Torfinna Hildarsdottir: 8th-century shield maiden

My Fire Born series of Viking novels is a little unusual in that it has two main characters who are given almost equal weight in all the books: Torfinna Hildarsdottir and Bjarki Bloodhand. I’ve written about Bjarki elsewhere so this is a blog about Torfinna – or Tor, as she is usually known. There may be spoilers ahead.

The Norse goddess Freya

Tor and Bjarki are almost inseparable – and devoted to each other – but they are extremely unalike in character and temperament. Bjarki is big and slow and kind (despite turning into a ferocious berserker in battle) but Tor is a more complicated character. She is a slight, red-head; wiry rather than strong, and a very accomplished shield maiden, a superior warrior to almost all the enemies she faces. She is rude and short-tempered, and often gets herself (and Bjarki) in trouble with her spiky personality, and take-no-shit attitude. When she is rude to someone in The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) – out in August, 2022 – he says a man might take offence at her words. She retorts: “Take all the offence you like. Help yourself!”

I didn’t realise it at the time but I think the genesis of Tor’s character comes from Joe Abercrombie’s brilliant depiction of female warriors of the North in his fantasy novels. They are salty, tough and also strangely vulnerable. As is Tor. She falls in love with a Saxon warrior in The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2), which came out in January 2022, and leaves herself open to some serious heartbreak. I don’t want to spoil this for you but she is not only a kick-ass fighter but a just as much a loving woman as any other.

When I was first writing about Tor, I seriously worried that I was indulging in fantasy – a grave sin for historical novelists – that, in truth, the idea of a female warrior, a shield maiden, fighting in the battle line alongside all the men was a distortion of history. Then my online research took me to a grave site in Birka, just outside modern-day Stockholm, Sweden, where the remains of a 10th-century Viking warrior had been discovered by archaeologists in 1889.

The individual was found buried with several items of military equipment including, a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and the remains of two sacrificed horses. For more than a century scholars believed this must be a male warrior but, in 2017, new DNA and bone analysis revealed that this was in fact a woman of about thirty years old. And not just a female warrior but, since she was found with symbolic gaming pieces, a woman with strategic responsibilities, an officer, perhaps, a commander or even a general.

An illustration of the Birka warrior by the artist Tancredi Valeri

However, just because a woman is buried with weapons, does that make her someone who actually fought in battle? The weapons could be purely ceremonial, or an indicator of high status. But the sagas contain many instances of female warriors. The Valkyries from mythology are fierce shield maidens who come for the dead on the bloody battlefield. And there is Freya, the Norse goddess, who, is heavily armed and rides in a war chariot drawn (rather bizarrely) by her cats.

So what can we make of the Birka woman? I would say yes – she was a fighter – mainly because if we found a male skeleton buried with in Dark Ages Scandinavia with seax, sword and shield, the immediate assumption would be that he was a Viking warrior. So why not this individual? Which prompts a further question: was the Birka woman warrior an exception to the rule – or were women fighters commonplace in Viking society? The truth is we don’t yet know the full picture.

However, Professor Neil Price, of Uppsala University in Sweden, one of the world’s foremost Viking scholars, concludes this in his superb book, The Children of Ash and Elm: “Taking a clear-eyed look at the archeological data, it seems that there really were female warriors in the Viking Age, including at least one of command rank.”

Which is good enough for me.

The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) is available as an eBook and paperback here; and The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) can be purchased here. The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) will be published in August 2022.

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