Nordic folklore

In an earlier post, I wrote about scrutinising the tropes of the fantasy genre. Now that I’ve done that, one way I can move beyond tired concepts is to look for inspiration from different interpretations of, for example, fantastic creatures.

Tolkien famously came up with his own take on elves and the dwarves — figures that have been present in one shape or another in many European folklore traditions, long before Tolkien made the elves beautiful and the dwarves wide-shouldered and bearded.

But who were these beings originally, and can we draw on that source to come up with new, fresh ideas on fantasy?

Authors like J.K. Rowling, Patrick Rothfuss and Naomi Novik (to mention a few) have done just that. J.K. Rowling took the legends of witches and wizards and brought them into the 20th century. She discarded Tolkien’s idea about tall, ethereal elves and went back to the old tales about shy and gnarly little creatures.

Patrick Rothfuss explored the old Celtic myths about fairies and put his own spin on the Fae realm, its inhabitants and laws of nature. Naomi Novik, of Lithuanian and Polish descent, drew on her grandmother’s tales from Eastern Europe to create her own interpretation of the Baba Jaga legend, cursed forests and powerful wizards in her book Uprooted.

Näcken

Näcken, Ernst Josephson,
1905

As a teenager, I realised I had grown up with remarkably few books about the brothers Grimm’s German fairytales, and all the more books about the legends and superstition of the old days of Sweden and Norway. Thus, I may be better suited than most Swedes to write about creatures most of the English-speaking world has never heard of.

But the question is: Do I want to?

How do you translate the names of these legendary beings into English without losing their identity? Näcken (The Nix) is a male figure, usually seen sitting naked in waterfalls playing the fiddle till your heart breaks.

Tradition says women (presumably straight ones) are prone to falling in love with him, while men (also presumably straight individuals) desire to learn his musical skills. Both genders lose their heads and fall prey to the supernatural predator. But the name, Näcken, holds so much more than the translation can convey. To be ‘näck’ translates to being in the nude. ‘Näcken’ is both a name and a descriptor.

Näcken can shape-shift, too, and transform into a horse. Some people state he’s white as snow; others say he’s black as night. Regardless, his name in this shape is Bäckahästen. It means ‘Brook Horse’, but the name ‘Bäckahästen’ also has sounds in common with the name ‘Näcken’, which always seemed important to me as a child. Using the names ‘The Nix’ and ‘The Brook Horse’ just doesn’t deliver the same punch.

Furthermore, we have creatures like the alv or alf (elf), but also the älva, sharing the same etymological root but referring to vastly different creatures. The alv was male — a smallish, mischievous trickster — while the älva was a female fae-like being, half transparent and usually only seen in groups, dancing in mist.

Norwegian lore has Kvernknarren, which translates to ‘The Mill Creak’ — and yes, that is ‘creak’ as in making a creaky sound. The Mill Creak was a large creature living in the millwheel, making funny creaking noises and trying to trick small children to fall into its maws.

Troll

Askeladden and the Troll,
Theodor Kittelsen

Norway is a country of coastlines, fjords and islands. They have plenty of tales related to the sea. One of the most famous sea monsters is Draugen, who is an undead human-like figure with rotting strips of meat hanging from his exposed bones.

According to the old tales, he would sometimes show up in storms — either in a boat with torn sails or in half a boat. His appearance would be a premonition of death. In some stories, he would even rise from the depths to pull fishermen off their boats. These poor men would never be seen again. ‘Draug’ is the modern Icelandic word for ‘ghost’, but in Old Norse, it could mean any kind of undead person — often in their physical body, intact or decayed.

Perhaps the most famous creature from the Scandinavian folklore is, of course, the troll. Tall and small, smart and dumb, human-like and monster-like, they come in all flavours depending on the story. The one we’re most familiar with is the mountain troll: large and dumb and with moss for hair, it turns to stone if the sun’s rays touch it.

I do, however, also like the types of trolls who look almost exactly like humans and live in mountain halls almost exactly like human dwellings. They are found in tales such as those about bytingar — troll children exchanged for human ones so that the troll mother could raise a human child instead of a troll child, granting her status and power in the troll society. The troll raised among humans, on the other hand, would often grow up to be a vile person, quick to anger and harbouring ill will towards both humans and beasts.

These characters and more are rich sources of inspiration and ideas for fantasy tales if one only wants to go down that route. And that is indeed the question I’m pondering.

The infamous million words

A writer isn’t really a writer until he or she has written, and discarded, a million words.

Well, technically, they may be a writer, but not really a writer, if you know what I mean.
I don’t know who said those words first, or if it even counts as a quote, but it’s considered to be a general truth, along with the other truths paving the road of writing.

Usually, I don’t pay these truths much respect. I guess I should, but in my usual stubborn way, I spend a lot of time kicking and screaming and making a show of not heeding their advice. Although secretly I do. At least to a degree. But really, there is a time and a place for showing rules and truths Respect (capitalisation intended). The process of learning is not that time and place. I do my own learning, thank you very much. Usually not in the same way that most other people do theirs.

The “one million words” truth was one of those things I just sniffed at, and then turned my back at. So what, if it will take one million words to get the experience it takes to make a draft ready for submitting to a publisher? Considering my unrealistically high expectations on my own work, and the huge amount of content in my longer-than-one-novel-so-possibly-a-series WIP (work in progress, for those who are new to writer l33t sp34k), that won’t be a problem. I’ll get there eventually, and until then, I will, without a doubt, recognise the flaws of a project not yet ready, so now please go and taunt somebody else. (Insert clip of French guard from Monty Python.)

This was my honest opinion. Until… *duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuuh* (<– dramatic fanfare)

Until I read this blog post by T. James Moore. He says that he too, used to ignore that truth, but only because he believed it would take him forever to get there. That’s the opposite of my problem, but it doesn’t matter; we shared the opinion that the million words could just go and pat a herd of cola-flavoured gummy bears. What he did worry about, however, was style. Or rather his lack thereof.

I have to admit I haven’t worried much about that bit. Sure, I’ve heard about it. Style. T. James Moore goes so far as to say that “for writers, style is everything”. He says that some writers have very unique voices from an early age, but an original voice will not be enough for you to claim to have a style. Only style is style.

As for the unique voice bit, I do think I have that, and that I’ve had it for as long as I have been writing stories of any kind, which would be from age ten or so. Mostly, I’ve been annoyed by it. I cringe whenever I read my own work, thinking it sounds both childish and arrogantly flourished, simultaneously. I’ve tried to erase that personal fingerprint from it, by making it either all childishly informal, or properly… er… proper.

But maybe I shouldn’t fight it. Maybe I should, instead, free it from all the shackles I’ve put on it, and let it lead me. Because what T. James Moore finds out is that the infamous, frustrating one million words will help us develop our style. And although I’m still not a hundred percent certain as to what, exactly, style is, I must say I’m terribly excited to find out what mine looks like. Sounds like. Is like. Does it have a colour?

So I’ve now come up with this cunning plan. I will start out writing drafts. Lots of them. First drafts, for getting the story written down. Second drafts, for mending plot holes, moving scenes around, tending to flaws in logic and fixing other inevitable storyline issues. But after that, I’ll leave the drafts to rest, and start up new projects.

Eventually, after having written enough drafts, I will have found my holy grail — my style. And when I have, that’s when I will start up the third drafts: the editing. The actual word-smithing; the stage when my language becomes live art inside somebody else’s head.

I just hope I haven’t overlooked anything too important. I hate it when my masterly laid plans come to naught.