Thursday, September 2, 2010

In the grip of “The Northern Thing:” My top 10 northern inspired stories

Let us die in the doing of deeds for his sake;
let fright itself run afraid from our shouts;
let weapons measure the warrior’s worth.
Though life is lost, one thing will outlive us:memory sinks not beneath the mould.
Till the Weird of the World stands unforgotten,high under heaven, the hero’s name.

–from Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Poul Anderson

If I had to choose a favorite sub-genre of fantasy literature it would be those writings showing the clear influence of ancient Northern mythology. Fantasy critic Lin Carter once described a group of writers including the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and William Morris as being possessed by “The Northern Thing”; I too am firmly in that Icelandic grip of iron. There’s just something about tales of pagan heroes possessed of grim northern courage, set against a backdrop of bleak fjords and smoldering mountain peaks and gray lowering skies, that make me want to hop on the nearest dragon-headed longship and go a-viking.

Following in no particular order are my top 10 favorite northern stories. These are stories inspired by northern myth (the Prose and Poetic Eddas), legend (the Icelandic Sagas), or history (the Danish invasions of England), and sometimes all three at once.

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Lagomorph Rex said...

"The Northern Thing" is very important to me also, I eagerly devour every scrap of Saga or Poem I can lay my hands on, and happily mix it together with the works of Anderson and Morris. Tolkien especially, and I would dearly love to have all of his " Northern Fragments" as I tend to group them.. in one volume.. Deor, Beornoth's Homecoming, Ofermod, Finn and Hengest... including all the essays and lectures that go with them.. I know that a lot of them are published throughout other volumes.. but I'd like the convenience of one.

as for Favorites.. thats really a tough choice.. its almost like asking which arm I like better.

Terry L said...

I too am captured by "the Northern Thing". I definitely concur with _Hrolf Kraki's Saga_ great stuff! Check out this site for some other sagas in translation:

I'd recommend to you _Rheingold_ by Stephan Grundy which is a modern fantasy retelling of the Saga of the Volsungs and you might also want to try Paul Hazel's "Finnbranch" serries (_Yearwood_, _Undersea_, and _Winterking_). They're probably a bit mroe directly influenced by Celtic myth, but I detected something of the Northern Thing to them as well.

Elizabeth Boyer wrote several fantasies based directly on Norse legends, but they're of varying quality.


Brian Murphy said...

Terry: Awesome, I appreciate the recommendations and the website tip-off.

Lagomorph: You and me both. That list I put down was my top 10, but in no order. If I had to pick an absolute favorite... impossible. I'd rather be subjected to a blood eagle.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Not familiar with Hrolf Kraki's Saga...stop adding books to my reading list, Brian! I've got papers to grade, and books of my own to write...

Pericles said...

Glad you mentioned EATERS OF THE DEAD, a very underrated novel. I always recommend that people read the Bantam paperback edition. It has all those wonderful Ian Miller illustrations.

Brian Murphy said...

Sorry Eric... give the batch of papers an A and spend your time reading Hrolf Kraki's Saga. You'll thank me and your students will thank you.

Pericles: Illustrations? I must track down that edition. I have a Ballantine Books edition and there's no illustrations to be found.

Atom Kid said...

"The Northern Thing" is in my blood, literally. Being the grandson of Swedish immigrants and having the last name of Thorson, I've been surrounded by all things Norse.

My favorites would be the D'aulaires Book of Norse Myths. This is one of the earliest books that peaked my interest in Norse Mythology.

Anderson's Hrolf Kraki is just awesome! I still need to read his other series (I've got copies of The Last Viking parts 2&3 but am still looking for 1)

Beowulf is another favorite, I've read it and re-read it several times before I had the chance to read it in high school. I thought it was awesome when I found out that the Geats were Swedish vikings!

Njal's Saga was a good one. Nothing supernatural, but it had a lot of action. From blood feuds to political intrigue, it reads more like a history of Iceland.

Eater's of the Dead was a favorite of mine too. It's almost like a retelling of Beowulf, only making it more realistic.

The Iron Lance (The Celtic Crusades #1) by Stephen R. Lawhead) it's not exactly a Viking story, but the first book had vikings playing a big part in the story.

The Haakon seriesby Eric Neilson was fun. It's more of a men's adventure series, and it's not the most well written series but it's fun!

Thanks for the recommendations, there's some on there I haven't read. I keep meaning to read the Saxon series by Cornwell. I just finished the Warlord series and want to check out some of his other books.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I'm actually picking up a copy of The Long Ships tomorrow. After Michael Chabon's passionate review, I can't resist that either.

Narmer said...

Have you read "The Whale Road" by Robert Low?

Brian Murphy said...

Atom Kid: Thanks for your enthusiastic recommendations as well!

Narmer: No, but I have it high in my "to be read" list.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Finished The Long Ships yesterday. Excellent read - funny, touching, perfect. I think once you read it, Brian, it will go on this "Northern Thing" top ten list.

It's now on mine.