Posts Tagged 'Scandinavia'

DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Dietrich fängt den Zwerg Alfrich by Johannes Gehrts

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.

The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)’

Advertisements

DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

King Svafrlame Secures the Sword Tyrfing

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

In Norse mythology, the world was created when the primordial giant Ymir was murdered. His blood became the oceans, lakes, and rivers, the dome of his skull the heavens, his bones the mountains, and his flesh the earth and soil. There are two different accounts of how dwarves came into being during this violent rebirth. The eddic poem Völuspá says they sprang from the blood of Ymir and the bones of another giant named Bláin. Snorri Sturlusson, however, says that dwarves were originally a sort of maggot, who burrowed through the earth-flesh of the dead Ymir. The gods decided, for reasons of their own, that these maggot-beings should gain awareness. They became dwarves, and continued to live in the remains of Ymir’s corpse, dwelling inside rocks and beneath the ground.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains’

DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dwarfs_at_Work.jpg

Like elves, dwarves have become a staple of modern fantasy literature. Also like elves, this is largely due to the influence of JRR Tolkien, and it’s his version that dominates. These dwarves, despite being short, are brawny and tough, with big beards and big axes.  They are champion smiths, miners, and architects, living far beneath the earth in underground cities. That’s the common version, but the history behind it is more complex.

Elves and dwarves both have their roots in Nordic mythology, but where Tolkien mainly based his elves on Celtic lore, his dwarves are very Norse indeed. Tolkien’s dwarves use Nordic runes for writing, often use axes as weapons (very popular amongst the Norse, especially the Danes) and epitomize a certain gruff manliness commonly associated with Vikings. Beyond that, they stick very close to their mythic predecessors in that they are master smiths and craftsmen, sometimes have an unpleasant greedy streak, and live underground. Still, there are significant differences as well, and Tolkien (as well as many other writers) have drawn on dwarf traditions that evolved through the centuries.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’

DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath

497px-Page_facing_174_illustration_in_More_English_Fairy_Tales

What makes a magical creature magical? This question has often bugged me in my own writing. Take the griffin, for example. On the one hand, it’s a blatantly impossible creature, part lion and part eagle. At the same time, in most stories, the griffin is just a beast. It’s a strange beast, and it’s very fierce, but it is still a brute creature of flesh and blood, to be avoided or killed. Familiarity breeds contempt, and when a magical creature is reduced to a beast, it becomes much less interesting.

This brings me to dragons. I haven’t talked much about dragons on this blog so far, and that’s been on purpose. There’s so much literature out there about them already that I feel I should avoid the topic unless I have a relatively novel aspect to bring to the table. Today I think I do. You see, dragons often have the same problem as the griffin. It’s all too common to see them reduced to a big dinosaur with halitosis. They’re so popular, so frequently seen and written about, that it’s hard to find new things to do with them. If that issue is one that has plagued you in your creative attempts, this article is for you.

Continue reading ‘DRAGON MAGIC: Gold, Curses, and Really Bad Breath’

ELVES, PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels

Älvalek

PART I: Stealing Creatively

PART II: Sociopaths from Another World

Changing gears from last time, we’re going to dig a little deeper with elves. We’ve already established that “elf” was eventually used to refer to fairies in Anglo-Saxon England, but it has a much older history. There’s a bit of argument about its ultimate origins, but generally the tradition is traced back to the word “alfar” or “alf” on Old Norse. The alfar in Norse myth are enigmatic bunch. While dwarves, trolls, giants and gods get a lot of attention, the alfar don’t. They have a few scattered references here or there in the different sagas and eddas. Still, we can piece together a general overview.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels’

ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively

800px-Elf_markwoman_by_Kitty

The modern fantasy genre draws on a lot of disparate literary sources, from Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter to Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, but the biggest of all is J.R.R. Tolkien. He really solidified the concept of a fantasy world, apart from our own, set in a quasi-medieval period where humankind interacted with supernatural forces. One particular element he made commonplace was the visualization of supernatural creatures as just another sort of people, made of flesh and blood, with their own cultures and traditions. Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively’