As part of my author guest blog series I am proud to present another guest blog spot.
I am very excited and
Would you like to be a part of my author guest blog series? Please contact me! email@example.com
Now without further adieu here is Toby’s awesome guest blog, on a subject near and dear to me! Vikings!
Vikings in the Hood
by Toby Venables
The most recent Guy of Gisburne novel, Hood (last volume of the Hunter of Sherwood trilogy) contains a few eyebrow-raising details. An order of leper knights. A wooden-limbed sparring machine. Richard the Lionheart on the toilet. But only one ingredient caused my editor to email me and – very politely – query it. Understandably so. It was an apparently glaring anachronism.
The situation in the novel is this: Tancred de Mercheval – a rogue, crazed Templar who was Gisburne’s key opponent in the first book, Knight of Shadows – has holed up on a remote Scottish island. In his fanaticism he has drifted so far from the faith that he now considers all of Christendom irredeemably corrupt, and employs pagan Norse warriors as his army. In his view they are, at least, untainted; they are also, of course, awesome fighters.
There was a significant precedent for using Norsemen as personal guards. From the 10th century at least, Byzantine Emperors – less than trusting of their own men – had employed Norse warriors to protect them, highly prizing their military prowess and their fierce loyalty. But pagan Norsemen? In the late 12th century?
Vikings were the subject of my first novel, The Viking Dead, and – let me be honest – I crowbar them in wherever I can. Having worked on that book, my editor knew that predilection well – and perhaps thought the Norse poet in me had finally overpowered my inner historian and left him bleeding, bound and gagged somewhere. Was I really sure about the Vikings? Hadn’t the White Christ – whose presence, after all, had been felt in those lands for almost four centuries – pretty much wiped out paganism by then..?
Well, pretty much, yes. By 1193AD – the year in which this part of the story takes place – all Norse countries had long been Christianised. In 960, Danish king Harald Bluetooth had converted to Christianity and Denmark was officially Christian by the early 11th century. In Norway, Christianity was imposed by force, first in the 990s by Olaf Tryggvason, and then by another Olaf – Haraldsson, later known as St Olaf – who, by the early 1000s, had swept away the last visible traces of a pagan resurgence. Despite this last flurry of resistance, Norway’s kings had been exclusively Christian as far back as the 950s. Conversion was almost inevitable.
Sweden held out longest. In those lands, both religions had been practiced side by side in relative peace, but with Christianity growing in popularity its eventual dominion here also seemed inevitable. To some, however, it was not inevitable enough. In 1123, King Sigurd of Norway, previously a crusader in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led another crusade to Småland in Sweden with the express purpose of converting the remaining pagans at the point of a sword.
To anyone reading about the Vikings – especially from contemporary or near-contemporary medieval sources – it is immediately clear these were a fiercely independent people, and one of the great attractions of Norse culture is its total independence from the influence of Rome – something unique among major European medieval powers. It had developed entirely its own way, unchallenged and unconquered. So why did this warrior culture submit so readily to Christianity?
For Norse kings, Christianity had one major attraction: a centralised church made centralised power easier to maintain. Many of those fiercely independent Norse had no desire to submit to the rule of kings, however, and it was partly this that fuelled Nordic settlement of Iceland. There, the settlers lived under no king, but by common agreement of the Althing – the world’s oldest parliament, which all free men were welcome to attend. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that while Christianity was accepted as the official religion of Iceland around 1000, people there were free to practice paganism in private.
It seems not unlikely, therefore, that there were pockets of paganism – some of them perhaps quiet significant – surviving long after official Christianisation (there were pagans in the Baltic lands into at least the 14th century). Nor is it hard to imagine, given the actions of those defiant, independently minded early Icelanders, that groups of pagan Norse may have struck out to find a place of their own to live as they chose – or, given their prized fighting kills, that groups of them may have adopted a nomadic, mercenary lifestyle.
I loved this idea of a dwindling band of pagan warriors under in state of permanent cultural siege, who were more than happy to redress the balance where they could by topping a few Christians and who had found a strange kind of kinship with their new master. Tancred, although nominally Christian, is similarly at odds with the world. His views have become so radical – so heretical – that that they have gone beyond the proto-Puritanism of the first novel, past the Gnosticism of the second and on into something as yet undefined – a bizarre theological position peculiar to him alone, in which the only hope for Christianity is to wipe everything out and start again.
For me, there was, of course, a great sense of excitement at Gisburne storming that bleak island stronghold to take on those last pagan Vikings. But there was a great sense of tragedy too; a sense of something passing – a way of life that had once dominated northern Europe, impacting upon lands as far apart as America and Byzantium, but which here was to have its last stand.
Well, not quite. Unexpectedly, one warrior survived and went to to play a further part in my story – proud and defiant to the last. And the fate of that one man was, to me, one of the most affecting in the entire novel.
Note: the leper knights are real. The Order of St Lazarus existed at the time of Richard I and did indeed go into battle. The sparring machine I propose, which is Gisburne’s own invention, has no historical precedent that I know of, but is entirely possible. The Lionheart almost certainly went to the toilet on a regular basis.
Toby Venables is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist who also lectures in Cambridge, England. He inhabits various time periods and occasionally writes about zombies. A descendant of the Counts of Blois and Champagne, he numbers the slayer of the Moston dragon among his ancestors, but despite being given a longbow at the age of twelve has so far managed not to kill anyone. In 2001 he won the Keats-Shelley Memorial Prize, and squandered the proceeds
It’s Guy of Gisburne’s final stand against a killer and fraud: Robin Hood.
The vendetta with Robin Hood has cost too much: blood shed, lives lost, friendships severed. Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent of the crown, has had enough, and wishes to enjoy a little quiet on his own land. But Hood grows ever more troublesome, and if the barons of the North will not convince Guy to resume the hunt – nor even the rightful King Richard, returned from long imprisonment – then perhaps the simple plea of a missing daughter’s father, and a promise to restore a good man’s name, will.
Hood has gathered an army: the insidious Friar Took, the giant John Lyttel, the cutthroat Scarlet Will, the brilliant and unhinged Alan O’Doyle, among others. Guy will need an army of his own: the redoubtable de Rosseley, the deadly Lady Mélisande, the resourceful Asif ibn Salah, even Guy’s former enemy, the ferocious Tancred… and his old friend and squire, Galfrid.
The stage is set: Sherwood, long a home to both men. The final confrontation begins…
The Red Hand: A Guy of Gisburne Novel (Hunter of Sherwood Book 2)
Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent to Prince John, is all that stands between England and anarchy, fighting a shadow battle to protect the kingdom from those who would destroy it.
Returning to England after foiling a plot to destroy Jerusalem, Guy of Gisburne is arrested and hauled to the Tower of London; John, England’s regent in the absence of its monstrous King, needs his knight once more. A killer has broken into the Prince’s most secure castle in the north and left a message, drawn on the skin of one of his victims: ‘the circle is closing,’ signed with a handprint in blood. Is the threat genuine? Who or what is the Red Hand? Someone is killing John’s men, and the obvious culprit – the most dangerous man in the Kingdom, Hood himself – has an alibi even Guy can’t deny.
Knight of Shadows: A Guy of Gisburne Novel (Hunter of Sherwood Book 1)
Guy of Gisburne has a story, one the liar Robin Hood has obscured for centuries. In legend he was the Sheriff of Nottingham’s henchman, the man who could not defeat Hood. But this errant knight, spy for the crown and hunter of Sherwood was never anyone’s accomplice, or petty hoodlum. This thrilling reinvention of the Robin Hood legend is the beginning of a major new series. As George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman reinvented a character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, so Toby Venables finds Guy of Gisburne a character in the most thrilling episodes of his age.
England, 1191. Richard the Lionhearted, cutting a swathe through the Holy Land in his quest for glory, has left the realm bankrupt and leaderless. Only Prince John, his name blackened by the lies of his enemies, seems willing to fight back the tide of chaos that threatens the heart of England – a wave of anarchy embodied by the traitorous troublemaker known as ‘the Hood’. • But John has a secret weapon: Guy of Gisburne – outcast, mercenary, survivor of Hattin, and now knight – a man wronged by Hood, disavowed, disinherited and all but destroyed by Richard. As an agent of John, he is sent to do his bidding and outwit enemy agents bent on England’s destruction. With his world-weary squire Galfrid in tow, and equipped with some deadly 12th century gadgetry, Gisburne’s first quest takes him from the Tower of London, along the pilgrim routes of France to the hectic crusader port of Marseille – leading him into increasingly brutal, bloody encounters with the man they call ‘The White Devil’: the fanatical Templar, Tancred de Mercheval. • Relentlessly pursued on his way back to England, and aided by the beautiful Mélisande de Champagne – who has a secret of her own – Gisburne battles his way with sword, lance and bow. Through icy mountain passes and wolf-infested forests, he hurtles towards the inevitable, bitter confrontation at the Castel de Mercheval. But beyond it – if he can survive – lies an older and even more unpredictable adversary.
Northern Europe, 976 AD. Bjólf and the viking crew of the ship Hrafn flee up an unknown river after a bitter battle, only to find themselves in a bleak land of pestilence. The dead don’t lie down, but become draugr – the undead – returning to feed on the flesh of their kin. Terrible stories are told of a dark castle in a hidden fjord, and of black ships that come raiding with invincible draugr berserkers. And no sooner has Bjólf resolved to leave, than the black ships appear… Now stranded, his men cursed by the contagion of walking death, Bjólf has one choice: fight his way through a forest teeming with zombies, invade the castle and find the secret of the horrific condition – or submit to an eternity of shambling, soulless undeath!