Thursday, 28 March 2013

GUEST BLOG: Haunting the Historian - Karen Maitland

Thank you so much, Falcata, for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’m sometimes asked why I weave myth, magic and superstition into my historical fiction. The implication is that these elements should play no part in the historical fiction genre. My answer is simply – how can any historical fiction writer ignore them?

As writer I try hard to enter the world of my medieval characters. I’m lucky in that having lived in Africa for a period I know the daily struggle of fetching water from the river and having only candle-light to deal with the terrors of the night. But I also try to experience the activities of my characters so that I can understand the problems and skills involved. For Company of Liars I spent time with a glassblower. For Falcons of Fire and Ice, I learned to handle birds of prey.

But to really conjure up that time and place I have to enter the mind-set of the characters. They lived in a world where monsters, demons, angels and ghosts were part of the everyday life, no less to be feared than the storm which destroyed their crops or the plague that took their children. Even great theologians such as Bishop Grosseteste, (1168/9-1253), wrote treatises about the poison of the basilisk and casting the evil-eye, and Christian priests were taught the rituals of raising spirits.

The nightstalker or draugr was one such monster. He’s found in many early tales from all over northern Europe, including Grendel, the ‘walker-in-the-night’, which appears in the 8th Century Anglo-Saxon saga of Beowulf; the ghosts in Prodigiosa by Yorkshire’s Canon William of Newburgh in the 12th century, and the 14th century ‘Glam’ who appears in the Icelandic Grettis Saga.

Early tales of the nightstalker suggest a terrifying creature, whose eyes shot flames and who tore off the roofs of the halls he attacked with his bare hands. He appears during the hours of darkness, vanishing at dawn. You can imagine that if you lived in Saxon times, particularly in places like Iceland with its burning lava which could erupt at any time, or you huddled in the long dark nights, fearing attack from other tribes who would burn your hall and vanish back into the dark, these draugar became the embodiment of those night-time terrors. But if you believed in the monster, you also knew he could be killed, just as Beowulf had done. So it gave you a feeling of control over life, in the same way as placing a twig of rowan in your baby’s cradle made you feel you could protect him.

But by the latter half of the Middle Ages and indeed right up until the nineteenth century, the draugr was transformed into a revenant, one of the undead, a human corpse which had been raised to wreck vengeance. He takes the form of an apparently normal human who remains visible and tangible both day and night, but is possessed of immense physical strength and a voracious appetite.

In these tales we gain a great insight into the unwritten social rules of the time. There are many accounts in Iceland and northern Europe in which a nightstalker appears as a stranger at the door. He would be offered food and lodgings without question. Even when he devoured every morsel in the cottage and kept them up all night shouting and singing, the social norms of hospitality meant the family didn’t throw him out.

And when the family did finally realise they had taken one of the restless dead in their cottage, they would call on the combined efforts of the whole village to help destroy it. So you begin to understand from these records that belonging to a community in medieval times was literally a matter of life and death. If you were excluded from it, by excommunication or being shunned, it was a death sentence, because if you were attacked or your house caught on fire or you were sick, there was no one to come to your aid.

Life in the Middle Ages was a complex interweaving of acts to try to control an unpredictable and dangerous world, where death could strike with warning or apparent reason. From kings to lowly peasants, people watched for omens as we might watch the weather forecast or movements on the stock-exchange. They hung the relics of saints in their homes alongside iron horseshoes and toad-bones. They offered fervent prayers in church for a good harvest whilst leaving bread and salt in the corner of the fields to appease the boggarts who might destroy the crop.

So as a historical fiction writer, for me it is just as important to describe the charm the archer wore as the bow he fought with, because it gives us just little glimpse into his mind as he fearfully walks into that great battle and the terror of purgatory that he believes lies waiting for him on the other side of death.

How about you – have you read your horoscope today? Are you wearing your lucky pants? Do you have a lucky number for the lottery?

(The following images within the article are in the public domain and have been taken from Wikimedia commons:
Grendel – ‘Grendel’ by J.R. Skelton 1908, from the ‘Stories of Beowulf’
Volcanic eruption
Dead being raised by priests.)

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