1003 Years Ago . . .

This month, a little more than ten centuries past, a great battle marred what should have been the holiest time in Christendom — Easter, and the celebration of Man’s salvation through the death and rebirth of Christ.  But, on the broad plains outside the walls of Norse-held Dubhlinn, near the fishing weir known then as Chluain Tarbh, peace was in short supply.  As Good Friday dawned (April 23rd in that year, the Year of Our Lord 1014), Christian faced pagan in what would echo through eternity as the final showdown of the Old Ways versus the New, with the heart and soul of the green isle of Ériu — Ireland — hanging in the balance.

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Norse Dubhlinn

The Battle of Clontarf, as it’s called today, was the final act in a long-simmering feud between the High King, Brian mac Cennétig — remembered as the good King Brian Boru — and his rebellious vassal, King Maelmorda of Leinster, who was abetted by his sister’s son, King Sitric Silkbeard of Dubhlinn, and his Norse allies.

That spring, Brian mac Cennétig maneuvered his forces into what would doubtless be a long-term siege of Dubhlinn, a tactic he’d used with great success in the past.  The alliance of Dubhlinn and the Norse of Mann, Orkney, and the motherland had no permanence; they needed a victory, and they needed it fast.  Bródir, who was jarl of the Manx reavers, took the omens:

Bródir asked by sorcery how the fight would go, but the answer ran thus, that if the fight were on Good Friday King Brian would fall but win the day; but if they fought before, they would all fall who were against him. — The Saga of Burnt Njal.

Thus was it decided: fall fair or fall foul, the rebel King of Leinster would lead his forces out on the one day Brian mac Cennétig would be loathe to spill blood: Good Friday.

Clontarf

Clontarf

In A Gathering of Ravens, Grimnir’s quest for vengeance leads him into the morass of Irish politics; but he is more than a mute witness to Clontarf.  In a fashion that has become rather typical for him, he becomes embroiled in the heart of the fray:

From the northern end of the plain of Chluain Tarbh, the three divisions of the High King’s army moved into position. The sun rose on their left hand, its golden light casting long shadows across the folds of the earth; it was a brilliant morning, with streamers of cloud drifting across a cornflower-blue sky, in sharp contrast to the fresh green of the plain. The stench of yesterday’s burning still hung in the air, but a freshening breeze off the sea helped drive the stink of it inland. Across this idyllic landscape, the war-march of eight thousand men shook the foundations of the earth.

The Dalcassians anchored the Irish left against the gray-green sea, those dark-eyed sons of Thomond whose axe-play was unrivalled, even among the Danes; they followed Turlough mac Murrough into battle – though only fifteen summers, already his reputation was such that his father and grandfather were confident of his ability to lead the ferocious war-bands of Dal Cais.

Murrough himself commanded the center division, the clansmen of Connacht and of Munster – half-wild fighters in wolf skins and rough homespun who relished the coming spear-grab the way other men relished a country dance; among them strode the Uí Ruairc of Lough Gill and their chief, Cormac, who howled and clashed sword on shield with reckless abandon.

On the far Irish right, inland from the sea, came companies of Norsemen from Corcaigh and Hlymrekr – mail-clad sons of the North who sported crosses rather than pagan symbols; alongside them marched shock-headed Galloglas mercenaries from Alba, who wore quilted jerkins and steel caps and carried long Danish axes. Domnall mac Eimen was their chief and he strode forward in grim silence. But of the Meath-men and their treacherous king, Malachy, there was no sign.

Grimnir walked alone. Around him, men shouted and cursed, bolstering their courage. Brazen horns howled; drums pounded like the pulse of some great war-beast, stretching and making ready to rip its victim to shreds. As he came on, Grimnir glared at the mustering enemy across the plain in search of a sign as to where his foeman might be.

Thousands of mailed reavers poured from ships drawn up on the north bank of the Liffey and on the beaches of Dubhlinn Bay, near the fishing weir at the mouth of the Tolka; they formed two divisions that spread across the plain to the old wooden bridge, whose timbers groaned beneath the weight of the division that hurried across from Dubhlinn.

There. Grimnir’s visage twisted with a grin of savage delight as he spied the ancient sigil of the Spear-Danes of Hróarr amid the banners of Dubhlinn: a dirty white scrap of cloth sporting a crude black hand. Under it marched the hunched and twisted giant, Bjarki Half-Dane, a long, broad-bladed sword naked on his shoulder. A red rage washed over Grimnir; he loosed a frenzied howl that pierced even the din of the assembling hosts.

The Norse of Dubhlinn and the rebel Gaels of Leinster formed their battle array on the right, their serried ranks ready to face the iron axes of Corcaigh and Hlymrekr; Maelmorda stood among the fianna of Leinster, bellowing threats and shaking his great spear at the High King’s army, his courage nailed to his spine with a mead-horn.

The enemy center was the demesne of Sigurðr of the Raven Banner, whose Orkneymen stood shoulder to mail-clad shoulder with their cousins from the Hebrides and champions drawn from all the lands of the North: Hrafn the Red, Prince Olaf of Norway, Thorsteinn of the Danemark, Ámundi the White, Thorwald Raven, and many more, besides. Sigurðr gleamed in a gold-scaled corselet as he took his place at the point of a broad fighting wedge.

Hard against the sea that was their life’s blood gathered the Manx reavers of Bródir, eager to pit their axes against those of the Dalcassians. Their fell-handed chief stood forth in his dwarf-forged mail and called on his men to drag a Gaelic prisoner forward; there, in sight of the Irish host, Bródir drew his knife and sacrificed the man to the glory of Odin. Howls of rage washed over the sunlit plain of Chluain Tarbh.

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Forces Arrayed

Both the sagas of the Norse and the annals of the Irish tell how the battle was joined following the traditional meeting of enemy champions.

Up and down the Irish front, the death of the champions was like an axe cutting the yoke off a mighty beast – a beast that pawed the earth with iron claws as its great muscles hurled it forward, into the face of its prey. A deafening shout went up – the barrán-glaed, the warrior’s cry – and it rocked the foundations of heaven. From the first kern of the Dal Cais on the left to the last thegn of Hlymrekr on the right, the divisions of the High King of Ériu surged forward like a storm-driven tide to crash into a bulwark of steel.

Trumpets howled and shrieked over the din, but not to relay orders. This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict – Odin’s weather, the red chaos of slaughter – where men stood breast to breast and shield to shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind.

Spears cracked and shivered. Shields split. Links of woven mail parted beneath the edge of an axe. Swords flashed in the rising dust, and blood dampened the earth. Thunderous cries mixed with piteous howls. Men struck and reeled; the dying clasped the knees of the living like a lover refusing to be put aside for another. The air – so bright and clear only moments before – reeked now of iron scraping iron; it was redolent with the coppery stench of spilled gore, with the hot stink of vomit, and with the fetor riven bellies.

Grimnir was in his element. Laughing, he came at the Norse low and fast; his axe sang clear of its moorings, lashed out, and rebounded from the face of a limewood shield.

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“Grimnir the Slayer” Robert Zoltan (http://zoltanillustration.com)

Next . . .

Well, to see what happens next, you’ll have to buy the book — though to see what happened historically is as easy as pointing your browser to Google and asking it to show you the Saga of Burnt Njal, or even the Wikipedia article for Clontarf if you’re into brevity . . .

 

 

 

Early Reviews Are In

AGoR CoverEarly reviews and author quotes for A Gathering of Ravens have been trickling in over the last few weeks.  I’m pleased to say that they are, by and large, complimentary (actually, one bad review out of nine is a bit more than I could have hoped for).  At any rate, with a bit over two months to go until publication day, here’s what some of your fellow readers and my fellow writers are saying:

“Oden has done a marvelous job of weaving his tale of myths, legends and history into a tale that feels like an ancient chronicle a fable for warriors, remembering their history, recounting the glory of the old gods in the face of the new one. There are many times in this book that you lose track of what may have been taken from facts and fables and what is from the mind of the author, which for me is a true triumph.” — Robin Carter, Parmenion Books.

“Scott Oden has seamlessly weaved a modern saga full of Norse myth and culture, a Norse, English, and Irish medieval historical setting, and the battle of old religions and new. This masterpiece is full of complex characters, gory battles, and a realistic and well researched historical setting. 5/5 Stars!” – MightyThorJRS.

“Grimnir is mean, harsh and bad ass. He’s crafty and he will kill you just because he can. He is like Conan with a hangover and a toothache. And he’s your hero. If you like your tales gritty and rough, you are gonna love this story.” — Stan Wagenaar, Goodreads.

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Zealand Map Detail by Parnasium.

“Scott Oden has done it! It’s all about the characters. Do not judge Grimnir too fast; he’s written like someone writes about a multilayered human. It gives me goosebumps sometimes to read something this good that is inspired by something I composed.” – Simon Kölle, International Film Composer and the founder of Za Frumi.

“I thoroughly enjoyed A Gathering of Ravens. It’s a magnificent mytho-historical saga, blending the history of 11th century Europe with Norse and Celtic mythology. A dark, grim and unrelentingly bloody tale of the last Orc and his quest for vengeance. Highly recommended.” – John Gwynne, author of Wrath (Book Four of The Faithful and the Fallen).

“Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens is everything that a Grimdark novel should be, sharp witted, dark and dangerous. Highly recommended for anyone who loves action, good characters and, you know, an amazing story. I loved it!” – James A. Moore, author of the Seven Forges series and The Last Sacrifice.

“Set in a vividly-imagined world where history and myth blur, Scott Oden’s gripping and bloody tale of monsters and men carves out a fantastic new legend for this modern age.” – James Wilde, author of the Hereward series and the forthcoming pre-Arthurian epic Pendragon.

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“Grimnir Stalking” by Robert Zoltan (www.zoltanillustration.com).

“Scott Oden taps the dark roots of ‘The Northern thing’ in A Gathering of Ravens. Mixing Norse history and mythology with fantasy and a relentless narrative drive, Oden’s novel will appeal to the Grimdark crowd as well as fans of Robert E. Howard and Poul Anderson.” – Charles R. Rutledge. co-author of Blind Shadows and Congregations of the Dead.

“An amazing work of fantasy with a very real touch of both humanity and the weight of history. Oden has populated his strange world with witches, monsters, Vikings, warriors, cowards, and everything in between. Deft and well-written.” – Charnel House Reviews.

And with that, I’m about as pleased as any writer has the right to be.  Soon will come the trade journal reviews (should they deign to review it), along with reviews generated by NetGalley.  Finally, the Amazon reviews — which can be wildly diverse.  For now, though, on to the next book!

The Monster In Us All

AGoR CoverEarly in A Gathering of Ravens, the young Briton, Aidan, and his Danish companion, Njáll – the two travelers who first encounter Grimnir – engage in a conversation about what he is:

“You know,” Aidan said after a moment, “this Grimnir reminds me of your old ship mates. He has that same godless exuberance.”

“We Danes can at least find redemption,” Njáll said. “His folk are beyond even that.”

Aidan’s brow furrowed. “Surely there is no man who is beyond redemption?”

“I told you, that thing is no man.”

“I thought so, too, when I first saw him. He looks like,” the youth struggled to find the words, “like no man I’ve ever seen, but he does have two arms, two legs, and a head as we do. He breathes as we do, eats as we do, drinks, spits, laughs and curses as we do. If we judge him on his appearance, alone, then I would concede your point. But how is he not a man?”

And that is the question that has pervaded the criticism of Orc-themed fiction almost since its inception. How are they different from Humans? What sets them apart? And if they’re close enough to Human for Human readers to understand and sympathize with, then why not just make them Human? Why must they be Orcs?

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“Why are we Orcs, Snaga?”

The answer, I imagine, is as unique as every creator. The Orc is a powerful symbol: the ur-Barbarian, the Other who lives and thrives on the edges of polite society. The Orc is cunning, savage, hard to kill. The Orc represents chaos and change; it threatens the status quo and offers nihilism, dystopia, and rapine as valid alternatives. To a writer, there is much to explore within the context of the Orc.

But, the criticism is largely correct. In Tolkien, for example, the Uruk-hai of Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol are uncomfortably close analogs to modern men – the type of profane and long-suffering machine-gun fodder JRRT encountered in the trenches during WWI. Contrast this to Mary Gentle’s Grunts, where Orcs are brutish and almost childlike, tusked and greenskinned barbarians with a gallows sense of humor. In Stan Nicholls’ Orcs trilogy, we return to a Tolkien-like sense of purity, with Orcs that are quarrelsome and violent, but functionally no different than their Human enemies. Opposite this portrayal would be Morgan Howell’s vision from the Queen of the Orcs trilogy, where they are Noble Savages patterned after the Iroquois of central New York. Though superficial elements such as appearance differ, every Orc who has thus appeared as a protagonist in fiction is imminently recognizable to readers – as a guttersnipe dough-boy, a slapstick barbarian, an idealized trope, or a CGI’d Human. The Orc is Us, writ large and defined by either subtle characterization or a Pagliaccian sense of the absurd.

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“Pagliaccian”, from Pagliacci, meaning “Clowns”.  An Italian opera by Leoncavallo.

Grimnir, of course, is no different. He looks like an Orc: “broad in the chest, his long arms knotted with muscle; bandy-legged, he had a slouch to his shoulders that, when he walked, lent him an aspect of gnarled strength. Tattoos in cinder and woad snaked across his swarthy hide. He glared through a stringy veil of black hair, his locks woven with beads of silver and carved bone. Slitted eyes blazed with unquenchable hate.” His speech is profane and punctuated by curses and guttural noises of derision; his sense of humor is decidedly dark. Cut him and he bleeds black, hemochromatic blood. Beneath all that, however, he is merely a Viking taken to nigh-monstrous extremes; he is what the Úlfhéðnar fears – the berserk who has no Human side. We may not like him, but we must be able to understand him in order to sympathize with him. He must think like Us, to some degree. He must feel and react like Us.

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“Wretched kneelers and hymn-singers, the lot of you!”

The 146th aphorism from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil strikes at the very heart of Orc fiction: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” We write the Other, but what we’re really writing is ourselves.