The history and the fictions behind my new novel The Last Berserker
I always try to make it clear which stuff in my novels is historically accurate, and which stuff I have completely made up. I’m not militant about historical accuracy – this is a yarn based on events in the past, not a text book. But I do like to tell the reader when I have bent the truth – or simply ignored it. So I’m posting the most recent Historical Note here, for your amusement and edification. But, warning, if you haven’t read The Last Berserker: Here be Spoilers . . .
There has been a spate of stories in the media in recent years that seeks to persuade us that our traditional image of the Viking – the ferocious Northman, hairy, merciless and intent only on plunder and rapine – is completely wrong. The Norse people, we are now told, were in fact peaceful traders not rampaging psychopaths, folk who cared deeply about their personal hygiene and appearance, as evidenced by their combs, tweezers and the copious use of make-up by men.
This may well be true. But they were also warriors, from a society that revered strength and courage, and which produced epic poems about war and bloody revenge, about oaths and honour. There were living in a time of almost continual conflict and frequent violence, and often grew up in harsh lands in an unforgiving climate where making any kind of living required a certain grit and ruthlessness.
So, if you were a defenceless Christian monk in a remote monastery, sitting on a trove of gold and silver church accoutrements, and praying for the Lord to deliver you from the fury of the approaching fleet of dragon-ships, you were probably about to experience first-hand a less-cuddly side of their culture.
Whether they were well coiffed peaceful traders or ill-kempt priory-sackers – and I think they were probably both, depending on the circumstances – there is no figure that encapsulates the image of the Viking better than the berserker. And I must admit I’ve been fascinated all my life by these Norse super-warriors.
The genesis of this novel, and the whole Fire Born series, came from reading tales about berserkers as a child in various Viking adventure novels. Then I began to do proper historical research and I came across a real 10th-century Icelandic warrior-poet and berserker called Egill Skallagrimsson, who fought for the English King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in AD937. His tendency to go berserker, one researcher suggested, may have been caused by a rare bone condition called Paget’s disease, which causes severe pain, giving rise sudden rages. The disease also thickens the bones by up to four times their normal size and gives the sufferer the appearance of being impervious to blows. After Egill’s death, his remains were exhumed and an enemy tried to drive an axe into his grossly enlarged skull. The blade bounced right off the bone.
I started investigating what else, apart from rare bone diseases, might cause someone to behave like a berserker. Some academics suggested that it might be the result of taking hallucinogenic drugs – perhaps mushrooms or other plant extracts – but my experience at music festivals and parties of people who have taken magic mushrooms is that the last thing they want to do is fight like a rabid badger. They usually giggle.
Running amok or going berserk?
Others have suggested that berserkers deliberately entered a trance-like ecstatic religious state that made them impervious to pain. This was familiar territory to me, since I spent a short period in the 1980s as an anthropologist studying the Balinese belief-systems, which often involved entering a trance during religious festivals. The Balinese claim this state is caused by possession by the witch-god, Rangda, or by other deities, and during it they sometimes perform feats such as walking barefoot across burning coals.
Some Viking researchers suggest that chanting and music might facilitate the berserk state – in Bali it was ritual dance and the soft bell-like music of the gamelan orchestra – and this gave me the idea for the special four-note humming that my Fire Born practice to summon a gandr, an Old Norse word for spirit.
In Bali, and indeed all over Southeast Asia, they also have the tradition of people running amok, suddenly entering a murderous frenzy in which the person kills other people and animals indiscriminately. Malays claim that an evil tiger spirit enters the man – it only affects men – and makes him go crazy. Men who run amok are usually killed by their community – or they commit suicide.
I began to think about how someone would become a berserker and what sort of structures and institutions would be needed in a society to produce a steady supply of them – for it seemed clear that, because of their ferocity in combat and utter disregard for their own lives, and the fact that they may have fought armoured men completely naked, a berserker would rarely survive more than a single battle.
Hogwarts for Norse heroes
So I came up with the idea of an academy for berserkers, and the fictional Fyr Skola was born. But where would such a training school for frenzied fighters be located? Since the role of a berserker seemed quasi-religious – I see them as sort of elite warrior-priests, rather like the Knights Templar of a later age – this academy had to be somewhere holy, somewhere deeply sacred in their pagan culture.
The Irminsul is the World Tree of the Germanic North – the people of Scandinavia called it Yggdrasil, but it’s the same thing – and it is said to run through the Nine Worlds of the universe like an enormous axel. I was excited to discover in the course of my reading that archaeologists believed they had found a location for this massive tree – or perhaps a gigantic pillar – which was worshipped by the 8th-century Germanic tribes.
The Irminsul was to be found at (or near) a place then called Eresburg, which now a quiet town in north Germany called Obermarsberg. It is set on a very curious geographical feature of the landscape – a small, almost sheer-sided, oval hill that rises out of the Diemel Valley. Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of an Iron Age fort at this ancient site. This was apparently the spiritual hub of the Germanic pagans – their holiest of holies – and it was also a place of great strategic value, as its height dominates all the surrounding countryside. I decided that it should be the location of the Fyr Skola, my berserker academy.
In AD772, the real Eresburg fortress was attacked by Charlemagne – King of the Franks and lord of lands stretching from Brittany to Bavaria, and the North Sea to northern Spain. Charlemagne – or Charles or Karl or, as I have him, Karolus, from the Latin version of his name – was later crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope and is a towering figure in European history. His well-disciplined household troops (Scara) captured the Eresburg fort (the topiary of the Groves of Eresburg is an invention of mine) and put the holy Irminsul to the torch at the beginning of his thirty-year crusade against the neighbouring Saxons.
The heights of Eresburg changed hands several times during that long struggle but the end of the conflict was inevitable and a Christian church now occupies the site of the One Tree in the town of Obermarsburg.
The massive ditch and rampart system running across the bottom of the Jutland Peninsula, which I call the Dane-Work in this novel (Modern Danish: Dannevirke), is a real fortification. Work began on this defensive system as far back as AD500AD, and it was improved and upgraded by successive Danish kings, between AD737 and 968, including King Siegfried (or Sigfrid) who was a staunch ally of the beleaguered Saxons.
The Dane-Work clearly defined the border between Denmark and Old Saxony, and is probably the reason Denmark has remained an independent kingdom. It was last used as a military barrier as late as 1864 in the Second War of Schleswig against Germany. It had a deep ditch and a high earth wall topped with a wooden fence and the remains of its ten-mile length can still be seen to this day. Sadly, I have not been able to visit it due to restrictions caused by Covid-19 and I had to imagine its earthen majesty when writing this section.
However, I must confess that I invented the great battle at the Dane-Work at the end of this novel. I wanted to end the book with a great, bloody slaughter in which Bjarki could fully come into his berserker-hood and my excuse for this is simply that I always see historical fiction as a blend of history and invention.
That final battle was pure fiction, although I am sure there would have been some clashes at the site of the Dane-Work during this period, and I hope I may be forgiven for including it in The Last Berserker.
Duke Gerold of Swabia was a real person. He was Charlemagne’s brother-in-law and one of his closest allies, and we will see more of him in future in the Fire Born series. Father Livinus is an amalgamation of several 8th-century English missionaries who came to bring the light of Christ to the benighted pagans. Many of them suffered martyrdom and some historians say that the Saxon slaying of so many apostles was one of the main causes behind the wars. And Charlemagne himself did indeed cut short his 772 campaign against the Saxons (after capturing Eresburg and burning the Irminsul) to go south and conquer the Lombards of Italy.
I would also like to say something about the languages used in this novel. Old Norse, Old Saxon and Frankish all stem from the same linguistic root but they were probably not quite as mutually comprehensible in the 8th century to as I have glibly suggested in this novel. However, there was an episode during the wars when a troop of armed Saxons infiltrated a large Frankish war party and were accepted without question as their comrades. The Saxons were even allowed into the Franks’ fortified encampment where they promptly caused bloody mayhem. This suggests that their languages or dialects – not to mention their dress, weapons and general culture – were not so very different from each other.
I have used Old Norse words for certain Fyr Skola terms, even though it is based in south Saxony – berserkr (plural: berserkir); gandr (plural: gandir) and so on – to give more of a Viking flavour. This is a bit of a fudge, of course, because they would have had their own Old Saxon words for these things. Also, Old Norse nouns declined, as in Latin, so the word would change according to its grammatical use. I have also avoided the use of accents in foreign words as they can be confusing. For example, Bago, the tiny island that Bjarki hails from is properly written as Bågø. But I don’t know how to pronounce Bågø correctly, and I doubt many of my English-speaking readers do either, so it seemed needlessly nerdy to insist on the accents.
If you would like to buy a copy of The Last Berserker, you can get one from Amazon by clicking here.