Fans of SJA (Simon) Turney’s Roman novels may be surprised to see that his latest book, the first of a new series, is about 11th-century Vikings. Researching the background to Blood Feud couldn’t have been be more different, he tells Historia, and involved a saga which mixes history with myth, backed up by archaeology, and ranging from Scandinavia to far-off Georgia.
A student of history moving from the ancient world to that of the Vikings is faced with certain issues, as I discovered early on. I cut my teeth on Roman history, and the Romans recorded almost every aspect of their world, and left huge amounts of archaeology for us to use in cross-referencing. This means that, for Rome, it is easy to build a picture of the world, its view, and the chronology of what happened.
Enter the Vikings. Their constructions are largely of timber and earth, leaving only tantalising clues in the archaeology, their art stylistic and sometimes hard to interpret. Most of all, their language was largely spoken, their written runes used for little more than a grave markers. The Vikings did not write about their world, and they left comparatively little of it behind for us to study.
So how do we try to build a reconstruction of the world of the Vikings? Well we still have a certain amount of archaeology, largely in their later days, and especially in terms of metalwork or carvings. But our prime source material comes from a particular place.
In the 12th to 14th centuries, a series of monks in Iceland busied themselves gathering stories of their ancestors and recording for posterity the sagas of Vikings from the past. The wrote a number of sagas, including that of the wonderful Harald Hardrada (more of him in coming books). They are, in fact, the only source of historical biography for the Viking age that is not seen from an outsider’s point of view.
In terms of my new novel, Blood Feud, my primary source was the Icelandic Saga of Yngvar [or Ingvar] the Far-Travelled. Oddr Snorrason, an Icelandic monk, preserved for us the tale of this most unusual Swede, and the tale is written (as one might expect) from a very Christian point of view. However, troublesomely for anyone trying to recreate this great saga in historical fiction, as well as a certain amount of biography, the saga also involves giants, dragons and the undead.
Where does one draw the line between history and myth? After all, it might seem likely that Snorrason’s tale is entirely a work of fantasy, given the mythical creatures it involves. There are, however, corroborations. The saga is one of the earliest, while its subject is one of the latest, Yngvar having been alive in the early-to-mid 11th century, and the saga theoretically being written down in the 12th century. There is some suggestion in the text that the stories of Yngvar’s epic were still being spoken of round the hearth at this time.
Most importantly, there are a series of 26 runestones around mainly Sweden that corroborate this saga. Snorrason tells us of a great journey to the south, past Kiev and into the lands of the Serks (the Saracens) with 30 ships. He tells us that the campaign goes horribly wrong.
The so-called Yngvar Runestones tell the same tale. A runestone is generally a grave marker or commemoration for the lost. These 26 stones in particular seem to tell the same basic tale as the saga. Examples of two of the stones’ inscriptions, for instance:
Geirvé and Gulla raised this stone in memory of Ônundr, their father, who died in the east with Ingvarr.
Spjóti and Halfdan, they raised this stone in memory of Skarði, their brother. From here he travelled to the east with Ingvarr; in Serkland lies Eyvindr’s son.
It is quite something to read a 12th-century story full of fantastical elements, and then to discover that archaeology actually confirms at least the basis of it. But to go further, we would need a little more, I think. The best way to corroborate any Viking saga is to find a history elsewhere that matches the details – an outsider’s view. In this case, we come close enough to written history that it is impossible to ignore.
The date for Yngvar’s expedition is given in the saga, for his death is recorded as having taken place in 1041. We know that he was south of the lands of the Rus from both the saga text and the use of the word Serk on runestones, so it must have been somewhere across the Black Sea. Various theories have been put forward, including the Holy Land and Byzantine Anatolia. However, the theory favoured by Larsson is by far the most attractive and became the heart of my own characters’ journey.
The Georgian Chronicle puts a contingent of Vikings (Varangoi) in Georgia during the civil war of King Bagrat and Duke Liparit, the two sides meeting in battle in the forest of Sasireti in 1042. Though Georgia, and Bagrat, were Christian, Sasireti is close to Tbilisi, the modern capital of Georgia, but which in 1041-1042 was an outpost of the Persian Abbasid Caliphate. In other words: Serks.
The fact that Vikings fought in a battle mere miles from the ‘Serkish’ border within a year of Yngvar’s noted date of death is too close to ignore. It seems highly probably that the real Yngvar sailed upriver into deepest Georgia, perhaps even modern Azerbaijan, and as far as the Caspian Sea, before becoming involved with the civil war of Bagrat and his half brother and losing many of the 30 ships he sailed south with. The inevitable result: the Yngvar runestones across Scandinavia.
My story, then, follows this great journey, though Yngvar is not my hero. That role belongs to a young pagan from Gotland, sailing in this huge fleet of Christian Vikings, hunting the jarl Yngvar himself in revenge for the spilling of family blood. How do I deal with the dragons, the undead and the giants? Well if one accepts that there is a grain of truth in all legend, then I had to find a way to make them real. I’ll leave you to read the book and see how I did that.
Simon has written several features for Historia, including:
A review of the current Nero exhibition at the British Museum
A game of gods: religion in a changing Roman world (with Gordon Doherty)
The Templars and the reconquest of Spain
The Women of the Knights Templar
If you’re interested in Viking or other Norse history, have a look at:
The power of alliance in the Viking Age by Matthew Harffy
874 and All That: a short history of a small country (Iceland) by Michael Ridpath
How to become a berserker – a historical novelist’s guide by Angus Donald
The Battle of Brunanburh by Hilary Green
Detail of runestone Sö 179 at Gripsholm, Södermanland, Sweden (an Yngvar runestone): Wikimedia
The name ‘Ingvar’ on runestone Sö 281 at Strängnäs: Wikimedia
Runestone Sö 179 at Gripsholm: Wikimedia
Detail from the Georgian Chronicles, Queen Mariam’s version: Wikipedia