KS – What we call Norse mythology is sometimes thought to be purely Scandinavian property, but the old gods are documented in various forms in Europe and the British Isles. Your books have a distinctly British feel. The Old English runes represent the “New Script” in your novels; the Old English rune poem provides lines for the cantrips spoken by your characters – cantrip itself being an archaic English and Scottish word for spell or incantation. In the Runemarks world, Red Horse Hill is rumored to have been a place of heathen sacrifice or a burial mound, and it has an ancient carving of a horse that “never grassed over in spring, nor did the winter snow ever hide its shape” – which is reminiscent of the Uffington White Horse and other English chalk horses. Runemarks’ map shows that the Middle Worlds look like the British Isles, with World’s End in the general area of London. Why did you decide to use an English setting, rather than a Nordic one? Did the choice enable you tell a different type of story than if, for instance, the events took place in Iceland?
JH – I don’t think I made a conscious choice to set the books in a neo-British setting. To me it simply came naturally. I’m more familiar with my Yorkshire home than I am with, say, Iceland or Scandinavia, and there are already so many links here to Viking culture. There are Viking remains all around Yorkshire, from runic stones to burial mounds. I worked as a volunteer on the Coppergate dig in York when I was a teenager (the site that was to become Jorvik). Scratch the soil almost anywhere here, and you’ll find that our back gardens are all filled with Viking leavings.
Just outside my home village of Almondbury (which was to become Malbry in the Rune books), there are the foundations of an Iron Age fort on a hill. Castle Hill became Red Horse Hill without much alteration, and I’ve used some other local names, such as Farnley Tyas, mostly for my own amusement and that of my daughter, for whom I wrote the books in the first place. I wanted to try and recreate the way in which belief systems migrate and are recreated locally to suit the needs of each location in which they are adopted; in this case, my own region, which has harboured the remnants of Viking culture for centuries, even to adopting Danish words into our local dialect (for instance, the word laik, to play, was very common when I was a child: eg: A’ tha’ laikin’? – Are you coming out to play?)
All this makes Malbry and the world of Inland very, very familiar to me. I think that if I’d chosen a more obviously Icelandic (and therefore “foreign”) setting, the story would have been different; less intimate, less familiar. I wanted to tell a story that most of us here already half-knew, if only on a subconscious level; not introduce a new culture that people wouldn’t recognize.
KS – You give very nice logical explanations for the mysteries of Norse mythology. For instance, the ability to mystically bind a goblin or god by knowing its true name (“a named thing is a tamed thing”) is explained like this:
At the beginning of the First Age, it was given to every creature, tree, rock and plant a secret name that would bind that creature to the will of anyone who knew it.
Mother Frigg knew the true names, and used them to make all of creation weep for the return of her dead son. But Loki, who had many names, would not be bound to such a promise, and so Balder the Fair, god of springtime, was forced to remain in Underworld, Hel’s kingdom, until the end of all things.
You recontextualize ideas from Norse myth (like the world weeping for Balder) and connect them to other Germanic concepts (like the Rumpelstiltskinian name-control) to provide an overarching logic to the material. From Snorri Sturluson to Viktor Rydberg to Kevin Crossley-Holland, writers have tried to fit the contradictory surviving remnants of Norse myth into a coherent whole. As an author who has so often created her own fictional worlds, what drew you to design a logical narrative from this ancient jumble of myth?
JH – Folklore rarely follows rules, especially not those of linear narrative. On the other hand, with folklore based on the oral tradition, the audience knows to suspend disbelief and to ignore inconsistencies. That doesn’t happen so much in books. What I tried to do was sift through all kinds of aspects of folklore, myth and fairytale, bringing together what I could and adding variants of my own. Runemarks is basically a story about the power of stories; a power that has fuelled the world since long before the Vikings. The result is a kind of webwork, in which myth, religious belief, fairytales, nursery rhymes and spells are all intimately interconnected.
KS – In Runemarks’ character list, all the gods and goddesses are defined by their (antagonistic) relationships with Loki. He appears more in both novels than any of the Æsir or Vanir. John Lindow writes that “[e]veryone agrees that there was never any cult of Loki,” yet he is a favorite fictional character today. Marvel Comics has given Journey into Mystery over to his adventures, Joss Whedon calls him “the kind of character that turns the wheels,” and M.D. Lachlan made him the only Norse god with a speaking part in Wolfsangel. Why do you think Loki has become such a sympathetic figure in recent years?
JH – During the course of the last century, the concept of heroes and villains has become for ambivalent. We have come to enjoy anti-heroes; those complicated, flawed characters who often exist on the fringes of normal society. We are no longer entirely satisfied by the archetypes of story, the whiter-than-white heroes and the villains with no redeeming features.
Thus Loki satisfies our need to identify on a more human level; his flaws are very believable, and of all the Norse gods he seems to me the most modern. His moral and sexual ambivalence; his inability (or refusal) to integrate into Asgard’s society; his outcast status; his subversive temperament; his changes of mood and his almost existentialist sense of humour make him very accessible to a modern audience.
He portrays the insecurities of modern adolescence; the sense of not belonging; the need to make an impact, even a negative one, onto the world of adulthood (represented by Odin and the other gods). And of course, he is very funny; lifting what would have been a very stolid and serious pantheon into something much livelier and more human.
KS – Your novels hint at lands beyond the area your characters inhabit. Traders bring “glass and metalware from the Ridings; persimmons from the Southlands; fish from the Islands; spices from the Outlands; skins and furs from the frozen North.” You mention Wilderlanders, “all painted in blue woad,” and write that “[b]eyond the One Sea . . . there were men and women as brown as peat, with hair curled tight as bramble-crisp; and these people had never known Tribulation or the Good Book, but instead worshipped gods of their own – wild brown gods with animal heads.” Clearly, the action of the book only takes place in one small corner of the world you’ve created, with its reimaginings of real lands and peoples. I’ve always wondered about the localization of Big Important Mystical Events. Gods with the power to shape existence and travel throughout the universe only seem to appear to very small groups of people in very specific locales. Yahweh never holidays in Alaska; Njord doesn’t seem to notice that there are some really nice beaches in California. How do you imagine the inhabitants of your world reacting to the fact that the disagreements of a bunch of Anglo-Saxon godly types bring all of existence to the edge of destruction? In the world of Runemarks, do other lands have gods as physically real as Odin and Loki? If so, are these other gods secretly observing the battles between the Northerners?
JH – I’ve often wondered that myself. It’s one of those non-linear folkoric suspensions of disbelief I was talking about earlier, and in fact I’ve been thinking about trying to write a Rune book in which world belief systems interact, just to see if my gods would survive, say, in South America, amongst all those bloodthirsty Aztec gods.
Of course, in the Rune books, the concept of “world” is limited to the world we know. This has been true throughout history, and religions, which tend to adapt to local conditions, reflect this pattern too. That’s why Jesus is traditionally shown as very Anglo-Saxon-looking in Europe and America, and the Nativity is most often depicted under snow.
I’ve touched on a tentative explanation of this, both in my Rune books and in some of my short stories by suggesting that gods are not all-powerful, and that the word “god”, like the concept of “world”, is open to massive historical and regional interpretation. Loki (whose voice I often use to voice these subversive theories) says as much in Runemarks:
“In my time I’ve seen theatre gods, gladiator gods, even storyteller gods –Maddy, you people see gods everywhere. Gives you an excuse for not thinking for yourselves.”
“God is just a word… Reverse it and you get dog. It’s just as appropriate.”
I’ve also touched on the idea that gods might appear in different aspects to suit the time and place; therefore the god of thunder, for instance, might have multiple personae; appearing as Thor in one place, or Tlaloc in another, or Jupiter, to suit the current perception of what a thunder god should be. Even the figure of Jesus, I would argue, has borrowed a number of aspects from previous religions, from Osiris to Mithras; all of them aspects of the same archetypical figures sacrifice at Easter and later reborn into godhood.
KS – Given the large role of giants in both Norse myth and British folklore, I was surprised they didn’t appear in your books. When Surt shows up, he’s “a black bird shadow with a corona of fire,” not the Edda’s sword-wielding giant. Your imagery reminded me of some lines from the Kalevala, the epic poem from Finland:
The sky’s bird struck fire
made a flame flare up.
The north wind burnt the clearing
the north-east quite consumed it:
it burnt all the trees to ash
reduced them to dust.
Skadi is listed as “of the Ice People” in your character list, not specifically as a giant. Why did you choose to leave the big fellas out of the story?
JH – The word most often translated as “giant” in Old Icelandic is open to a number of other interpretations, including “demon”. That started me thinking about the relationships between gods and giants/demons, and how little we hear about the actual physical size of these “giants.”
In some stories they are indeed of giant size – the giant Skrymir, for instance, is large enough to house four people inside his glove – but Loki, supposedly half-giant, is of normal size (perhaps even a little shorter than average). Many others – Skadi, Gerd – are of similar size to the gods, able to intermarry without difficulty.
I came to the conclusion, then, that the word “giant”, like the word “god” might be metaphorical, closer to the concept of “hero” or “superhuman.” We do, after all, refer to “literary giants” and “gods and goddesses of the screen.” Because of that I wanted to use a word that didn’t necessarily convey monstrous size in every case, reserving the word “giant” for the actual “big fellas.”
QUESTIONS ON WOMEN’S ROLES
KS – When in Aspect (her mystical appearance), Maddy’s hair is “loose instead of being sensibly braided, and in the place of her usual clothes she now wore a belted chain mail tunic of what she judged to be immodest length.” This reads like a description of 19 th-century artistic depictions of Valkyries. (Like this one: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Arbo-Valkyrien.jpg) For novels that center around some very powerful female characters (and butt-kicking teenage girls), the Valkyries are notable by their absence. Why did you choose not to use these mystic warrior-women in your books?
JH – I was never entirely taken by the image of the Valkyries. They always seemed to me tainted by those 19 th-century depictions, more the manifestations of some teenager’s wet-dream than actual symbols of female empowerment. They exist en masse, with no characterization or real means of telling them apart, like the chorus of We Will Rock You, rewritten by Wagner after a particularly dissolute Oktoberfest. I didn’t know what to do with them, or how they would contribute to my story. And so I chose to leave them out altogether, concentrating instead on re-inventing the (somewhat male-dominated) Norse pantheon to include some kickass female characters.
KS – At the beginning of Runemarks, Maddy is fourteen years old – the age you were when you first began imagining new tales of the Norse gods and the age your daughter was when you finished the novel. You’ve described Maddy as “a mixture of myself at fourteen and of my daughter as she is now. In fact, we’re pretty similar personalities.” How do you think things have changed for strong-minded young women from your generation to hers? Is there a difference in the way today’s real-life Pippi Longstockings interact with peers and adults? Are there elements of Maddy that are clearly from your daughter’s experiences as a young woman – experiences that are fundamentally different from your own?
JH – I think, if anything, that things have changed for the worse for imaginative teenagers since then. When I was fourteen, there was far less pressure to conform, and our role models were actresses, sportswomen, musicians and writers instead of TV “celebrities.” There was much less pressure on teenage girls to focus on clothes and makeup; most of us lived in T-shirts and jeans, and although we were interested in boys (of course we were – who isn’t?) we were far more interested in fictional heroes and stars of the screen. Contrast that with my daughter being bullied at school at the age of twelve because didn’t shave her legs, or because she didn’t like the same music as her peers.
In the Seventies, we felt that feminism was on the rise. We felt that women were coming of age; we were optimistic. Now, I think that feminism has lost its way. So many girls nowadays seem to think that laddishness is “empowering,” rather than just childish. So many of them seem to think that marrying a footballer, or becoming a reality TV star, or getting a boob job and becoming a pole dancer, or just winning the Lottery counts as “living the dream”. I remember when dreams were better than this.
KS – I once took an art history course with a girl who would make completely original observations on the material, yet always begin her statements with “I think I read somewhere in the textbook that . . .” There was a boy in the class who would repeat passages from the book almost verbatim, but always present the concepts as his own ideas. The idea of a creative young woman feeling that she has to hide her gifts appears near the beginning of Runemarks: “For Maddy’s deepest secret . . . was that she enjoyed working magic, however shameful that might be. More than that, she thought she might be good at it too and, like anyone with a talent, longed to make use of it and show it off to other people.” Did you intend a connection between Maddy’s relationship to her magical knowledge and talents and the continuing external and internal struggles of today’s “wise women” – whether students, professionals or creative artists?
JH – Yes; Maddy’s magic is something of a metaphor for the imagination of women generally. For too long, women have been judged primarily on their looks rather than their abilities, and even now, in a world in which we can hardly move for political correctness, men and women are still viewed slightly differently in the world of music, literature and the creative arts. There is a patronizing smirk from the world of literature when a woman writes a romantic novel; but when a man does the same thing, he is being sensitive and insightful, making a valuable statement on the nature of relationships. In Runemarks, the same thing happens; a boy who reads is intelligent and will go a long way; a girl who reads is “clever”, which is useless in a girl, even potentially dangerous.
KS – Fenris, Skoll and Haiti all appear as nasty teenage boys that dress and talk like dumb metalheads. Two of them have a swastika tattoo, “not a runemark, exactly, but a sign of allegiance to Chaos in one of its darkest, most sinister forms.” The teenage boys in the novels (including Adam Scattergood) are all delightfully disgusting, which got me wondering about the target audience for these books. I remember reading Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume as a teen and thinking, “Whoot! I don’t think boys are meant to be reading this!” Runemarks and Runelight seem aimed at smart tomboys – Maggie is “too tall; too boyish; too clever; too pert; unwilling to play the seduction games played by other girls of her age.” This is totally understandable (and welcome), given the adolescent male fantasy of so much genre fiction (I’m looking at you, DC Comics editors and Game of Thrones producers). Aside from your daughter, were you writing with a specific audience in mind? What sort of response have you gotten from young women? From young men?
JH – I rarely think about my target audience. In this case I did – but my audience was an audience of one, and I wasn’t thinking further than that. Later I began to receive fan mail, and realized that my audience is too diverse to be easily categorized.
I get a lot of letters from young people, of course, although some of my most persistent fans are women in their fifties. Boys write to me as well as girls, and I’m glad to see that my publishers haven’t tried to direct the readership by suggesting that this is a “girl book” rather than a “boy book.” I don’t like the book apartheid that has sprung up over the past few decades, or the ridiculous marketing of books with glittery pink covers (sometimes with a little free necklace or bracelet , as if a book needed to come with some kind of jewelry to appeal to girls) designed to indoctrinate little girls into conforming early.
My young readers, male or female, are Loki fans to a man (or woman). I think that in many ways, Loki is the true hero of the books – even more so than Maddy. I’ve already spoken a little about Loki’s appeal, but I sense that my young readers see him as a reflection of themselves; they understand his feelings of alienation, so common in adolescence, and they enjoy his sense of humour and his irreverence towards authority. They like Maddy, too; but most of the time, it is Loki who has their heart.
QUESTIONS ON RUNES
KS – Early on, Maddy works rune magic by drawing runes on the ground with a stick. The rune-shapes are not magical in themselves; they need to be activated with a spark: “That was the only true magic involved. Anyone familiar with the runes – which were only letters, after all, taken from an ancient language – could learn to write them. The trick, Maddy knew, was to set them to work.” This usage of runes echoes the practice attested in Norse mythology, like Odin carving and staining the runes in Hávamál. The more striking rune-magic in the novels, though, is the casting with finger-shapes. You have a great demonstration of all the runic fingerings on your website ( https://joanne-harris.co.uk/v3site/books/runemarks/fingerings.html ). What were the influences on your development of the fingering system?
JH – I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jan Fries and his book, Helrunar. It was my main starting-point for developing the runes, interpreting their meanings and developing the “fingering” system that Maddy uses. The original source material of the Norse legends never explains all the methods in which runes are used, although study of Old Icelandic tells me that there are many, many different uses.
In Runemarks I needed something simple and graphic enough to be easily visualized. Jan Fries puts heavy emphasis on “rune stances” – almost like yogic postures – to recreate the rune shapes, but although a physical expression of the rune shape seemed like a good idea to me, I found whole-body rune shapes impractical. And so I decided on finger-shapes, a shorthand form of the rune stance, partly because as a child I remember my great-grandmother making the sign against the evil eye with her fingers (the same sign I’ve used for the rune Yr in Runemarks) and explaining that it was for protection against bad spirits.
KS – I’m curious about your use of the Bjarkan rune. The source poems all agree that the rune simply means “birch” or “birch twig,” and their verses are clearly about the tree or shrub. In the world of your novels, however, the fingering of this particular rune is peered through to gain “truesight” – to see the hidden trails of magic that light up the world when seen through the runeshape, to see the “true colors” of the beings that surround you. It’s one of the most distinctive runes in your books, and many characters use it to gain insight. Why did you choose this particular rune to invest with this ability?
JH – I’m going with the connection between Beorc/Bjarkan and the Old High German word bar, (Old Icelandic, berr) meaning; naked; open, bare, as well as the fact that birch trees are so immediately visible among the trees in the forest. It’s a tenuous link, I know; but it’s a possible interpretation.
KS – Each section of the novels has a bind-rune frontispiece. Did you design these yourself? Do they have specific meanings related to the events they precede?
JH – I designed them with my editor, who has become a very enthusiastic participant. They can be deconstructed to make a kind of shorthand accompaniment to the chapter – some of my young readers are also very enthusiastic in decoding these bindrunes, and send me their various interpretations of what they mean, which makes me very happy.
QUESTIONS ON RELIGION
KS – The bind-runes preceding each section of the novels are accompanied by quotes from Lokabrenna, Invocations, Prophecy of the Seer, Proverbs, Apocalypse, Book of Mimir, Fabrications – imaginary lost poems of the Edda and sections of the Order’s Good Book. The quoting of works from within the world of the novel reminded me of Frank Herbert’s use of imaginary quotations (like passages from “The Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” in Dune). I didn’t see Herbert in your lists of influences, but he seems a simpatico persona, given his creation of worlds built on complicated internal logic and investigation of the meanings of religion to those involved in their mystical heart (his Paul Atreides, your Maddy Smith). Herbert left Catholicism for Buddhism, and questions of religious belief play a major role in his works. Does Maddy’s journey reflect your own spiritual experiences in any way?
JH – I don’t subscribe to any organized religion. I never have, although all belief systems interest me and I’ve spent most of my life studying aspects of belief. I didn’t want the Good Book to be the Christian Bible (although a number of people have assumed that it was), which is partly why I included the quotes. But patriarchal ideologies in general have overlapping areas of belief. My intention was not to portray one existing religion, but to draw on the concept of the evolution of religions in general, and how they shape society.
KS – The books freely mix Norse myth and Christian myth in a very interesting fashion. Ragnarökkian imagery intersects with Christian Apocalyptic visions, and the power of rune magic overlaps the power of the Word. The two traditions even join together physically in the final scenes as Maggie – daughter of Thor and follower of the Order – names her unborn son Adam, of all things. This both highlights differences between the two religious traditions and underscores how much Christianity took from the Old Way as it developed in the North. Your knowledge of the source texts of Norse myth rings through throughout your work, but I’m curious about our background in regards to Christian tradition. Were you raised in a believing family?
JH – No, but I was raised in a family with a strong Catholic background. I never intended the Order to be seen as Christianity, although it has some things in common with the early Christian church; most of all its ability to naturalize and assimilate native beliefs. The Elder Edda itself shows how this works, retelling the myths from a different point-of-view, biased towards Christianity.
However, I do believe that this is the nature of religion. No belief system stands alone. All are part of a long process of evolution and re-invention, and however much believers may reject this idea, all are ultimately related to one another.
KS – There are elements of contemporary pagan practice that appear in Runemarks and Runelight – including the use of runestones for divination (as opposed to the wooden strips of Tacitus) and the importance placed on reversed runes. While runologists agree that historical rune usage made no distinctions regarding the direction a runic text was written in – or even the orientation of any given rune in relation to its neighbors – some pagans today have worked up a complex system of rune-orientation based more on tarot divination and the I Ching than on what little is known of northern pre-Christian divinatory practice. You have written, “I don’t belong to any gang, political, religious or otherwise. And I’m allergic to words that end in –ist.” Understood. I’m just curious about your relationship to historical and modern paganism as a creative artist. Are your ideas about rune magic inspired more by ancient or modern conceptions? Are you more interested in how the runes were used in pre-conversion Europe or how they’re used in the modern world?
JH – I don’t think we can truly know how the runes were originally used. We can try to guess – and there are clues to be found, both in ancient texts and in the original languages – but my view is that belief in magic, like belief in religion, is a very personal thing. Blind adherence to rules set out a thousand or two thousand years ago is as pointless as trying to pretend that scientific advancement has not changed our perception of the Divine. My attitude is this: if it works for you, then that’s the way to do it for you. It may not work for anyone else, but that isn’t your problem. (To paraphrase Siddharta: everyone follows his own path. If you’re following anyone else (even me), you’re going the wrong way).
My interest in runes spans both the ancient and modern beliefs: I included rune casting in the “modern pagan” sense because, regardless of its usage (or not) in earlier times, it has been assimilated into modern practice to fit changing times and attitudes. This I think is perfectly acceptable; we should not feel constrained to think backward in terms of spirituality, but to build on whatever wisdom we have inherited.
KS – At one point in Runemarks, Maddy thinks through the various explanations of earthquakes she’s been given. One ties them to the writhing of the World Serpent at the root of the World Tree; one connects them to a semi-Christian idea of the struggles of wicked souls in the underworld as they wait for the End of Days. Odin provides a third explanation, telling Maddy about “rivers of fire under the earth and avalanches of hot mud and mountains boiling over like kettles; but this seemed to Maddy to be the least likely explanation of all, and she was inclined to believe that he had exaggerated the tale, as he did so many things.” This can be read as fairly accurate representation of the struggle between religious belief and scientific understanding here in the United States, unfortunately! Religion offers simple answers and eternal truths; science asks for complex thought and constant questioning. How would you describe the relationship between religion and science in the United Kingdom today?
JH – I guess we have the same conflicts as in the US. We in the UK tend to inherit the US’s social problems somewhere along the line, including some of the more extreme manifestations of religious mania. We have not yet gone so far as to teach creationism in our schools, but it’s only a matter of time. Already a number of Catholic schools have refused to allow their female pupils to take a vaccine that protects them against cervical cancer on the grounds that it would “encourage immorality.” The heart sinks at such stupidity. But –
I don’t believe the role of religion should be to offer “simple answers”. Like Goethe’s Faust (as opposed to Marlowe’s Dr Faustus) I think that the human condition is to strive, and that as soon as stop striving (to explore, to understand, to create, to live in harmony with each other), then we have lost our way. In ancient times, our perception of the Divine was limited by our limited knowledge of the world around us. At that time it was perfectly acceptable to believe in such things as a flat earth, or a physical Hell, to see perfectly natural phenomena as part of a supernatural universe. The God of the Old Testament (and elsewhere) is a very primitive depiction of the Divine, as represented by some very primitive people, living in a primitive time, who see him as a kind of vengeful warlord with a mentality as barbaric as their own. The God of the New Testament is very different. Two thousand years later, even aspects of the New Testament (the Immaculate Conception, etc) are being disputed by the church, and many parts of the Old Testament (eg: stoning your son for drunkenness, not wearing mixed fibres, human sacrifice, etc) have been dismissed by most as no longer valid in a modern context.
What I’m saying is that as our knowledge of the universe has expanded, so should our appreciation of the Divine. I don’t see science and religion as mutually exclusive. The world is changing constantly. So must our assumptions.
KS – Your novels contain several clever examples of folk etymology. Æsir is linked to Seer-Folk, which is reminiscent of Snorri Sturluson’s idea that the Æsir came from Asia. This is an interesting take on oral transmission and transmutation. You’ve written that “no-one had written [the Norse myths] down at the time, and the fullest accounts came from Christian chroniclers centuries later, and were at best, incomplete, and at worst, badly distorted.” In Runemarks, Loki says that “there’s rather a lot the Oracle didn’t foretell, and old tales have a habit of getting twisted.” The tagline for Runelight is “Never trust an Oracle,” and there’s a suggestion that Völuspá simply contains the untrustworthy words of a prophetess, not a statement of fact or religious dogma. I really like your idea that the myths may not tell the whole truth, which ties in with the debate (among both scholars and heathens) about the trustworthiness of the surviving mythology as an actual record of pre-Christian belief. Many of your characters were worshiped as living gods in the ancient North (and in modern pagan revivals), and we know that at least some actual religious belief is recorded in the myths. How do you personally see the relationship of religion, myth and literature? How does it affect you as an author to know that some readers literally worship the characters your write about?
JH – I don’t see the gods of Runemarks as my characters, or my property, and I hope I’ve left enough leeway in my fiction for my Asatrú readers to understand that I am not in any way trying to make fun of the gods they worship. What I’m trying to do in my way is to demonstrate how stories evolve, and how heroes (be they religious figures, historical figures, or both) cast long shadows in their wake. These shadows become part of the oral and written tradition, and as centuries pass, are embellished, rewritten and re-interpreted by successive generations. Thus a hero can become a god, or a god dwindle into legend. I hope I haven’t offended anyone who truly believes; that was never my intention.
KS – Your portrayal of the Order – the new religion that basically takes over after Ragnarök – is pretty grim. You write that the Order’s “temples were built on the ruins of springs and barrows and standing stones that once were sacred to an older faith” and that its members kill animals born with runemarks, take babies born with runemarks away from their parents, empty pagan barrows and reconsecrate them, and hang and burn pagans as people “who were in fact the servants of the enemy, and therefore had no souls to save.” You have written that you don’t hate Christians or “the Catholic Church, organized religion or any other kind of religious group. What I do hate is intolerance, repression, moral superiority, the concepts of original sin, holy war and eternal damnation, plus the various acts that certain individuals are willing to perpetrate in the name of their religion, certain that God is on their side.” Without ever mentioning Christianity in your novels, it’s pretty clear that the Order is a mythologized version of the Church, since so many of your examples parallel the actual (and often violent) history of northern conversion. There are a vast number of ways to turn Norse mythology into modern fiction (cf. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, M.D. Lachlan’s Wolfsangel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Thor, etc.), but you chose to focus on the (literarily transformed) clash between paganism and Christianity. Why did you choose this particular aspect?
JH – Because it is the closest thing to what really happened to our indigenous beliefs. In Pendle, not far from where I live, there are still gibbets where witches were hanged. In Europe, the early Christian church was responsible for centuries of gruesome persecution, as well as the destruction of many precious ancient texts, in the attempt to stamp out all previous beliefs. There’s a reason they’re called the Dark Ages. And to think that certain people are trying to take us back there…
However, I still dispute that the Order is a mythologized version of Christianity. For a start, no mention of Christ, or any Christ-figure is ever made. (In parenthesis, can I say that I do believe in the historical figure of Jesus, though not in his divinity; to me, he is a marvelous example of a truly wise man, whose excellent advice – to be good to each other – has been shanghaied throughout history by people who have twisted his words to fit their twisted agenda.) Christianity is not the only patriarchal religion in the world, and as far as I’m concerned, they are all equally to blame for the spread of intolerance, hypocrisy, religious hatred and holy war.
Rant over. Moving on –
KS – In Runelight, Maggie (at least at the beginning) is a dedicated believer in the Order. She wears “a white headscarf of the type World’s Enders called the bergha,” which seems clearly connected to the burqa worn by traditional Muslim women. She has been trained to be unimaginative, to be obedient – and she responds emotionally to language “of sacrifice, and power, and mysteries.” You also mention “wealthy Outlanders with their strings of wives, veiled from head to foot in black, dark eyes modestly lowered.” Given your statements about religious intolerance and repression, was this meant to point out commonalities in the treatment of women in Christian and Muslim societies?
JH – Absolutely. And remember, traditional Muslim dress is not so different to the way in which women in Europe traditionally dressed, or in the way modern nuns still veil their heads and shoulders. Remember too that during the first part of the Middle Ages, a woman wearing men’s clothing was punishable by death (the charge was officially heresy). It’s one of the reasons they burnt Joan of Arc (who also casts a long shadow). Throughout history, there have been religious taboos over male and female clothing (the Koran and the Sunnah are filled with rules about what men and women can and can’t wear). I have simply transferred some of this to my story.
KS – Like the Norse gods portrayed in the Eddas, the gods in your version are flawed and fallible; they are definitely not omniscient or omnipotent. Your Odin describes Order and Chaos as “the twin forces that even gods cannot hope to understand,” and he spills “the last few drops [of wine] onto the earth as an offering to any old gods that might be around.” Your Loki, when in a real bind, prays to any gods that may be listening. How would you describe the nature of the Norse gods – especially as opposed to gods of monotheistic traditions? Has your conception of their nature changed over the many years you’ve thought about this material?
JH – Of course: and my fiction in no way pretends to cast any light on their nature. Rather, what I’m trying to do is ask questions about the changing nature of belief, the way our perception of the Divine changes to suit our changing society, and to ask the question why we need those gods in the first place.
KS – Your characterization of Sleipir is fascinating. He’s the carving on Red Horse Hill come to life, and you explain his eight legs by saying that he “has a foot in each World except in Pan-daemonium.” You describe him like this:
It looked like some madman’s dream of a horse. The body’s proportions were almost right; but the legs – all eight of them, no less – were grotesquely long and thin, like the legs on a midsummer crane fly, digging so far into the ground that they might have been the roots of trees and reaching so far above her that Maddy had to tilt her head back to see the creature standing over her, its colours like St. Sepulchre’s Fire, obliterating half the sky.
This seems a spot-on description of the Valkyrie welcoming Sleipnir on the Tjängvide stone, down to the red color. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Tjängvide.jpg) Elsewhere in Runelight, Sleipnir appears as “a regular horse – a strawberry roan with a long black mane.” Throughout the books, you make a distinction between the physical appearance of the gods (and associated characters) and their true Aspects – how they manifest in more purely spiritual forms. This ties in with a discussion in modern heathenry that asks whether the gods physical beings or disembodied Powers, whether they are actual or metaphorical. Would you explain your concept of Aspect? Aside from its use as it a plot device, how do you think this idea relates to modes of religious belief, both ancient and contemporary?
JH – I think it relates to both. In Runemarks, the gods have mostly lost their divinity as new beliefs took over. Of course, this is the way the Elder Edda depicts the gods – as warlords pretending they were gods in a world where Christianity was gaining popularity. But in Runelight, the gods rebuild Asgard and re-acquire their godlike Aspects – this could be seen as a metaphor, if you like, of the way paganism has grown over the last few decades.
The idea of Aspect gives room to believe in either the physical or the metaphorical as we choose. It suggests that, although our perceptions of the Divine may differ radically from one another, we all see some version of the truth, and take from it whatever we can.
QUESTIONS ON THE CREATIVE PROCESS
KS – Both novels are full of very subtle yet very deep use of Norse mythology. Concepts from Norse myth are put into action, such as Odin using rune magic to free himself from chains – which is one of the powers he brags about in Hávamál. There is a real attention paid to mythic detail, such as Odin only drinking “a little wine” when sitting down to a meal, echoing Grímnismál’s “on wine alone the weapon-magnificent Odin always lives.” You’ve studied Medieval Languages and Old Norse, but you’ve written that you “don’t do very much research, and if can get away without doing any, I will. I use reference books and the internet when I need specific details on something, but most of the time I write about topics where I already have some knowledge, or where I have access to someone who can give me first-hand information.” How has your formal study of language affected your writing on these mythological subjects? How does your intellectual study of the subject interact with creative inspiration in your writing process?
JH –I’ve always been interested in mythology and religion. You might see it as a lifetime’s study, which is what I mean when I say I don’t do much research. I’ve been reading about the Norse myths since I was seven years old, and I guess it was inevitable that a lot of what I’d read would find its way into the story on some level.
However, while I was writing Runemarks I started to teach myself Old Icelandic, which I found unexpectedly rewarding, both in terms of reading texts in the original (and arguing about translation!) and in terms of the insight that learning a language gives you about the priorities and preoccupations of a culture. Some of this also found its way into the books; I’m not sure how much. I allow the ideas that interest me to enter the story through intellectual osmosis rather than any kind of formal planning.
KS – Your version of Loki is reminiscent of Richard Wagner’s Loge. In Der Ring des Nibelungen, the German composer conflates Loki with the Edda’s Logi, who is wildfire personified. You give “Wildfire” as one of Loki’s many names (as well as the meaning of his runemark) and associate the Trickster with fire throughout both novels. Your description of him as “a slim red-haired person” – coupled with his link to flame – reminded me of one of Arthur Rackham’s classic illustrations for the Ring. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ad/Rhinegold_and_the_Valkyries_p_156.jpg ) Was the version created by Wagner and Rackham a source for your character, or does he come from some other creative place entirely?
JH – No, this is always how I’ve envisaged Loki. As a child I wrote a great deal about him and did a great number of drawings. Looking back at some of them now, it’s clear that my early pictures and descriptions of Loki are very similar to the way I describe him in Runemarks – I only discovered Rackham later, when I developed a passion for the Pre-Raphaelites and their artistic descendants. For a long time, my only visual point of reference to Loki and the Norse gods was a book by H. A. Guerber called Myths of the Norsemen, which contains a number of illustrations. Like a child watching a bad movie based on a favourite story, I felt that the gods were not portrayed at all as I imagined them…
KS – In Runemarks, Loki gives Sugar a common pebble marked with runes that “make a sigil that was unmistakably Loki’s” – a plot device similar to one M.D. Lachlan’s Loki uses in Wolfsangel. In Runelight, Thor’s hammer appears as a sort of wisecracking midget, which is a bit like the talking hammer in Iceland’s Legends of Valhalla animated film. Your works predate both of these others, and I’m not saying there’s any cross-pollination here; similar source material often leads to independent arrival at similar ends. I’m just curious about your relationship to contemporary fantasy, whether in literature or film. Do you keep up with the latest releases? Do you follow modern fantasy or steer clear of it?
JH – I’m not familiar any of the works you mention, but there are so many Norse-related stories out there that it’s not surprising if there’s cross-pollination. So many of these stories and characters are archetypal – it’s what makes them so familiar. I don’t avoid modern fantasy at all – or if I do it’s because of the pressures of time, rather than indifference. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of it, and nowadays I find it hard to know what to choose. I loved George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books – I was into the series long before it became fashionable – but there’s a lot of indifferent material out there, and I’m tired of reading fantasy books that read like a game of D&D.
KS – The Marvel Comics version of Thor has been around for over fifty years, and the series has built up a deep mythology of its own. It pervades popular culture, and it’s sometimes hard for the iconic imagery and characterization of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and other contributors not to seep into our own imaginings. I see a similar impetus in Lee and Kirby moving Thor’s adventures to contemporary New York and your own desire “to explore the humour of the legends and to make them accessible to a different readership.” Have you ever been a reader of the comic? Did the successes and failures of the series affect the design of your own mythological world in any way?
JH – I’m not familiar with the Marvel comics (I wasn’t allowed comics as a child), though I have seen and enjoyed the movie Thor. As for the design of the world, it wasn’t really a conscious thing. My version of Inland and its inhabitants has evolved over a very long time – and, I suspect, will continue to do so for as long as I write these stories.
KS – These two books have already manifested themselves in various media. Random House filmed a moody “book trailer” for Runemarks, and you’ve held a contest for fan-made Runelight videos. I first discovered your books by stumbling across the Runemarks audiobook. Our mutual friend Becca Marovolo has created a line of Runemarks-inspired jewelry, and Yoda designer Wendy Froud has created a Loki figurine modeled on your version of the Trickster. Leaving aside purely financial considerations, how would you most like to see Maddy’s adventures translated – audio drama, graphic novel, TV series, feature film, puppet show or prog rock concept album? Would you rather see the book remain a book, or do you look forward to collaborating with artists in other media to create a new version of your work?
JH – I’d love to see what people make of my books, regardless of the medium. I’ve seen a great deal of fan art and fan fiction, much of it very imaginative; it just goes to show what affection there is for these characters. Of course I would like to see a film, as long as I could choose the director. I’d love to work with Guillermo del Toro, for instance, and if anyone ever felt like developing: Asgard! The Musical I’d be their friend for life…