The Big Idea: Judson Roberts
Posted on June 25, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
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.
The Road to Vengeance: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read excerpts from The Road to Vengeance and the other Strongbow Saga books here, and explore through Roberts’ research on the life and times of Vikings here.
Cool. My first, and only, pathetic attempts at fiction were basically crude imitations of Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece. This looks as though it may scratch my itch.
“The Big Idea’ is a great series. It’s making me aware of lots of books that I never would have noticed otherwise.
That’s the hope, Nick. Glad you like it.
I agree completely, “The Big Idea” is a nice series. I also loved “A Month of Writers” last December: I discovered The Name of the Wind and The Privilege of the Sword through it.
Cool–I’ll need to check out the series!
I took a Medieval Lit class in college that covered some Viking sagas and whatnot, and I loved ’em. There was something so… I dunno, random about them: seemingly main characters getting killed off halfway through and the servant stepping up to the plate–because, hey, SOMEONE has to find the treasure hoard and marry the king’s daughter, right? And–maybe this was the translation–the writing style was so dryly matter-of-fact: “And so Bjorn returned to town, and it happened he fought Bjork, and it happened he was killed.”
“The hammer of the gods/will drive our ships to new lands…”
All you need to know about the vikings. Not really.
I did a bit of living with that itch, myself. Though I tended more southerly (my personal obsession is The Lay of Hildibrand”). In my opinion, a really good take on Viking things is Harry Harrison’s One King trilogy. Alternate history/fantasy, but damn…it’s “gritty.”
I think I will have to check these out, though. I likes me some big, hairy men in chainmail and bearskins.
No, the Big Idea is a horrible series, because it causes me to go spend my hard-earned money on books I would have otherwise been free to blissfully ignore.
Oh, I’m writing about…never mind, something Vikingish…and I have to have this book now! Love the cover too. John, you should show your German publisher THIS cover. Just a suggestion.
Ha–I was just about to write ‘Looks interesting, shame about the cover’.
Just goes to show, different things appeal to different folks–I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘literal’ book covers. But that’s just me, innit?
Cover aside, the book has me intrigued–I remember devouring D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths as a kid. There’s something so bleak and fatalistic about them. I guess ‘fatalistic’ is the key word here–I can see how it would be very difficult for us modern folks to really grok that worldview.
If you liked the style of the sagas, then git you a copy of Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships (translated by Michael Meyer). I think I’ve pushed it here before, but it’s just so cool: That same matter-of-fact quality you see in the sagas leavened with a modern, somewhat snarky sense of humor.
I’m a fan of the Strongbow series. Roberts does a fine job of making the reader care about his lead character. The first two books have enough mystery and story twists to satisfy. I absorbed a huge amount of viking history, pretty painlessly. I am ready for the third. Still am. Haven’t gotten it yet. Hearing how he came to understand FATE was worthwhile. Is the third book the last?
I have loved all three books. I am having real difficulty enduring the wait for the next. Judson Roberts has done a very fine job of giving us both a great yarn and making the Viking religion understandable.
I would love to sit down and have a long conversation with him.
i have read all three of the strongbow saga books that are out and cant wait for the next. they are all well written and grab your attention from page one of each book. there are no dull moments and very few dull characters. again very very good books to read i plan on reading them all again at least till the fourth book releases.