Wednesday, 9 March 2011
Troll in one
The Book Maven is delighted to welcome Katherine Langrish as a guest to the blog today. Katherine (Kath to her friends) is doing a blog tour to talk about her “Trollogy” – a bind up of her first three published books, with the evocative title West of the Moon.
Yesterday, on the Bookwitch’s blog, Kath mentioned coming to meet other authors at Charney Bassett and feeling an “interloper” because she hadn’t had a book published yet. Well, I was one of those authors at Charney who had heard of this “new girl” being secured a big advance by hotshot agent Catherine Clarke and was intrigued to meet her.
Her modesty, charm and intelligence won everyone over and she is now the person whose Charney Quiz Team everyone fights to join, because they always win! Her knowledge of children’s books and of myths and legends is unrivalled.
I asked Kath to write something for us about what had attracted her to the idea of trolls and Vikings in the first place. You can find the next stage of her tour tomorrow at MGHarris’s blog
I don’t have a resident photographer of the calibre of Helen Giles, so I have purloined an image from elsewhere.
Why Trolls? Why Vikings?
To answer why I wrote three books about trolls and Vikings, I have to go back a bit. I loved stories even before I could read. (When I was about three years old my big sister drew a cartoon of me, wandering around with a book in my hand wailing, “Read me my bookie…” )
As I grew beyond picture books, some of the stories I loved best were myths, legends and fairytales from around the world, and my favourites were the ones from the North – stories about the Norse gods like Odin and Thor. I like history, too, and the Viking Age is the story of an extraordinary people – the inventors of the world’s oldest continuous democratic parliament (the Althing in Iceland); voyagers, adventurers, poets, warriors, craftsmen (and women) – a strange and colourful mix of cruelty, superstition, open-mindedness, plain speech and independence of spirit.
‘Troll Fell’, the first volume of my ‘Troll trilogy’ (now published for the first time in one volume under the title ‘West of the Moon’), began with a picture in my head of a Viking boy living beside a fjord, who I thought would have adventures involving some of the Norse gods. I called him Bjorn. He had a family – a bluff, cheery father called Ralf, a hard-working mother called Gudrun, a feisty little sister, and an old grandfather. I loved writing about them, but somehow the boy wouldn’t come to life. So I sent him off up into the mountains, where he got lost in a snowstorm and met Odin – and then I got stuck. Utterly, hopelessly stuck, with no idea what was going to happen next.
I stayed stuck for years.
The story got stuffed in a drawer. Every so often I’d find it, read it (all twenty pages) and think, That’s not too bad – I wish I could think of a way to go on with it… But I was still stuck, so I would put it away again.
Eventually two things happened.
First, I realised what should have been obvious – Bjorn was boring. I was much more interested in his family than I was in him, and especially in his little sister, Hilde, who was brave and confident and fun and full of life. So I got rid of him. I would concentrate on Hilde, and she wouldn’t be little, she’d be the same age as her brother had been – twelve or thirteen.
That helped. And the other thing that happened was that, at a church bazaar in France, where we were living at the time, I picked up a shabby, brown, battered little book and looked inside to see what it was. It was called “Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology”, and it was printed in the year 1850. It was stuffed to bursting with stories I had never heard of, folklore and legends about trolls and dwarves and supernatural creatures from all over the world, especially Scandinavia, and I bought it for two francs.
I took it home, thrilled – and suddenly the penny dropped.
In the long ago past, the past I was writing about in my story, people had really believed in these creatures. They believed trolls lived in caves under the mountains. They believed in water spirits who lived in ponds and streams: nixies and neckans and fosse-grims who would pull you under if you got too close. They believed in ghosts – not floaty, wispy, see-through creatures, but ghosts that were more like horrible walking corpses. I could get rid of the Norse gods (who weren’t co-operating) and put these other things in their place. In a sense, it would be historical fiction almost as much as fantasy: history with the supernatural dimension put back in. Because that’s what folk-lore is: the stuff ordinary people believe, and tell stories about.
I got back to work. Clinging to the slopes of a dark and sinister mountain, Hilde and her family lived in a turf-roofed farmhouse. On stormy nights they huddled around the fire while trolls prowled in the dark outside. But an element was missing. I needed a boy in the book as well as a girl. And so he came – a stranger, an orphan boy who’d been brought to work on this remote mountain. A boy damaged by loss and ill-treatment: an anxious, self-doubting, highly-strung but determined individual whose name absolutely wasn’t Bjorn. Names in books are important, and this boy couldn’t be Bjorn. I borrowed his name from the Norwegian folk hero and mischief-maker Per Gynt (it’s pronounced ‘Pair Gunt’, but my hero became ‘Peer’, which is the more common English mispronunciation). Peer met Hilde and it was the attraction of opposites. And then…
The book took off. I got to know and love Peer and Hilde so well that it was easy to write a second book about them; and finally a third. In each volume, the characters grow older and the story becomes darker, till at last they set off together on a Viking ship, sailing to North America – as the Vikings actually did, a thousand years ago – and meet creatures out of Native American folklore and stories, just as they had encountered trolls and other creatures from Scandinavian legends in the earlier books.
It took many months to do the research. I explored the culture and folklore of the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. And I went to Roskilde in Denmark to spend one midsummer week out on the fjord learning how to sail a reconstruction of a Viking age ship – possibly the best fun I’ve ever had. The weather was great, wind and sun and clear water. We were a crew of eight. We rowed, we hauled up the heavy square sail, we learned how to steer, and when we had nothing else to do we sat in the clutter of the open deck and told stories, just as the Vikings themselves must have done.
Put together, the three volumes of the trilogy ‘West of the Moon’ chart the lives of two young people living in a dangerous, colourful age in which adventures wait for the humblest villager if he or she is brave enough to set out into the world. Sounds like a fairytale? Yes, for fairytales reflect the chances – the luck – of those who leave home. How can you be lucky unless you risk something? What can be riskier than to set out into the North Atlantic in a sixty-foot wooden ship?
Some people always ask: But what’s the point of fantasy? Isn’t it all escapism? Where’s the relevance of a book about the Vikings (especially one with trolls)? Can we believe we have anything in common with those shaggy-bearded marauders of a thousand years ago? Men who were outspoken in word and deed, who never forgave a slight, who would kill without hesitation or pity and crack a joke as they lay dying? The old Icelandic sagas are full of people like that: people you wouldn’t want living next door.
If the Vikings were impressed by bravery, so too are we. A sword, when it’s pointing at you, is no romantic object but a brutal tool for killing, frightening as a gun. The Viking sagas – full of heroism and murder – pose implicit but deliberate questions about the nature of true courage which are well worth pondering today. Peer’s opponent in ‘West of the Moon’, young Harald Silkenhair, looks every inch the hero – brave, handsome, charismatic. He’s even gifted and cultured enough to make poetry. But he’s also cruel, quarrelsome, violent and deadly. How on earth is Peer to deal with him? What or who is a hero? What is true bravery?
Do we have anything in common with the Vikings?
Oh yes, I think we do.
Katherine Langrish’s Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood (HarperCollins) were recommended in the ‘Top 160 Books for Boys’ compiled by the School Library Association. “A splendidly imagined fantasy written in impeccable prose” (Carousel). Her writing has often been compared to Alan Garner's.
Katherine describes her books as ‘history with the beliefs put back in’. Her novels, which have been translated into nine languages, are based in the 10th and 12th centuries, but also include fantastical creatures such as trolls, ghosts, house spirits and water spirits, taken from the folklore and legends of the era. Her most recent book apart from West of the Moon is Dark Angels (HarperCollins 2009), published in the US as Shadow Hunt in 2010.
Kath’s own wonderful blog is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles