Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Song of the Vikings Published Today

Today is the official publication date of Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths and the start of my Maine-to-Georgia (believe it or not!) book tour.

Actually, the official date was yesterday, but the hurricane intervened—my publisher’s offices in New York were closed.

I did make it to my first event, a lecture at the Samuel Reed Hall Library at Lyndon State College in Vermont, about 3 miles from my home. LSC had electricity; we didn’t. While there, I was interviewed by Channel 7 news for local TV.

Tomorrow, I go to Portland, Maine, where I’ll be speaking at the University of Southern Maine in the Glickman Library, Room 423, at 5:00. Portland-area friends, please join me!

Here’s the rest of the tour:
            11/2: Maine: Portland Free Library @ noon
            11/5: New Hampshire: Dartmouth Bookstore, Hanover @ 6:00
            11/7: Vermont: Mount Holly Town Library, Belmont @ 7:00
            11/8: New York: Cornell University Library @ 4:30
            11/9: Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Bookstore @ 5:30
            11/10: Virginia: Icelandic Jólabasar, American Legion Post 177, Fairfax @ 11-3
            11/11: Pennsylvania: Webster’s Bookstore, State College @ 6:30
            11/12: Pennsylvania: Penn State Comparative Literature Luncheon, 112 Kern, University Park @ 12:15
            11/13: North Carolina: Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville @ 7:00
            11/17: Georgia: Eagle Eye Book Shop, Decatur @ 1:30
            11/20: Massachusetts: UMass-Amherst @ 2:30
            11/29: Vermont: Sterling College @ 6:30
            11/30: Vermont: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center @ 7:00
            12/3: New York: Scandinavia House, New York City @ 6:30
            12/6: Vermont: Phoenix Books, Burlington, VT@ 7:00

Not near any of these events? Check out my book trailer:

Or take a peek at the jacket flap:

Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth-century Icelandic chieftain who gave us Odin, Loki, and Thor, was as unruly as the Norse gods he created

Norse mythology has seeped into our imagination. Tales of one-eyed Odin, Thor and his mighty hammer, the trickster Loki, and the beautiful Valkyries have inspired countless writers, poets, and dreamers through the centuries, including Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, and Neil Gaiman. Few modern fantasy novels, films, or games are free of wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, dragons and dwarf smiths, magic rings and weapons, heroes that speak to birds, or trolls that turn to stone. But while Homer and Ovid are widely celebrated for their stories of Greek and Roman gods, the medieval Icelander who gave us Viking mythology is nearly forgotten.

In Song of the Vikings, author Nancy Marie Brown brings to life Snorri Sturluson, wealthy chieftain, wily politician, witty storyteller, and lover of Viking lore. She paints a vivid picture of the Icelandic landscape, with its colossal glaciers and volcanoes, steaming hot springs, and moonscapes of ash, ice, and rock. This was the world that inspired Snorri’s words, and led him to create unforgettable characters and tales, including nearly every story we know of the gods we still honor in the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It was Snorri who created the archetype of the bold, blond, laugh-in-the-face-of-death Viking, and Snorri who gave the word saga the meaning it holds today.

Brown takes the reader on a tour of medieval Icelandic society as well, with its web of laws and blood feuds fueled by the Icelanders’ fierce sense of independence. There Snorri’s extravagant personality and unscrupulous tactics brought him close to ruling his country—and even closer to betraying it—before he was betrayed himself. He died a coward, cringing in his cellar, his Viking ideals abandoned. But his books lived on.

Drawing on her deep knowledge of Iceland and its history and first-hand reading of the original medieval sources, Brown gives us a richly textured narrative, revealing a spellbinding world that continues to fascinate. 

Learn more at

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to Make a Book Trailer

Song of the Vikings now has a book trailer, thanks to Mrs. Tasha Squires, head of the Learning Resource Center (I want to call it the library) at O’Neill Middle School in Downers Grove, IL.

I’ve never met Mrs. Squires, but I’d like to nominate her for Middle School Teacher of the Year, if there is such a thing, because in about 30 minutes last week she not only taught me how to make a book trailer, but convinced me I could do it.

Here’s the tale: On Tuesday of last week, Elisabeth, my very energetic marketing assistant at Palgrave Macmillan, sent me a message that set fireworks off in my head. The official publication date of Song of the Vikings is October 30, and we had been working hard to get the word out.

“One opportunity that we can take advantage of,” Elisabeth wrote (due to a situation that will soon be revealed but which I can’t mention yet), “is uploading an author video or book tie-in video”—a book trailer—to the Indiebound independent bookstore site. Elisabeth continued, “I don’t know if you have the means to or are even interested in creating such a video in the next couple of weeks, but I wanted to bring the opportunity to your attention in case you think it’s something you would like to do.”

Now, if you’ve seen a book trailer (and there are lots on YouTube), you probably wondered, as I had, who made them. Back in May, when the final editing was being done on Song of the Vikings, I thought how fun it would be to go to Iceland in the summer and make a video for a book trailer. I wanted to ask my friend Stan Hirson along—he’s a fabulous videographer; you can see samples of his work from Iceland on his websites and Life with Horses—and I was sure we could put together something memorable like his video “Longufjörur, the Long Beach,” which is one of my favorites.

But summer sped past, Stan and I never even discussed the idea, and suddenly I have a “couple of weeks” to make a book trailer.

Odyssey Through Literature logo
Me, myself, alone. I’m a writer, not a videographer. True, I once worked in radio and used to produce a radio interview program called “Odyssey Through Literature.” (As you can see from the poster image by my friend Jeff Mathison, I was already in love with Vikings.)

But that was in the 1970s and ‘80s. We used magnetic tape on big 10-inch reels, razor blades, and splicing tape. There was a cool little tray attached to the reel-to-reel deck that flipped down. You listened to the tape, rocking it back and forth until you found exactly the words you wanted to edit out. You made two marks on the tape with a grease pencil, slid the tape into the tray, slit it twice with your razor blade, picked out the “out-take,” let those cast-off words fall to the cutting room floor, and joined the ends together with splicing tape. Then you listened to those few inches of recording several times at different speeds to make sure you couldn’t hear your own edit. I learned a lot about people’s speaking patterns—and what you could make someone say with a deft hand and a razor blade—working on that program.

But I’d never worked in film or video. I’d never done anything like it on a computer. I told Elisabeth a book trailer was a great idea, but it wasn’t going to happen in a “couple of weeks.”

Then I couldn’t sleep. A script popped out of my head the next morning. Much too long, of course, but it was something. I thought maybe Stan had some video in the can that would work. But how would he send it to me? How would I edit it or do the voice-over? A friend of mine who works at Apple had already informed me I could shoot a video using Photo Booth, an application I had on my MacBook and hadn’t ever opened. He insisted I could figure it out. I opened it. I closed it. I dithered.

I couldn’t sleep that night either. I kept seeing my photos of Iceland playing like a film in my head.

The next morning, I googled “How to Make a Book Trailer.” Up came Mrs. Squires’ video, iMovie Instructions for Book Trailer Video.” I had iMovie on my computer, I discovered. I watched Mrs. Squires’ video. It was 12 minutes and 35 seconds long—and taught me everything I needed to know, including that I needed to watch her earlier video, Garage Band Instructions for Book Trailer Video,” to learn how to record the voice-over. Yes, I had Garage Band on my computer too.

Step by simple step, Mrs. Squires taught me how to start a project in iMovie and how to drop in my still photos and make them look like video. She taught me how to record my voice-over in Garage Band and how to import it into iMovie. She taught me how to add titles, even background music (and where to find free jingles). 

She did not tell me how to add the video I eventually did shoot in Photo Booth (I will not reveal the number of takes it took). But she gave me the confidence to try to do it, because she told me exactly what I needed to know, in the order in which I needed to know it, and she didn’t tell me anything else. That is the mark of a true teacher. Her videos were clear, simple, and fun.

She didn’t elaborate on all the fancy things iMovie and Garage Band can do. She didn’t try to wow me. She just walked me through the steps to make a book trailer. She even showed me how to fix a mistake—by making one herself. Her “Oops, I made a mistake!” sequence is the part of her video that clinched it: I really could make a book trailer. The fact that Mrs. Squires was explaining a classroom assignment to Middle School students helped. It is so comforting to be allowed to go back to Middle School when we need to.  

I’m not sure Mrs. Squires will give my book trailer an “A+.” I can hear my edits. But I hope she’ll give me points for trying.

Learn more at

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to Make a Medieval Book: Part III

On the tenth Thor’s Day of summer in the year 1000, Iceland became Christian by parliamentary decree at the Althing. Lovers of JRR Tolkien’s or Neil Gaiman’s books—or of any fantasy novel, movie, or game—should celebrate that date, because the fantasy genre would hardly exist if the medieval chieftain Snorri Sturluson had not learned to write.

Writing and religion go hand-in-hand for Christians are “people of the book”: Christianity’s most powerful symbol is not the cross, but the Bible. Foreign priests, finding no books in Iceland, introduced the necessary ink-quill-and-parchment technology in about 1030—thus allowing Snorri Sturluson, some 200 years later, to write the books of Norse mythology, history, and lore that inspired Tolkien and much of modern fantasy, including Gaiman’s brilliant American Gods.

A missionary bishop named Rudolf, from Normandy or perhaps England, ran a school in the west of Iceland until 1050. He and his fellows showed their Icelandic students how to make parchment.

First they scraped the hair off a calfskin with a sharp blade. This was a harder task in Iceland, where limestone was unavailable, than in continental Europe; a bath in slaked lime made the hair simply fall off the skin. (See my previous post, “How to Make a Medieval Book: Part I.”) In Iceland, the skins were washed in a hotspring, where the mineral-rich water loosened the hair, and scraped again and again.

Another technique was to soak the skins in urine and leave them to rot until the hair came off. A third method involved tying a newly flayed skin to a heifer, with the hair side against the cow’s skin. In a day or two, the hair would be loose enough to pluck off.

When suitably hairless, the skins were stretched on a frame and set in the shade to dry. After rubbing them smooth with pumice (plenty of that in volcanic Iceland), the parchment was made soft and pliable by twisting it and pulling it back and forth through a ring made from a cow’s horn.
Quill pens were cut from swan, goose, or raven feathers (also easily come by in Iceland); left-wing feathers were best for right-handed writers because they bent away from the eye.

Ink was made from the bearberry plant, mixed with a clay commonly used to dye wool black and a few shavings of green willow twigs. The mixture was softened in water, then simmered until it became sticky. “Let a drop fall onto your fingernail,” says one recipe. “If it remains there like a little ball, then the ink is ready.” A little bit of gum from the first milk of a young ewe or heifer was added to the ink to make it shiny. (To compare this to ink-making elsewhere in Europe, see my “How to Make a Medieval Book: Part II.”)

The result was ink that was black, glossy, and impermeable to water, which was a very good thing for people who often traveled by ship. Books are rarely mentioned in medieval Icelandic texts, but in one famous shipwreck, a priest is desolate when his book chest is swept overboard. Learning a few nights later that it had washed ashore, he hurried to the spot to dry out his books; it took him six weeks. Mold is the one thing a parchment book cannot survive.

Luckily for us, three parchment copies of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda survived until the 1600s, when they were published. The Edda has been in print ever since, available to be read by Tolkien, Gaiman, and countless other fantasy writers whose work is imbued with the spirit of Norse mythology.

This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Learn more at

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Who Discovered America?

Happy Leif Eiriksson Day! If you know the name you know this Viking explorer discovered America 500 years before Columbus—which is why the official U.S. holiday, Leif Eiriksson Day (October 9), comes before the official Columbus Day (October 12).

But what happened next? Leif never went back. It was his sister-in-law who tried to settle the Vikings’ Vinland, or “Wine Land,” so today I’ll be celebrating Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day.

Gudrid knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of the winds, of fog that froze on the rigging, when “hands blue with cold” was not a metaphor. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was. Sailing from Iceland to Greenland as a girl, she was shipwrecked, plucked off a rock by Leif, who thereby earned his nickname “the Lucky.”

Knowing the risks, Gudrid and her husband, Leif’s brother Thorstein, sailed west off the edge of the known world. They were “tossed about at sea all summer and couldn’t tell where they were,” says one of the medieval Icelandic Sagas. Just before winter, they reached a Viking farm near Greenland’s modern capital, Nuuk, a distance they could have rowed in six days.

That winter, Gudrid’s husband and crew died. Come spring, Gudrid ferried their bones south to Leif’s farm and buried them by the church. She remarried, to a rich Icelandic merchant called Karlsefni, and here’s the kicker: She set sail again. “Making a voyage to Vinland was all anyone talked about that winter,” says the saga. “They all kept urging Karlselfni to go, Gudrid as much as the others.”

Leif Eiriksson in Reykjavik.
When I tell people I’ve written a book about Vikings, they expect a pageant of bloody berserks, like the Sega Viking game “Battle for Asgard” or the Viking movie, “Last Battle Dreamer.” Viking, you’d think, meant man with a big axe.

But for me, the classic Viking is Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Viking women could divorce if their husbands didn’t “satisfy” them. They could own farms, as Gudrid did, or ships. No Viking ship sailed without a woman’s help—for the women wove the sailcloth.

Gudrid and Karlsefni set off in three ships—one of which was hers. They landed, apparently, in Newfoundland; archaeologists have studied the Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows for 40 years. The three longhouses can each sleep a ship’s crew. Jasper strike-a-lights found inside came from Greenland and Iceland. A spindle whorl, used for spinning yarn, proves a woman was there.

The most remarkable finds, however, are three butternuts and a piece of butternut wood worked with a metal tool.

Where was “Wine Land”? The sagas mention salmon and tall trees. They tell of strangers who had never seen an axe, were delighted to taste milk and traded furs for strips of red wool cloth; who fought with stone-tipped arrows and whose numbers were overwhelming.

Butternuts never grew in Newfoundland. But the pattern of Indian settlements and the ancient ranges of trees and fish suggest that Vinland stretched from Newfoundland south to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. There the Vikings met the ancestors of the Beothuck Indians.

Gudrid the Far-Traveler.
The Icelandic sagas say little about Gudrid directly. She was beautiful, intelligent and had a lovely singing voice. Most important, she “knew how to get along with strangers.” One saga shows Gudrid in the New World, failing to communicate with a native woman. The implication is clear: If she couldn’t get along with these strangers, no one could. Perhaps Gudrid decided the Vikings should abandon their colony.

Perhaps the Vinland expedition itself was her idea. She packed up and set sail there twice—with two different husbands. Although the sagas disagree on the particulars, her hand in the preparations each time is clear.

Realizing this—that Gudrid was the explorer, not just her men—I knew that if I were to pick a Viking to name  today after, it would be Gudrid the Far-Traveler.

Learn more at

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Wizards

Gerbert of Aurillac as a young monk.
Fresco in the church of St. Simon.
One book leads to another. That’s how I usually answer the question, Where do you get your ideas?

The Far Traveler certainly led to The Abacus and the Cross. Writing about the adventurous Viking woman Gudrid the Far-Traveler, I found myself making an imaginary pilgrimage to Rome just after the year 1000. Wondering which pope (if any) Gudrid had met, I discovered Gerbert of Aurillac, Pope Sylvester II. I was astonished. Nothing in my many years of reading about the Middle Ages had led me to suspect that the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. That sense of surprise inspired the book.

But sometimes the connections between books reveal themselves long after the inspiration phase is past. Writing my latest, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, I thought I was solving another puzzle in The Far Traveler: Where did the Icelandic sagas come from?

As I’ve said here before, I believe Snorri Sturluson deserves the credit for writing the first true saga, and so Song of the Vikings presents his biography.

Snorri grew up at Oddi, a large estate in the south of Iceland where there was a famous school. This school was set up in about 1100 by the priest Saemund the Wise, about whom a fantastic set of legends remains, but little real information.

My favorite collection of tales about
Saemund the Wise.
 In his youth, Saemund studied in “Frakkland,” perhaps in Paris at the university that would become the Sorbonne—though the later folktales say Saemund studied at the Black School run by Satan himself, where the students lived in the dark and studied books written in letters of flame. Satan claimed the last student out the door each year as his payment, but Saemund outfoxed him. He wore a great cloak; when Satan grabbed him, Saemund shrugged off his cloak and slipped away safe. Or, says another tale, when Satan cried, “Halt, you are the last!” as Saemund was about to step into the sunshine, Saemund pointed to his shadow on the wall and replied, “No, there’s one behind me.” He had no shadow for the rest of his days.

Saemund tricked the devil into ferrying him dryshod from Norway to Iceland. He tricked the devil into building a bridge over the river Ranga. He tricked him into fetching the hay into his barn ahead of a rainstorm. He tricked him into changing into a gnat and crawling into a bunghole, which Saemund promptly plugged. To get out, the devil had to promise to come when Saemund whistled.

These tales were first written down in the 1800s, but one survives from Snorri’s days, in the Saga of Bishop Jon written by the Icelandic monk Gunnlaug Leifsson, who died in 1219. (Gunnlaug rather liked magicians; he also translated into Icelandic the fabulous “Prophecies of Merlin” from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.)

Bishop Jon Ogmundarson
Saemund had studied abroad so long, Gunnlaug wrote, that he forgot everything from his youth—even his name. But his friend Jon Ogmundarson finally found him. He described Iceland to Saemund, then Oddi, before finally sparking a glimmer of memory.

Said Saemund, “Now I seem to remember that there was a hillock in the home field of Oddi where I always played.”

His friend convinced him to come home, but Saemund said his master would never give him leave. They made a plan and on a cloudy night slipped away. The master searched, but could not find them until the next night, when the skies cleared and he could read the stars.

Saemund read the stars too. He saw his master coming. “Quick,” he said, “fill my shoe with water and put it on my head.”

“Bad news!” said the master. “The Icelander has drowned my student.” He turned back. The next night he looked again. He located Saemund and rode after him.
“Quick,” said Saemund, “fill my shoe with blood and put it on my head.”

“Bad news!” said the master. “The Icelander has murdered my student.”

The third night he searched the skies once more. “Aha!” he cried. “You are still alive, which is good, but I have taught you more than enough, for now you get the better of me. So fare you well and much may you accomplish.”

Gerbert the Wizard, in a 15th-century
Lives of the Popes.
When I read this tale in the Saga of Bishop Jon, I had a strange jolt of recognition. I knew the story. It had been written down in Latin in the 1120s by the English cleric William of Malmesbury—but his hero was not the Icelander, Saemund the Wise. It was the Scientist Pope, Sylvester II, born Gerbert of Aurillac and known in his lifetime as the leading mathematician and astronomer of his age. After his death in 1003, Gerbert acquired a reputation as a wizard, as I explain in the last chapter of The Abacus and the Cross.

Chances are that Saemund heard the tale of Gerbert the Wizard in Paris and brought it home to Iceland, where it became attached to him—and eventually created the magical linkage between two of my books that I would have said had very little in common.

Parts of this essay were adapted from my forthcoming biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, available in October from Palgrave Macmillan.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.