In The Chart of Tomorrows, my ongoing sword-and-sorcery characters, the poet Persimmon Gaunt and the thief Imago Bone, at last track down their lost son, to a fantastical version of Scandinavia.
In a way I’m surprised it took this long to work Scandinavia into the series. My mom’s side of the family has a strong connection to Norway, on both sides of her family tree. In fact her father, who died before I was born, was a first-generation immigrant. Bits and pieces of Norwegian-American culture were always part of the background when I was growing up — lefse at Christmas, pewter Vikings, dragon-ships in artwork, and books of troll stories. It seemed fitting to eventually bring the rogues to a fantasy version of Scandinavia.
Art by Richard Benning
There was a challenge here though. Scandinavia has long been a big influence on fantasy fiction. Not only have there been many fantasy versions of Vikings, but the modern genre owes a huge debt to J.R.R. Tolkien’s interest in Norse stories. How to give it something new?
It seemed to me that while Scandinavian mythology and the adventures of the Vikings are pretty familiar to readers, the folk tales I got hints of while growing up might be less widely known (maybe with the exception of “The Billy Goats Gruff”). So one of the threads I drew upon were those troll-tales I read as a kid.
In The Chart of Tomorrows, Gaunt and Bone meet Inga Peersdatter and Malin Jorgensdatter, inspired by the 19th Century Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. (I pay tribute to these Norwegians with the last names of the characters). Like the Brothers Grimm, Asbjørnsen and Moe gathered stories told in the countryside, in many cases saving tales that might have been lost. My version of the two folklorists makes them larger than life (and female). Inga is a troll-child left with a human family as a changeling. Her best friend Malin, a young woman with an unusual mind, gets called a “changeling” by villagers simply because they find her strange. Malin and Inga, two outsiders thrown together, become a sort of Holmes and Watson of fairy tales — if Holmes were a brilliant folklorist and Watson capable of felling trees with his bare hands.
As a kid I often encountered Asbjørnsen and Moe’s work without knowing it. Tales of trolls with various numbers of heads, or of cow-tailed hulder women ready to lure young men to their dooms, or of poor farm boys who tangle with kings or supernatural creatures and win, often had their sources in their groundbreaking collections. These stories painted my picture of Norway, a country I’d never seen for real (and still haven’t, alas) but which seemed to me something like my Pacific Northwest surroundings magnified by a factor of ten and embroidered with monsters and other spooky characters in the shadows, with the odd Viking brooding here or there. Although I’ve tried to put a sheen of history on it all, it’s really that imaginary childhood dream-Scandinavia that Gaunt and Bone travel to.
And so their son, lost in the Bladed Isles, gets the nickname “Ash-lad,” the literal name of a hero — also known as “Askeladden” among other names — who keeps popping up in Norwegian folktales. The Ash-lad’s a sort of action-hero Cinderella, a plucky boy from poor circumstances who has the courage and insight to take on the most dangerous challenges and win. And so, armed with this nickname, Gaunt and Bone’s son encounters otherworldly hulder-folk (called uldra in my version) and maniacal trolls, on the way to finding out who he is and what side (if any) he’s on.
The trolls in particular were great fun to imagine. The ones in the stories might be smaller than people, but just as easily could be the size of hills, with trees growing out of them. They could have multiple heads, and might live under bridges or behind waterfalls. They’re a strange combination of awesome strength and dreamlike mutability. In the story “The Trolls in Hedale Wood,” two brothers encounter three trolls with a shared eye, and the elder boy gets the better of the trolls and looks through the eye, seeing darkness as though it were day. In another story, “The Giant Who Had No Heart,” an immense being, surely kin to the trolls, is unbeatable because he has hidden his heart away from his body. Naturally it’s the Ash-lad who overcomes him.
The Ash-lad of the old stories is surely a cousin of all heroic fantasy characters, who likewise keep taking on foes seemingly too big for them. And the landscape he moves through is moody and mysterious in a way that rivals Lankhmar or the Hyborian Age, a place to get lost in.
“And as a literary artist this is his [Asbjørnsen’s] highest praise, that he has contrived to lay the peculiarities of Norwegian landscape before his readers with a subtlety of touch such as no other poet or proseman has achieved — not by description so much as by a series of those sympathetic and brilliant touches which make us forget the author, and fancy we are walking in the body through the country of his affection.”
— Edmund W. Gosse, introduction to Peter Christen Asbjørnsen’s Round the Yule Log, translated by H.L. Brackstad, 1881 (quoted in Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales, edited by Claire Boos, New York, Avenel Books, 1984.)
Any fantasy reader who’s loved being swept off to another world will understand the sentiment. Whether or not you ever read The Chart of Tomorrows, I hope you’ll track down some of those old stories yourself, and get away from it all, east of the sun, west of the moon.
Written by Chris Willrich
Chris Willrich (Mountain View, CA) is a science fiction and fantasy writer best known for his sword-and-sorcery tales of Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone. Until recently he was a children’s librarian for the Santa Clara County Library System, in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Gate, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Flashing Swords, The Mythic Circle, and Strange Horizons.
The Chart of Tomorrows
Gaunt and Bone book 3
Released on July 7th 2015
The poet Persimmon Gaunt and the thief Imago Bone had sought only to retire from adventuring and start a family, but they never reckoned on their baby becoming the chosen vessel of the mystical energies of a distant Eastern land. With their son Innocence hunted by various factions hoping to use him as a tool, they kept him safe at the cost of trapping him in a pocket dimension of accelerated time.Now free, the thirteen-year-old Innocence has rejected his parents and his "destiny" and has made dangerous friends in a barbaric Western land of dragon-prowed ships and rugged fjords. Desperately, Gaunt and Bone seek to track him down, along with their companion Snow Pine and her daughter A-Girl-Is-A-Joy, who was once trapped with Innocence too.
But as the nomadic Karvaks and their war-balloons strike west, and a troll-king spins his webs, and Joy is herself chosen by the spirit of the very land Innocence has fled to, Gaunt and Bone find themselves at the heart of a vast struggle -- and their own son is emerging from that conflict as a force of evil. To save him and everything they know, they turn to a dangerous magical book, The Chart of Tomorrows, that reveals pathways through time. Upon the treacherous seas of history, Gaunt and Bone must face the darkness in each other’s pasts, in order to rescue their future.