Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Interview with Joanne Harris (Runemarks and Runelight), Part Four

Click here for the previous installment of the interview.

Joanne Harris & the Doors of Perception – Photograph by Jennifer Robertson

KS – There are elements of contemporary pagan practice that appear in Runemarks and Runelight – including the use of runestones for divination (as opposed to the wooden strips of Tacitus) and the importance placed on reversed runes. While runologists agree that historical rune usage made no distinctions regarding the direction a runic text was written in – or even the orientation of any given rune in relation to its neighbors – some pagans today have worked up a complex system of rune-orientation based more on tarot divination and the I Ching than on what little is known of northern pre-Christian divinatory practice. You have written, “I don’t belong to any gang, political, religious or otherwise. And I’m allergic to words that end in –ist.” Understood. I’m just curious about your relationship to historical and modern paganism as a creative artist. Are your ideas about rune magic inspired more by ancient or modern conceptions? Are you more interested in how the runes were used in pre-conversion Europe or how they’re used in the modern world?

JH – I don’t think we can truly know how the runes were originally used. We can try to guess – and there are clues to be found, both in ancient texts and in the original languages – but my view is that belief in magic, like belief in religion, is a very personal thing. Blind adherence to rules set out a thousand or two thousand years ago is as pointless as trying to pretend that scientific advancement has not changed our perception of the Divine. My attitude is this: if it works for you, then that’s the way to do it for you. It may not work for anyone else, but that isn’t your problem. To paraphrase Siddharta, everyone follows his own path. If you’re following anyone else – even me – you’re going the wrong way.

"Fava Bean Elder Futhar Rune Set" Seriously. "Futhar" runes made from fava
beans. Sold as "perfect for those practicing Italian witchcraft." What.

My interest in runes spans both the ancient and modern beliefs. I included rune-casting in the “modern pagan” sense because, regardless of its usage (or not) in earlier times, it has been assimilated into modern practice to fit changing times and attitudes. This I think is perfectly acceptable; we should not feel constrained to think backward in terms of spirituality, but to build on whatever wisdom we have inherited.

KS – At one point in Runemarks, Maddy thinks through the various explanations of earthquakes she’s been given. One ties them to the writhing of the World Serpent at the root of the World Tree; one connects them to a semi-Christian idea of the struggles of wicked souls in the underworld as they wait for the End of Days. Odin provides a third explanation, telling Maddy about “rivers of fire under the earth and avalanches of hot mud and mountains boiling over like kettles; but this seemed to Maddy to be the least likely explanation of all, and she was inclined to believe that he had exaggerated the tale, as he did so many things.” This can be read as fairly accurate representation of the struggle between religious belief and scientific understanding here in the United States, unfortunately! Religion offers simple answers and eternal truths; science asks for complex thought and constant questioning. How would you describe the relationship between religion and science in the United Kingdom today?

Earthquakes are actually caused by the
Amazing Lava Man. Everybody knows that.

JH – I guess we have the same conflicts as in the US. We in the UK tend to inherit the US’s social problems somewhere along the line, including some of the more extreme manifestations of religious mania. We have not yet gone so far as to teach creationism in our schools, but it’s only a matter of time. Already a number of Catholic schools have refused to allow their female pupils to take a vaccine that protects them against cervical cancer on the grounds that it would “encourage immorality.” The heart sinks at such stupidity. But . . .

I don’t believe the role of religion should be to offer “simple answers.” Like Goethe’s Faust – as opposed to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus – I think that the human condition is to strive, and that as soon as we stop striving (to explore, to understand, to create, to live in harmony with each other), then we have lost our way. In ancient times, our perception of the divine was limited by our limited knowledge of the world around us. At that time, it was perfectly acceptable to believe in such things as a flat earth or a physical Hell, to see perfectly natural phenomena as part of a supernatural universe.

Doctor Faustus making a deal with the Devil

The God of the Old Testament (and elsewhere) is a very primitive depiction of the divine – as represented by some very primitive people living in a primitive time, who see him as a kind of vengeful warlord with a mentality as barbaric as their own. The God of the New Testament is very different. Two thousand years later, even aspects of the New Testament (the Immaculate Conception, etc.) are being disputed by the church, and many parts of the Old Testament (e.g., stoning your son for drunkenness, not wearing mixed fibers, human sacrifice, etc.) have been dismissed by most as no longer valid in a modern context.

What I’m saying is that, as our knowledge of the universe has expanded, so should our appreciation of the divine. I don’t see science and religion as mutually exclusive. The world is changing constantly. So must our assumptions.

KS – Your novels contain several clever examples of folk etymology. Æsir is linked to Seer-Folk, which is reminiscent of Snorri Sturluson’s idea that the Æsir came from Asia. This is an interesting take on oral transmission and transmutation. You’ve written that “no-one had written [the Norse myths] down at the time, and the fullest accounts came from Christian chroniclers centuries later, and were at best, incomplete, and at worst, badly distorted.” In Runemarks, Loki says that “there’s rather a lot the Oracle didn’t foretell, and old tales have a habit of getting twisted.” The tagline for Runelight is “Never trust an Oracle,” and there’s a suggestion that Völuspá simply contains the untrustworthy words of a prophetess, not a statement of fact or religious dogma. I really like your idea that the myths may not tell the whole truth, which ties in with the debate (among both scholars and heathens) about the trustworthiness of the surviving mythology as an actual record of pre-Christian belief. Many of your characters were worshiped as living gods in the ancient North (and in modern pagan revivals), and we know that at least some actual religious belief is recorded in the myths. How do you personally see the relationship of religion, myth and literature? How does it affect you as an author to know that some readers literally worship the characters your write about?

How much can we trust the Völuspá prophetess?
Faroe Islands postage stamp by Anker Eli Petersen

JH – I don’t see the gods of Runemarks as my characters or my property, and I hope I’ve left enough leeway in my fiction for my Ásatrú readers to understand that I am not in any way trying to make fun of the gods they worship. What I’m trying to do in my way is to demonstrate how stories evolve and how heroes – be they religious figures, historical figures or both – cast long shadows in their wake. These shadows become part of the oral and written tradition and, as centuries pass, are embellished, rewritten and re-interpreted by successive generations. Thus a hero can become a god or a god dwindle into legend. I hope I haven’t offended anyone who truly believes; that was never my intention.

Some selected Norse gods on the Runemarks cover

KS – Your portrayal of the Order – the new religion that basically takes over after Ragnarök – is pretty grim. You write that the Order’s “temples were built on the ruins of springs and barrows and standing stones that once were sacred to an older faith” and that its members kill animals born with runemarks, take babies born with runemarks away from their parents, empty pagan barrows and reconsecrate them, and hang and burn pagans as people “who were in fact the servants of the enemy, and therefore had no souls to save.” You have written that you don’t hate Christians or “the Catholic Church, organized religion or any other kind of religious group. What I do hate is intolerance, repression, moral superiority, the concepts of original sin, holy war and eternal damnation, plus the various acts that certain individuals are willing to perpetrate in the name of their religion, certain that God is on their side.” Without ever mentioning Christianity in your novels, it’s pretty clear that the Order is a mythologized version of the Church, since so many of your examples parallel the actual (and often violent) history of northern conversion. There are a vast number of ways to turn Norse mythology into modern fiction (cf. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, M.D. Lachlan’s Wolfsangel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Thor, etc.), but you chose to focus on the (literarily transformed) clash between paganism and Christianity. Why did you choose this particular aspect?

JH – Because it is the closest thing to what really happened to our indigenous beliefs. In Pendle, not far from where I live, there are still gibbets where witches were hanged. In Europe, the early Christian church was responsible for centuries of gruesome persecution – as well as the destruction of many precious ancient texts – in the attempt to stamp out all previous beliefs. There’s a reason they’re called the Dark Ages. And to think that certain people are trying to take us back there . . .

Today, there's a lot of talk about a war on religion and a war on women.
Way back in 1612, the ladies of Pendle really had it rough.

However, I still dispute that the Order is a mythologized version of Christianity. For a start, no mention of Christ, or any Christ-figure is ever made. In parenthesis, can I say that I do believe in the historical figure of Jesus, though not in his divinity? To me, he is a marvelous example of a truly wise man whose excellent advice – to be good to each other – has been shanghaied throughout history by people who have twisted his words to fit their twisted agenda. Christianity is not the only patriarchal religion in the world, and – as far as I’m concerned – they are all equally to blame for the spread of intolerance, hypocrisy, religious hatred and holy war.

Rant over. Moving on . . .

KS – In Runelight, Maggie (at least at the beginning) is a dedicated believer in the Order. She wears “a white headscarf of the type World’s Enders called the bergha,” which seems clearly connected to the burqa worn by traditional Muslim women. She has been trained to be unimaginative, to be obedient – and she responds emotionally to language “of sacrifice, and power, and mysteries.” You also mention “wealthy Outlanders with their strings of wives, veiled from head to foot in black, dark eyes modestly lowered.” Given your statements about religious intolerance and repression, was this meant to point out commonalities in the treatment of women in Christian and Muslim societies?

JH – Absolutely. And remember, traditional Muslim dress is not so different to the way in which women in Europe traditionally dressed,or the way modern nuns still veil their heads and shoulders. Remember too that – during the first part of the Middle Ages – a woman wearing men’s clothing was punishable by death; the charge was, officially, heresy. It’s one of the reasons they burnt Joan of Arc, who also casts a long shadow. Throughout history, there have been religious taboos over male and female clothing; the Koran and the Sunnah are filled with rules about what men and women can and can’t wear. I have simply transferred some of this to my story.

Stuck in the middle with you . . .

To be concluded in Part Five.

1 comment:

Randy Coates said...

Remember: artist is one of those -ist words, too! :)
That said, I agree with you that there is no way for us to know exactly what historical figures meant by their runes.

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