The Vikings: You know them as burly guys with braids and swords who gave teleological and philosophical underpinnings to the music of both Richard Wagner and scores of heavy metal bands — but what do you really know about them? If the answer is “really? Not much,” don’t feel too bad; most people are in same boat (one that has a dragon head) with you. But fortunately for you Judson Roberts does know a lot about the life and times of the Vikings, and uses that historical verisimilitude to inform his “Strongbow Saga” of books, of which The Road to Vengeance is the latest installment.
So there’s not a small amount of irony that in his quest to recount the world of the Vikings, Roberts discovered he had to go through some experiences here and now, in our world, to get that era right. Here’s Roberts to explain why that was so.
When I set out to write a historical fiction series, I had several specific goals in mind. First, I wanted to tell a fast paced story with lots of action, excitement and adventure. Second, I wanted to bring the ninth century time period and the Viking peoples, within whose world the story is set, so vividly to life that readers would feel like they were being swept into that world and were experiencing it. And third, I wanted to strive for the highest possible degree of historical accuracy, particularly because I feel the Vikings have for the most part been badly misrepresented in fiction.
Two of my all time favorite books served as my inspirational role models. The first was James Clavell’s Shogun, and the other The Lord of the Rings. As far as I’m concerned, Shogun sets the gold standard for the three goals listed above–prior to reading it I’d known nothing at all about medieval Japan, with its samurai history and Bushido culture, but by the time I finished the book I felt like I’d been transported to the far side of the world, and back to the early 17th century. And Tolkien’s Middle Earth, although a fictional creation, becomes more real for me every time I read it than the real world settings of much historical fiction.
My earliest drafts fell far short of achieving my second goal. I wasn’t bringing the Vikings’ culture to life. I wasn’t succeeding at getting inside the heads of a people who’d lived over a thousand years ago. What I was creating felt comparable to the dreadful 1993 Disney-produced film of The Three Musketeers, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen, whose characters may have been garbed in costumes appropriate to the period, and placed in authentic looking settings, but as soon as they opened their mouths you heard twentieth century surfer dudes, and every shred of the movie’s credibility went out the window.
Ironically, what led me to my breakthrough big idea was having almost every aspect of my life get blown to hell.
I was living on the east coast at the time, where I’d created and had been running an innovative anti-gang and drug program for a local district attorney’s office in North Carolina. The program, a several-year project funded by a federal grant, had been so successful that a larger statewide drug intelligence and interdiction program modeled after it was being planned, and as my small, local project was being gradually phased out I was offered a high level position in the soon to be created new agency.
Unfortunately, the new statewide program was to be funded primarily by the federal government. The year was 2001, and the newly elected Bush administration swept into office, bringing with them a disdain and distrust for any program or plan originating during their Democratic predecessor’s term, including the new state program I’d been planning to move to. With a stroke of a pen they killed its funding. I suddenly found myself, at age fifty, unemployed and with an unusual background and skill set: investigating and prosecuting various types of organized crime, with special expertise in large conspiracy cases and electronic surveillance–skills for which there was virtually no market, especially in North Carolina, except for the government that now was not hiring.
On top of that, my first marriage, which had endured for thirty years but had been struggling for the last ten, came to an end, and I was having a lot of trouble with my health, but a succession of doctors were unable to diagnose the cause. After months of efforts to turn things around that proved unsuccessful on every front, I followed in the footsteps of Davy Crockett, who uttered these immortal words as he left the east and headed west toward the destiny he found at the Alamo: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”
There is a point to this story. In Texas, I built a new life from the broken fragments of my old one. I fell in love and remarried, I succeeded in getting my health problem identified and under control, and on the career front I moved in new directions–first as a private investigator, and later as an actually published, income-earning writer rather than merely an aspiring one. But going through the overall experience led me to an understanding of how the Vikings’ beliefs gave them a perspective on their lives very different from how we tend to view our world today.
In the modern western world, we have a tendency to believe (until events beyond our control prove us wrong) that we are the masters of our own destinies. The Vikings knew better. They believed that everything–the lives of all men, the pantheon of pagan gods they worshipped, and even the world itself, was subject to and controlled by a power or force they called fate. And they believed that fate was not random, but was shaped by an intelligent hand, or more precisely, three pairs of hands. For the Vikings visualized fate as an immensely vast tapestry being woven on the looms of three ancient sisters called the Norns. Although the life of any individual might consist of no more than a few brief lengths of thread in the overall tapestry of fate, nevertheless every thread was positioned and woven into the pattern of the tapestry with purpose and intent. It was not necessarily granted to men to understand the purposes of their lives, or the reasons for the twists and turns they might follow. And for certain no one could escape their fate. But it was within the power and control of every man to face whatever his fate brought him with courage and dignity, or with fear and disgrace–and such, to the Vikings, was the ultimate measure of a man.
Understanding that, I was at last able to re-approach my characters, and to tell their stories and portray their world as they themselves might have seen them. The rest is history–mixed liberally with fiction, of course.