Monday, 10 December 2012

Cumbrian Vikings, sources and research.

Cumbrian Vikings.

 When I first began writing Shieldmaiden I was very arrogant thinking that being Scandinavian, growing up with legends and sagas and being a student of History I wouldn’t really need to do much research. Please insert hollow laughter here!

The first enormous gap in my knowledge was of course about the Viking settlers in Cumbria. While staying at the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere I came across the tale of the Vikings from the Isle of Man who got a bit uppety and refused to pay tribute to Harald Finehair of Norway. Well, that must be one of the worst miscalculations ever. Harald Finehair’s punishment expeditions were legendary and, when they heard that he’d set sail and was on his way, the Manx Vikings left in a hurry taking their families, animals and all they could carry on their ships. Some of them ended up in Buttermere and Rannerdale.

Jarl Sweyn and his family are based on this tale but here I have exercised the novelist’s prerogative and shaped the events to suit me. Otherwise I have made every effort to stay true to actual events.

The Vikings left practically no written records. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written by monks who weren’t over-fond of Vikings and anyway don’t deal with everyday life. So I have used what sources I found, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, Icelandic Sagas, reports from archaeological digs and secondary sources such as the writing of W.G. Colloingwood and Nicholas Size.

They were both scholars, specialists on the Viking settlers in Cumbria. Collingwood wrote Thorstein of the Mere, a Saga of the Northmen in Lakeland. This saga fills in the gaps that the Historian has to leave alone due to lack of unambiguous evidence or simply lack of any evidence at all. Nicholas Size writes about his novel The Secret Valley, the Real Romance of Unconquered Lakeland : “There are details to imagine and suggestions to make in order to cover points which have not been recorded; and as life is too short for most of us, it seems best to put the facts into the form of a readable story appreciated by the many, instead of into a dry handbook appreciated by the very few.” I couldn’t agree more.

The novelist can continue where the historian must stop and admit that we don’t know.  But to use conjecture and create fiction carries responsibility and, like Collingwood and Size, although I am no longer an academic, I do take that seriously. More about sources and inspiration in my next blog.

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