In celebration of the publication of my novel Viking Boy, I’ve put together a list of my Top 10 favourite Viking stories.
1. Horned Helmet by Henry Treece – This is the first Viking story I read, and a book I’ve re-read many times since. It’s the story of Beorn, an Icelandic boy who falls in with Starkad, a tough Viking warrior. It has everything you could want from a Viking story – hard men, journeys across cold seas, violence, clipped dialogue and fantastic illustrations by one of the greatest artists ever to have worked in children’s books, the great Charles Keeping. If you don’t finish this book convinced that the Vikings are the coolest thing ever, there really is no hope for you.
2. Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered the work of Rosemary Sutcliff not long after I read Horned Helmet, and soon started to work my way through everything with her name on it. She’s probably best remembered for her Roman Britain novels (especially Eagle of the Ninth), but Blood Feud is one of her best. Saxon boy Jestyn is sold in the Dublin slave market to Viking adventurer Thormod and finds himself pitched into a feud between his new master and two brothers. Vengeance is a great Viking theme, and this short book packs a powerful punch.
3. The Uhtred novels by Bernard Cornwell – I’d never read anything by Bernard Cornwell, not even the famous (and televised) Sharpe books, until I came across The Last Kingdom, the first book about Uhtred, a ninth-century Saxon brought up by Vikings who reluctantly fights them for Alfred the Great. There are now another five novels about Uhtred, and they build up into a great picture of a turbulent time. This is popular historical fiction at its best – Bernard Cornwell has done his research and it shows on every page. Pretty cool battle scenes and Viking kit, too.
4. Bracelet of Bones and Scramasax by Kevin Crossley-Holland – I’m cheating by including two books here, but one is a sequel to the other and I’m hoping there will be a third. This is the story of Solveig, a young Norwegian girl whose father goes off to join Harald Hardrada, the greatest Viking of them all, in the Byzantine Emperor’s regiment of Viking mercenaries, the Varangian Guards. Solveig follows her father down Russian rivers and across the Black Sea and finds out what being a Viking is all about. Great writing from one of our best writers.
5. The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone – Gudrid of Iceland was certainly one tough woman. She grew up in tough times, and travelled all over the North Atlantic during the great age of Viking exploration – from Iceland, to Greenland and eventually to Vinland. Scottish novelist Margaret Elphinstone puts flesh on the bones of the great Icelandic sagas and shows us what it was like to be a Viking woman. But it isn’t all about the history – this is a gripping, well plotted story too, full of memorable characters, great scenes and wonderful descriptions of the North.
6. Feasting the Wolf by Susan Price – I must declare a special interest here – I edited this book! I knew it was going to be a joy to work on from the moment I read the first page and encountered two young farm boys living on Shetland who want to be Viking warriors. Ottar and Ketil are granted their wish before they’re quite ready, and join a crew of Vikings setting out on a raiding voyage. Susan Price writes taut, laconic prose, and knows her stuff where the Vikings are concerned. But it’s the characters who stand out – two boys who grow into Viking men.
7. Noggin the Nog by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin – Most people probably remember Noggin the Nog as a TV series from the late 1950s, but this great Viking character appeared in a series of books too. Noggin is son of Knut, king of the Nogs, and has several friends with proper Viking names such as Thor Nogson and Olaf the Lofty. It’s all set in a mythical ‘North’ and has dragons and Viking ships, and has long been a cult classic – the static pictures are beautiful to look at, the voiceover narration is hypnotically good, and the stories are quirky and funny.
8. Vinland by George Mackay Brown – I’ve long been a fan of Orkney poet, novelist and short story writer George Mackay Brown, and much of his work deals with the Orcadian chapter of Viking history. Vinland is the story of Ranald Sigmundson, an Orkney boy who takes the whale’s road and travels to Norway, Iceland, Ireland and even further in search of adventure, treasure and faith. It reads like a lost saga, is shot through with verse that sounds as if it has only just been freshly translated from Old Norse, and includes one of the best battle scenes I’ve ever read.
9. The Vikings – Not a book, but the greatest Viking movie of all time, the one starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine. I saw this at a young and very impressionable age and loved every over-tinted Technicolor second of it. Kirk Douglas romps through his role as a Viking adventurer with a heart of steel, spreading mayhem and taking whatever he wants in true (stereotyped) Viking fashion. Best scenes: Kirk leaping from oar to oar as his Viking ship sails up his home fjord and Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar leaping into a pit of snakes. Brilliant.
10. Burnt Njal – Also sometimes known simply as Njal’s Saga, this is my favourite of the original Icelandic tales. Njal is a great character, but there are plenty of others he encounters – Mord Valgardsson, Gunnar Hlidarendi, the wonderfully named Glum Hildisson. It’s a tale of violence and revenge, broken marriages and betrayal, heroism and an acceptance of fate, all set against the backdrop of the north Atlantic world of the Viking age. Wonderfully laconic dialogue, memorable pursuits and plenty of brutal fight scenes. It’s like a dozen great movies rolled into one.
I’m ashamed to admit that it’s taken me quite a long time to acquire a website of my own. I probably first started thinking about it ten years ago (that’s right, ten years!). I even talked to a couple of people and paid someone to do some development work for me. But I didn’t go beyond that point, and even though I thought about it sometimes, I couldn’t convince myself I needed one.
Of course, like all of us over the last decade I’ve learned to use the internet – e-mails, websites for research and shopping and just the ordinary stuff of daily life. All my fellow children’s authors seemed to acquire websites too, some of them absolutely brilliant. But I just kept telling myself I could do without. After all, not having a website didn’t seem to be affecting my career in any way.
And yet, and yet… a slight doubt nagged at me. Maybe my career would be even better if I did have a website. People I knew and respected said they thought it was a good idea… and gradually I began to realise that I was missing a trick.
Where to start, though? I didn’t have a clue. Should I do what others had done and use a software package to put my own site together? It might seem easy enough, but even after 20 years of using computers as the tools of my trade it’s all still a bit of a struggle. So I decided I needed to find someone who could do it for me – and I was lucky enough to get a recommendation from ALCS (see the Grown-Up Stuff page to find out more about this great organisation!).
The developer they recommended was Adam Booker, and he’s been brilliant to work with – he gets a recommendation from me too! It’s taken a while to get this site up and running, but it’s usually been me who’s held things up. I mean, I’m a writer for heaven’s sake, which means I’m always too busy and always late with my copy (if you’re one of my editors, I’m just kidding!). It was also really interesting to decide on what should go in and what should be left out. Halfway through I began to think that this kind of website isn’t a CV or an obituary, but something halfway between the two – ‘the story so far’.
I’m going to keep this one updated with regular reports about new books and new developments in my other activities. I’m also going to indulge myself by writing about whatever I want to in this blog – so watch this space for random musings and reviews of all sorts – books, plays, films, TV, art shows.
It would be good to hear back from you, too!
I’ve just come back from the Aye Write! Festival in Glasgow where I had a great time. It was very well organised, and everyone was incredibly friendly. But then that’s always been my experience of events in Scotland – I’d go there any time!
The kids in my sessions were lively and very funny, as only Glaswegian kids can be. I’d been winding one class up for a while when a boy put up his hand and said he had a great idea for a story. I asked him what it was and he said it would be called The Author Who Irritated a Wee Boy. No mean city, indeed.
I also had another brief encounter that left me reeling. I’ve crossed swords on Twitter with fellow children’s author Philip Ardagh, but this was the first time I’d had a chance to chat with him. We make an interesting contrast – I’m 1 metre 65 tall (5 feet 5 inches in old money) and he’s 2 metres (6 feet 7 inches), and he sports a huge beard (which would be taller than me on its own if it ever declared independence). I might not be the shortest children’s writer in Britain, but he is definitely the tallest. Philip and I engaged each other in some pretty serious banter while a group of librarians looked on, but I have to admit I retired defeated. Mr Ardagh is one funny man. I must get around to reading his books some day…
A few weeks ago I read a great collection of essays published to celebrate 40 years of creative writing teaching at UEA. The collection is called Body of Work, is edited by Giles Foden, and contains some great essays. I particularly enjoyed Jane Harris’s piece, and that led me to read her novel Gillespie and I (Faber). It’s a gripping, disturbing read – and I’ll certainly read Jane Harris’s other novel, The Observations.