Rules of engagement: inside the mind of a Viking berserker

I have sent off the second draft of The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3), my next Viking adventure, off to my publishers Canelo. I’m pretty much done with this novel, except for some proofreading and other bits and pieces. I’m really pleased with it but the second draft was hard work, as it always is. However, my editor Craig Lye is excellent at his job and one thing he cleverly highlighted in this book as lacking, and which I have now fixed, might loosely be called the “rules of the gandir“. The logic that underpins these Norse animal spirits, which, in my Fire Born series, possess all berserkers and give them their extraordinary ferocity in battle.

I’d better explain – for those of you who have yet to enjoy the Fire Born series, which starts with The Last Berserker and continues with The Saxon Wolf. And which The Loki Sword will join in August.

I have always been fascinated by berserkers – those wild, frothing-at-the-mouth, shield-biting Viking warriors, who dominated Dark Ages battlefields with their almost suicidal bravery and beast-like ferocity. Who were they? Why did they behave in this extraordinary way? The lazy answer is to suggest that they were all high on mushrooms or very drunk. But my own experience of altered states (I did six months anthropological fieldwork in the 1980s on Indonesian magic and sorcery) suggested another way in which humans transform themselves mentally and do things which normally they would not: religion.

In Bali, where I did my fieldwork as a student at Edinburgh University, the local priests (balian) would undergo temple rituals in which the spirit of a god or demon would enter their bodies, and they would take on the characteristics of that being. If the being was, say, Arjuna, the legendary Hindu warrior, an elderly female priest might strut around the temple like a haughty young prince. Balinese men in religious trances are able to walk on red hot coals, apparently, without injuring themselves. The soft music of the gamelan, an Indonesian gong orchestra, is often a catalyst for this kind of sacred spirit possession.

A Balinese man in a religious trance walks on red hot coals during a temple ceremony

In Southeast Asia, I also came across the phenomenon called running amok (not personally, thank God). When someone in Malaysia or Indonesia runs amok, he is said to be possessed by the spirit of a tiger. The afflicted person often goes on a killing spree and can only be stopped by death itself. So, with these two things in my mind, I began to think about how Viking warriors, more than a thousand years and half a world away from 1980s Bali, might enter a similar mental state and become blood-hungry berserkers.

Drink, drugs and absolute mayhem

I decided that the catalyst for transforming a warrior into an utterly fearless berserker capable of extraordinary mayhem would be a special religious humming (think of a Buddhist chanting the holy word “Om” over and over again) combined with the belief that an animal spirit had taken possession of their body. Not drink and drugs, in my books – although one inferior warrior does take mushrooms to try to become a berserker. In the case of Bjarki, it is the spirit – or gandr, in my novels – of a bear that lends him its strength in battle. There are also other types of berserkers who are possessed by wild boar and wolves. The name Bjarki translates as Little Bear, and is a diminutive version of Bjorn (Bear). The Norse word berserkr, means “bear-shirted”, probably because berserkers wore some kind of bearskin clothing.

So to become a berserker in my Fire Born world, you have to undergo all sorts of tough warrior tests and ordeals, you have to do the religious humming, and you have to get a gandr to come and possess you. In The Last Berserker, the story was all about my two heroes Bjarki and Tor trying to become Fire Born (ie, berserkers). But in book 2, The Saxon Wolf, they discover that having an animal spirit, in effect, a demon, living inside you is not entirely roses and sunshine. It turns you into an unhinged and indiscriminate killer, very much in the style of a Malay man running amok. But how can you get rid of your parasitic gandr?

One of the main threads of The Loki Sword (the other being the meaning of kingship) is the relationship between Bjarki and his gandr. The bear spirit speaks to him in a sort of dream world and there are several long discussions between them. This was the point where my brilliant editor Craig pointed out that there was no proper logic behind the behaviour of the gandr. What does it want? he asked. What, in effect, are the rules that govern the behaviour of gandir? (NB gandr is singular; gandir is plural.) So, belatedly, I sat down and wrote out my rules, for reference in future Fire Born novels. Here are some of them:

The rules of the gandir

There are only a dozen or so gandr in the Nine Realms of the universe – no more, otherwise, why are there so few berserkers? They are not immortal but are very long-lived and have multiple human “hosts” over the centuries. They are, in fact, what Christians would call demons. They can only exist in the Middle-Realm, where humans live, by inhabiting a human or an animal (such as the huge monster She-Bear that features in The Last Berserker). Ordinarily they live in the Spirit Realm. But they can sometimes communicate between the Nine Realms – so a gandr in the Spirit Realm could possibly speak to a human or an animal in the Middle Realm. But when the host dies the gandr returns to the Spirit Realm.

What do gandr want? In short, bloodshed. Blood is the essence of life. A gandr encourages its human to shed blood because it can feast invisibly on the “life force” in the blood. In the same way that animal sacrifices (and sometimes human) are required by gods such as Odin, a gandr needs a warrior to shed blood for its nourishment. A gandr who goes without a host for a long time (and gets no blood) dies. 

Gandir are looking for hosts – they seek out worthy warriors because they are likely to give them the blood they require. 

A gandr in an animal host can have children – Bjarki’s gandr Mochta has a living cub, for instance. But usually the child of a gandr is just an animal. However, very rarely, they can spawn their own child gandir.

It is important to remember that gandr don’t really exist. But Bjarki and everyone else in his world believes that they do. The voices Bjarki hears and the conversation he has with his gandr are all delusions. And the only time he visits the Spirit Realm and speaks to his gandr is when he is asleep and dreaming, or day-dreaming, or badly wounded and delirious. The parallel with demons also works here. I spoke to a man the other day (a Catholic priest) who sincerely believes in the existence of demons. Not as an allegory or metaphor, actual living demons. Most people don’t agree, but they are real to some folk. The gandr is real to Bjarki but it is not supposed to be real to the 21st century reader of my Viking novels.

The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) will be out in August 2022 but you can pre-order a copy of the eBook here.

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