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Guest Post: The Ragnarok and the Northern Mind by Theodore Brun

One of my favourite novels of 2017 was the historic fiction debut A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun. The paperback edition has just been released, and the author has very kindly agreed to provide a guest post exploring one of the novel’s central themes.

The Ragnarök as an idea has made something of a comeback in popular culture in recent years. Marvel comic books, blockbuster Hollywood movies, Viking TV shows and of course plenty of Viking novels have all used it to great effect. Like the idea of Armageddon – or indeed any foretelling of the end of the world – it has a powerful grip on the imagination. And if it’s got Tom Hiddleston anywhere near it, you know it’s hit the mainstream.

In fact, Ragnarök was a concept central to the early Viking mind. They believed that fate was unfolding inexorably towards this cataclysmic event, when the whole cosmos would be torn by chaos and conflict, and fall into eventual destruction – the so-called “doom of the gods”.

Our knowledge about these Old Norse beliefs comes from two sources. The Völuspá or Vala’s Prophecy, the oldest known poem in Scandinavian literature, parts of which date from the 6th century; and the later story of Gylfaginning, part of the Prose Edda, a compilation of Old Norse stories written in the 13th century.

Described in these is the Fimbulvetr – the “Great Winter” – that heralds the beginning of the Ragnarök. In Gylfaginning, one of the gods describes the signs of the coming chaos: “There will be great frosts and keen winds. The sun will do no good. There will be three of these winters together and no summer between.”

The Völuspá is more poetical: the children of the great wolf Fenrir will carry off the moon, they will attack the sun and paint the home of the gods red with their blood. The sun’s rays will darken and the stars will no longer be visible in the summers that follow, when mighty storms will rage.

In other words, both offer descriptions of quite specific weather conditions.

Some scholars suggest that the details of the Norse concept of Ragnarök echo an actual event in history – the so-called Dust Veil of AD 536.

This was a natural, possibly global, catastrophe, identifiable in the historical sources from other parts of the world, especially around the Mediterranean, which describe prolonged celestial darkness, unseasonal chill and failed harvests from the beginning of AD 536 through to the end of summer AD 537. (In Scandinavia, the written recording of history would not begin for another four centuries or so.)

Scientific data also supports the idea that something drastic occurred in the middle of the 6th century to affect the global environment, which had a particularly severe effect in Scandinavia.

The cause of the Dust Veil is not known for certain. Perhaps a series of massive volcanic eruptions; perhaps a comet or meteor of some kind. Whichever, the occurrence of extreme weather phenomena in and after AD 536 seems unquestionable, probably with knock-on effects for another two decades.

The archaeological record – in Scandinavia at least – shows that, as a result, huge tracts of land previously supporting agriculture returned to forestland, which in turn likely triggered a sharp drop in population. Around Uppsala in Sweden, for example, most villages were abandoned and replaced by drastically fewer new settlements on higher ground.

The collapse must have been sudden and severe. Famine, social unrest and violence would have been rife. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the Dust Veil may also have triggered the outbreak of the Plague of Justinian in southeast Europe, which may have spread as far north as Scandinavia.

The archaeology of the period also shows a significant increase in the sacrificial gold hoards deposited across the region, suggesting perhaps that beleaguered Scandinavians were willing to part with their precious gold in large quantities in order to appease the gods they believed had brought this devastation upon them.

Whatever the true explanation, the tumultuous events of the mid-6th century appear to have left a deep scar on the psyche of the Scandinavian peoples, reflected in the stories they would go on to tell about the Ragnarök, like the Völuspá and Gylfaginning.

When I came across all of this, in the course of researching A Mighty Dawn, the central conceit of the story suddenly sprang into my mind.

What if – amid all the terror and confusion of this meteorological disaster and the resulting social upheaval, a group of people formed a kind of doomsday cult?

What if – in order to escape the disaster of a dying sun, the final doom of the gods and the destruction of the world as they knew it, they went underground?

What if – they stayed there, surviving, adapting, morphing into a tribe of increasingly dehumanised earth-dwellers?

Of course, my own flights of imagination have since spiralled these suppositions into the realm of pure fantasy. Archaeologists are unlikely to turn up the remains of one of the shadowy Vandrung, no matter how wide or deep they dig.

Even so, these Old Norse myths (and fears), interwoven with Scandinavian history and a dash of fantasy, seemed – to me, at least – the perfect ingredients for a rip-roaring tale.

Let’s hope those who get a chance to read it agree!

Thanks for insight Theodore.

Book two in The Wanderer Chronicles, A Sacred Storm, is due for release in July. I can’t wait to read it. More information can be found via the author’s website.

2 Responses to Guest Post: The Ragnarok and the Northern Mind by Theodore Brun

  • russell1200 says:

    Very interesting. I have read of volcanic eruptions with reference to their possible environmental impact being the source for Justinian’s Plague, and it seems like their was some problems in Asia at the time, but I don’t recall seeing anything on what was going on up north.

    Given the collapse and then time to rebuild the cultural base, you wonder as to its effect on the timing of the Viking Explosion in the late 8th century.

    I thought the following had an interesting recap on the thinking behind it: https://www.historicalclimatology.com/blog/something-cooled-the-world-in-the-sixth-century-what-was-it

    • pablocheesecake says:

      Thanks for the additional information. It is fascinating and, as Theodore says in his post, a ripe subject for story ideas.

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