The Big Idea: Marie Brennan
I wanted the story I was promised.
When I was a senior in college and working on my thesis, I read Patricia Terry’s Poems of the Elder Edda. It includes not only the text of the Poetic Edda, but several other Old Norse poems written in a similar style — one of which is called “The Waking of Angantyr.” It’s a dialogue between a young woman named Hervor and the ghost of her father, Angantyr, from whom she demands his cursed sword. According to Terry, Hervor “wants the sword as an instrument of vengeance.” When I studied the language for a semester as part of my thesis prop, my textbook, E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse, concurred: Hervor, he says, is “determined to avenge her father and her uncles.”
Awesome, I thought. I need the rest of that story.
So I hunted down the saga in which “The Waking of Angantyr” appears: no simple task, since it’s far from the most well-known of the Norse sagas. In fact, I only know of one translation, by Christopher Tolkien — yes, the son of that Tolkien. Acquiring a copy from the 2001 internet was easier said than done, but with it finally in my hands, I eagerly sat down for a tale of ghosts, a cursed sword, and bloody vengeance.
I didn’t get it.
The saga (called The Saga of King Heiðrek the Wise in Tolkien’s translation) is . . . how shall I put this . . . kind of a mess. For starters, it’s probably several unrelated texts in a trench coat, all of them newer than “The Waking of Angantyr.” Despite one of the other titles being Hervarar saga, i.e. Hervor’s Saga, Hervor only appears in about a quarter of the story. And while I did get a few cool bits from that — like her dressing up as a man and going around as a viking (raider) — what happens after she gets her father’s cursed sword from his ghost is, uh, basically nothing? She continues on for about a page, then goes home and has a kid, who is the centerpiece of the next, mostly unrelated story.
In fact, Hervor can’t really avenge her father and uncles. They were killed by two men, Hjálmar and Örvar-Oddr, and of those two, Hjálmar has already died of the wounds Angantyr gave him. As for Örvar-Oddr, he’s got his own saga to go die in, not at Hervor’s hands. (There’s a prophecy that his horse will kill him. The horse is long dead when Örvar-Oddr trips over its skull, causing a venomous snake to come out and bite him. Never let it be said that Norse sagas are unwilling to let their heroes meet incredibly ignominious ends.) What Terry and Gordon described to me is the general vibe of the poem, to be certain, but not the surrounding text.
I wrote a short story based on “The Waking of Angantyr” while in the middle of my thesis, a piece that basically just retold the poem in prose form. But that wasn’t enough. I’d been promised a cursed sword and bloody vengeance, and if the Norse weren’t going to supply me with those, then I would just have to do it myself.
You’ll find the chapter titled “The Waking of Angantyr” at the midpoint of the novel. It was my starting point, but it’s not the start of the book; instead I spun my threads both forward and backward from that central node. Much of it is wholly new cloth, but details from the saga got woven in here and there; if you happen to be one of the half-dozen people who know the text, you’ll see names you recognize. I also worked in nods to some of the other sagas, including a spurious etymology for Angantyr’s sword, Tyrfing: in my story that translates to “Serpent’s Tooth,” in homage to Örvar-Oddr’s dead horse’s skull’s resident snake.
This doesn’t take place in the world of the sagas, though. While I drew on all the preparation for my thesis in building a Norse-flavored setting, there’s no Norway or Iceland here, no Odin or Loki. I wanted a world where I could set the rules, in ways that supported the story I wanted to tell.
The Waking of Angantyr is in several ways an unusual book for me. It’s grimmer and bloodier than most of my work, and it’s also older: I wrote the original draft of this in 2003, after my thesis-induced burnout had healed. It went more or less directly onto the shelf when I sold a different novel and the agent I acquired admitted she’d be a bad advocate for this kind of fantasy, and my career proceeded in other directions, the Onyx Court and the Memoirs of Lady Trent and my Rook & Rose collaboration with Alyc Helms. But I kept casting sidelong glances at that shelf, thinking about my Viking revenge epic . . . and many years after drafting it, I took it down, dusted it off, gave it a thorough scrub with the revision brush, and sent it out into the world.
Because dammit, that poem deserves a better story around it than the one history supplied.