and glory. I rather liked him! He gives respect to Vali when he proves himself in battle, he’s brave and applies the same standards to himself as he does to others. I took the name because I liked it and it had a good association with Beowulf which gave me a solid impression of what he looked like while I was writing the book. He is modeled on contemporary accounts of berserkers and freebooters who would use holmgang law – the right to decide disputes by combat – in order to steal whole farms from people.

KS - In Wolfsangel, female characters (Adisla and Jodis) pray to Freya, berserks pray to Odin, one of Authun’s retainers prays to Frey (and Tyr and Thor), the warrior Bragi (named for the god of poetry) invokes Tyr (and "Thor’s bulging nut sack"). During the Danes’ attack on Vali’s village, their religious predilections are described: "There was a roar like a landslide, and the enemy were charging, screaming oaths to Thor, the thunder god, and Tyr, god of war. The name of Odin was not on their lips. These were not berserks, and the hanged god was too peculiar, mysterious, and mad for the average farmer or bodyguard." This nicely reflects the influence of gender and social status on an individual’s choice of gods.

Maybe Freya - Viking pendant from Tissø, Denmark

Aside from Odin and Loki, however, the Norse gods don’t appear in your book. They are mentioned by the human characters, but it isn’t clear that – in the universe of your novel – they actually exist. Do they, or are Loki and Odin the only "real" gods in your fictional world? You give one of the meanings of the Wolfsangel symbol as "thunderbolt." Does this mean that Thor will be appearing in a later novel?

ML - Thor is a very difficult god to represent in my world because he’s so straightforward. I’m dealing in sinister and weird forces that exist at the edges of human sanity. I can’t think where the giant-crushing, hammer-throwing, serpent-smashing Thor would fit in to this. He makes a brief appearance at the end of Lord of Slaughter, but I may even cut that in the final edit. He’s not alien enough for the world of Wolfsangel – which may, of course, be one of the reasons he was popular enough to be represented as the chief among gods at the temple at Uppsala described by Adam of Bremen. I don’t like the word "liminal" which gets very much overused in all creative endeavors, but Loki and Odin are liminal figures – or at least subject to that interpretation. Thor is much more solid and earthy, at least in my imagination.

Maybe Thor's goats - another find from Tissø, Denmark

KS - The absence of other gods in Wolfsangel gives "the endless battle between the wolf, Odin, and Loki" a flavor that, again, seems to fit more into a Judeo-Christian worldview than a polytheistic one. Odin and Loki’s battle – and the position of the werewolf between the two mystic forces – feels like the struggle between the Christian God and Satan, with Jesus as the character given physical, earthly form. Why did you decide on this somewhat Manichean view of Good (Loki, friend to mankind) and Evil (Odin, bringer of death) instead of a more ambivalent, polytheistic setting?

ML - SPOILER ALERT IN THIS REPLY The endless battle is a publisher’s blurb, not my description. I would argue my view is not Manichean. Odin is a complex figure, almost at war with himself. Remember, the Witch Queen is one of his victims and SPOILER ALERT he is the cause of her death as EVEN BIGGER SPOILER ALERT she is one of his embodiments. Loki characterizes himself as Odin’s servant. It’s not a straightforward position of enmity and – at the end – it’s plain Loki has been tricked into doing as Odin wants. He’s an instrument of Odin in a way that the Devil is not an instrument of God (though, if you start thinking about it, as chief warden of Hell the devil’s actually responsible for inflicting God’s punishment).

Maybe Odin with Raven Helmet (also from Tissø)

I do accept that I’ve cut the number of gods who appear in Wolfsangel and, in that sense, you could see a Judeo-Christian style opposition in the story. This was for dramatic reasons. The focus is the human characters. I just didn’t want to start cramming lots of other gods in as they would be distracting.– although Freya is in the original WWII version.

KS - Your “witch queen of the mountains, that mind-blown child” is called Gullveig ("gold-draught") and is named for an Eddic figure usually associated with Freya, especially in her relationship to both gold and magic. In Wolfsangel, the witches have piles of golden treasure molding in their dark caves, and Gullveig is known "to some of the local people as Huldra" – a variant name-form for Huld or Holda, who is sometimes portrayed as a practitioner of seid-magic and a mistress of Odin. Near the end of the novel, Gullveig presents herself to Adisla using magic and appears as what seems to be a vision of the goddess Freya : "The lady was dressed in a fine robe embroidered with gold; a beautiful necklace burned at her throat and a crown of sapphires shone like ice in the sun upon her head. Even the dark seemed to peel away around this lovely woman."

Freya by James Doyle Penrose (circa 1890)

When you describe the piles of treasure in Gullveig’s horde, you write: "Jewels were called the tears of Freya, after the goddess who was said to weep them. He had thought it just a story for winter. But now he saw that tears and precious things have their fates tightly bound." This is a very interesting idea; it explains the kenning for gold ("Freya’s weeping") by connecting wealth to misery. I don’t think it spoils your book’s plot to say that Gullveig is not actually Freya. Did you give her this name to deepen the mystery surrounding the character, or are you putting forward the idea that Freya is merely a reflection of Odin – a sort of valkyrie messenger or “wish maiden”? How does this fit in with your use (or not) of the Norse pantheon?

ML - In the WWII version, the witch has an absolute correspondence with Gullveig – three times burned – the gold-hungry witch.

Gullveig's Execution by Anker Eli Petersen (2003)

In that version she was an incarnation of Freya and when the Nazis summon her, they get a lot more than they bargained for because of her insatiable appetite for gold. There was a really fun scene where the chief Nazi psycho contradicts her and finds himself unable to speak any more. The Nazis don’t realize she’s appeared in their midst – they only know that one of their officer’s wives is showing uncanny powers of prophecy. When they try to control her, a rising panic goes through their ranks as they find out that Norse goddesses are not so easily controlled and, in fact, are a whole lot more used to controlling.

When I rewrote the book, I kept the name but not the correspondence. I didn’t actually see who Gullveig really was until about half way through the book. It came as a surprise to me. The description of the necklace is inspired by the Brisingamen necklace that belonged to Freya. In the original Wolfsangel, it’s described as "burning with all the colors of a city on fire."

KS - The spirit of the 10th-century Icelander Egill Skallagrímsson seems to permeate the book. Chapter Five is called “The Loss of Sons,” which is the English name for Sonatorrek, arguably Egill’s best-known poem. When Gullveig sends Feileg to be raised by úlfhednar (“wolf-skins”), the boy is trained by Kveld Ulf ("night wolf"), which is the nickname of Úlfr Bjálfason, Egill’s grandfather. Egil’s Saga reports that "every day towards evening he would grow so bad-tempered that few people dared even address him. He always went to sleep early in the evening and woke up early in the morning. People claimed he was a shape-shifter and they called him Kveldulf." The original Kveldulf is no werewolf, but really just a grumpy old man. Your Kveld Ulf may not be a geezer, yet he is also not a true werewolf, "but a man who had become by instinct and thought half animal."

Egill Skallagrímsson raises níðstöng
("scorn-pole") by Gustav Vigeland

Feileg and Kveld Ulf, like the berserkers in the novel, drink mushroom potions and hallucinate. They put on wolf skins and prey on hapless travelers, like Sigmund and Sinfjötli in the Völsunga Saga. You have said that many of the tropes of the werewolf – full moon, silver bullets, etc. – are really Hollywood creations of the 20th century, and that "my wolf is closer to the wolf of the Norse myth." However, Vali’s first "transformation" occurs under "a huge full moon." Aren’t the werewolves of Norse legend really metaphorical or psychological? When it comes down to it, aren’t your men in wolf skins more like saga werewolves and the mystical monster of your book more a creature of the modern horror genre?

ML - The mystical monster’s transformation occurs over a period of about three months (maybe longer, I honestly can’t remember) – not at any one time. I admit that I do put some moon imagery in, but it’s not cited as a cause of his transformation. It’s more in the spirit of playing with the reader’s expectations. By saying that my werewolf is closer to that of Norse myth, I meant the conception of lycanthropy as something you take on as a choice – through sorcery – or as a curse. Sinfjotli in the Volsung saga has a little of both aspects.

Full moon and northern lights in Norway

But yes, the men in wolfskins are more akin to saga werewolves than the mystical monster. My Kveld Ulf may not be a true werewolf, but he does a good impression. He’s mistaken for a wolf by Feileg when he first sees him. I would say the monster is nearer to other mythic traditions – Greek and Roman, where the werewolf does not get to change back – than it is to modern horror. However, there’s undoubtedly the influence of modern horror there, it’s just not swallowed hook, line and sinker.

In fact, if there’s an inspiration for the mystical werewolf in Wolfsangel, it’s Kafka’s Metamorphosis. What level of horror can love survive? How much must someone change before they’re no longer really them? Kafka asks those questions and provides his answers. I came to the same conclusions.

KS - There are some very clever moments in the book dealing with religion. Vali misunderstands an embroidered image of Christ on the cross: "It was a strange but beautiful representation of Odin suspended from a tree, a spear piercing his side. It was a depiction, he felt, of the god’s quest for wisdom at the well of Mimir, where he had given up his eye for knowledge." At another point, Loki says, "Have you not heard the stories? Of how the gods can split off a hair and grow it as a man, how their incarnations forget their godly origin and live as ordinary people. More of a challenge to be a god and not know it, I think, than to walk secure in your divinity as Jesus did." You have written, "I have no axe to grind for Odinism or Christianity. I find both very interesting myths." After delving so deeply into the subject as you wrote this novel, what do you think is relevant about these ancient religious systems for contemporary life?

8th-century Irish crucifix

ML - Clearly there’s an awful lot relevant for contemporary life with Christianity – at least in the USA, where it has a firm cultural hold. One of the things that’s always amazed me about American friends is how atheism seems to be a statement of some sort for them. In the UK it’s the default position – I knew no one who went to church until I met my wife and you never hear politicians thanking God the same way you do in the US. You’ll notice Blair – a religious man – just said "we don’t discuss that" when asked about God during his time in office. He feared his faith would lose him votes. It’s a surprise in the UK to meet people who are religious, and – particularly in metropolitan, educated circles – it comes as a shock if you discover one of your friends is. It’s also something that’s more likely to hamper you at work than get you on. I can’t think of many corporate types who would happily admit to being churchgoers. You’d be seen as a little weird. I don’t share that view myself, or I wouldn’t have married a Christian, but I mention it as it’s a key cultural difference between the US and the UK.

The relevance of Christianity to modern life has been discussed ad infinitum by much more learned people than me. One that modern Christians might like to ponder, though, is the Sermon on the Plain – "But woe to you who are rich, because you have received your comfort." From my reading of the Bible, it seems entirely incompatible with modern consumer culture or capitalism as a whole. Can a Christian buy an iPod while Africa starves? Luckily, I don’t have to answer these questions myself!

Thor with iPod by Marko Djurdjevic

The Norse myths have great relevance for anyone who cares to read them. In particular, Hávamál – the Ballad of the High One – contains very good advice on everything from how to get on with people at a dinner to the transitory value of worldly goods. Some of the advice is inappropriate to our modern society, but some of it is timeless.

Both myths, of course, contain the destruction of the world as a certainty. That is irrelevant for modern life – our future is in our hands.

KS - Your portrayal of religious ritual mixes historical information with neo-pagan beliefs. On the historical side, Adisla is threatened with hanging at midsummer as "Odin’s bride." Disa inhales herb-smoke and chants meditatively, cutting an Ansuz rune on piece of wood and coloring it with her blood. Vali undergoes ritualized drowning to gain mystic knowledge from Odin, and is told that "we’ll put a noose on you. It’s a symbol so the god can find you." Chapter 21 is called "The Drowning Pool," the English name for Drekkingarhylur in Iceland’s Þingvellir – actually a place of Christian punishment for "guilty women" until 1838. Ancient bodies left as bog sacrifices (presumably to Odin) in Denmark – as well as descriptions in various historical documents – show a combination of hanging, stabbing and drowning. In Hávamál, Odin himself ties this all together:
Do you know how to carve, do you know how to interpret,
Do you know how to stain, do you know how to test out,
Do you know how to ask, do you know how to sacrifice,
Do you know how to dispatch, do you know how to slaughter?
Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool) in Þingvellir

On the neopagan side, Disa has her hair braided "at the back in three tight knots," which you describe as "the hanging knots of the dead lord’s necklace – symbol of Odin." Elsewhere, you call this symbolic shape "the three tight interlocking triangles – the dead lord’s necklace, sign of the god Odin, the berserk, the hanged, the drowned, the wise and the mad, the god to whom she had dedicated her life." This seems to reference Alby Stone’s idea of connecting the ancient (but mysterious) symbol to both the hangman’s noose and to ancient hairstyles. Did you research neo-pagan beliefs while writing the novel? Did you attend rituals or correspond with any contemporary practitioners?

ML - I think I’m aware of neo-pagan beliefs from my adolescent interest in them. The hanging knot had a great significance in the WWII story and is known to modern pagans as the Valknut. I did use a lot of Alby Stone’s ideas in conceptualizing it. Its use in my story is related to this, but you’ll see that the image of the triple knot is at the heart of Wolfsangel and to the ongoing series – from the way that Adisla, Feileg and Vali are bound to how other characters relate in the follow-up Fenrir.

So-called "Valknut" on 9th-century carving from Lärbro, Sweden

I’m aware the bog sacrifices show a combination of hanging, stabbing and drowning, and Wolfsangel contains an explanation of why that might have been. The sorcerer goes to the bog (in Wolfsangel it’s called a "mire"; "bog" is British slang for "toilet") to contact the other world. He may be possessed by dark forces and so his friends wait to kill him, if he is. This is, clearly, a step too far in interpretation for any historian to make. However, I’m not a historian so I can use the ancient religious practice as a jumping off point for my imagination.

KS - Describing your version of seid (simply put, “sorcery” or “magic”), you have said that "it is basically the magic system that operates in the real world. When I say that, that doesn’t mean I believe in real-world magic, but this is what people attempt when they attempt magic in the real world. Christian ascetics – i.e., people who go to the desert for thirty days, thirty nights or longer, live in the desert, starving – Indian yogis, American Indian holy men, particularly shamen from all cultures suffer in order to invoke magical visions or magical consciousness inside themselves." Your portrayal of a "magic of suffering" in Wolfsangel feels right; it emotionally resonates as an elaboration of the rituals hinted at in Norse myth and saga. Were these scenes in the novel based on any personal experience with, say, meditation or hallucinogens? Were they based on research that you’ve done, or did you imaginatively follow the implications of seid as it is described in the Old Norse texts?

ML - A bit of both. My experience of magic is heavily influenced by my teenage use of hallucinogens – psilocybin magic mushrooms which, I hasten to add, were legal in my country at the time I was taking them. The interesting thing about them, I found, was not the visual hallucinations they caused but the emotional effect. You start to feel emotions for which there are no words at all. I always used to get a sort of creeping, knowing paranoia descending into a conspiratorial but vulnerable sort of giggling. The descriptions of the werewolf transformation, where the werewolf finds himself giggling, his nose dribbling with snot, the world seeming hostile, beautiful and strange are basically descriptions of coming up on mushrooms – particularly in the scene at the Saami camp.

norsemyth.org does not endorse drug use.
Poster by R. Crumb (1971)

The reason I stopped taking mushrooms was that I genuinely feared being tipped over the edge into madness. That significant downside of the experience is in Wolfsangel, too.

The descriptions are equally influenced by the experience of being extremely tired, working late or – as a kid – doing all night wargames. Time becomes elastic, minutes stretching to hours but suddenly snapping back when you realize it’s becoming light.

There are descriptions of Norse vala – female magic practitioners – sitting on high chairs to conduct their ceremonies. It occurred to me that this might be because it’s very difficult to sleep on a high chair, and that went into my description of the ceremony Disa conducts. There’s no historical reason to think this was the case, but I thought it an interesting idea.

Click here for Part Five of the interview.


Raksha said...

I just came across this blog not long ago and I've been reading through some of the entries and I just wanted to leave a comment saying how much I enjoy it. You've got great interviews and I really appreciate how intelligent and in-depth they are.

This book series in particular sounds fascinating! I'll have to check it out :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a wonderful piece, I really enjoyed reading it.

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