The trouble with elves & dwarves…

I’m as tired of pointy-eared, nimble elves leaping from rock to rock above a raging river or walking atop drifted snow, as I am of gruff, Scottish-sounding, hammer-toting, gold-loving dwarves, as nimble with dishes and song as they are with axes.

But, much of our modern conception of elves (alfar) and dwarves (svartalfar) began with Norse myth. Actually, a lot of it goes back to JRR, but he pulled directly from the Voluspa’s list of dwarves for the names of his — including “Gandalf” which means something like “Staff Elf.”

Anyway.

My goal was (and is) to be as faithful to Norse myth as possible. So, knowing the tropes and knowing the (over-used) interpretations of elves and dwarves, how could I spin it? As usual, I’m not going to say directly.

However, here are some of my notes from Simek’s Dictionary on how elves & dwarves were portrayed/viewed in the various source materials:

  • Snorri equates dwarves with a sub-group of the elves, the svartalfar. Svart- means “black.”
    • There’s also the ljosalfar (light elves) which Guy Gavriel Kay uses in his Fionavar Tapestry.
    • And if you’ve ever played (A)D&D or read R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden series going the “dark elf” route is every bit as dangerous as Menzoberranzan.
  • Elves seemed to correspond to roles in religious cults while  dwarves were just other types of beings (usually helpful) with whom humans and gods could interact; the dwarves were not originally thought of as small.
  • Dwarves were typically portrayed as wise and skillful (e.g., smiths), as well as miners and custodians of treasure who live under mountains and in rocks.
    • Their magical powers resulted from them having technical ability
    • The weapons and devices used by the Aesir — Mjolnir, Gungnir, Skidbladnir, etc., were all made by the dwarves (thanks to Loki).
  • Alvissmal recounts how the wise dwarf Alviss turned to stone when the first ray of sunlight touched him outside his home’s protection (he got duped by Thor)
  • In Voluspa, dwarves were created from blood of the giant Brimir and the bones of the giant Blainn. But, Snorri describes dwarves as maggot-like beings living in the flesh of Ymir; they were subsequently imbued with reason by the gods.
  • The etymology of the word “dwarf” is obscure.
    • Some scholars say it’s from the Norwegian “dvergskot” for animal disease and/or the Old Indian for “drva-” meaning sickness or weakness which then leads back to an Indo-Germanic root “dhuer-” or damage.
    • But, other scholars have centered on the Old Indian “dhvaras” or “demonic being.” This leads to the Indo-Germanic root dhreugh — which then leads to dream (traum) or trug (deception) in German. In this case, “deceptive picture” would be closer to the original meaning of the original word.

My challenge was to incorporate much of the above while also putting an original spin on it. I think I’ve done that, particularly with what my Svartalvar can do & how they do it (and yes, I changed the “f” to a “v.” Crazy, right?).

Like Snorri, I treat the Svartalvar as a subgroup of the Alvar. Long story short, two groups within the Alvar went through a disagreement which resulted in one group (the Alvar) allying themselves the Vanir. The other group, the Svartalvar, did not.

I frequently allude to the Svartalvar in my first book, but they don’t appear till my second. In my third book (and beyond), they take center stage with several POV characters. Large portions of those future books have been written, but I keep having ideas on how I can further differentiate my Svartalvar and Alvar cultures. Which is fun.

I’m actually chompin’ on the bit to get to those future books, but it’ll be a while — years, most likely — before I do.

11 Rivers…

Eleven rivers — the Élivágar — spring from Hvergelmir and flow through all the Nine Realms. They are the:

  • Svol: the “cool one”
  • Gunnthra: “battle groove”
  • Fjorm: “the one in a hurry”
  • Fimbulthul: “might speaker”
  • Slídr: “dangerously sharp”; according to Snorri, this river flows thru Helheim
  • Hríd: “stormy weather, tempest”
  • Sylgr: “devourer”
  • Ylgr: “she wolf”
  • Vid: “the broad one”
  • Leiptr: “lightening”
  • Gjoll: “loud noise”; Snorri also puts this river in the underworld; the Gjallerbrú bridges it. That bridge is guarded by Módgudr (furious battle). According to Simek, she may be one of Snorri’s additions to the myths.

These rivers have been integral to my story since the very beginning. And just a couple days ago, I thought of a whole new twist on them that should solve a few worldbuildy issues. Note that Simek says a more accurate view/definition of Élivágar is that it is the name for the “proto-sea”that surrounds the world. They’re not necessarily incompatible definitions.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve used some of the rivers:

  • Vidar rests for a time beside the Svol; this happens in Book Two
  • In Book One, Odin harvests magic from the Slídr
  • In Book Two, Hermod speaks with Módgudr before crossing the Gjoll — that was a neat scene to write, particularly since I have the Ships of the Dead dock at the mouth of the Gjoll. A group of the dead cross into Helheim at the same time Hermod does. I’m using that as a way to make Hermod’s journey cool, reinforce some worldbuildy stuff and show the difference between her and her father (Odin).

In Book Three, the rivers take on a more central role. But by then, a great deal of time in the narrative will have passed and my POV characters are mostly new.

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*I mostly use Simek’s definitions/translations of the rivers

The Magic of Limitations

Limitations are more important than Powers, Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic.

Say one thing for Brandon Sanderson, say he’s unparalleled in creating hard magic systems. (Some of you may have caught what I did there*; 50 DKP Minus if you didn’t.)

One of the key Aesir is Heimdall who “requires less sleep than a bird, can see 100 leagues, and can hear grass growing in the meadows and wool growing on sheep.” In the myths, Heimdall guards the Bilrost (Snorri calls it the Bifrost) and watches for Asgard’s enemies. In my books, he’s not quite that Aesir. Not yet.

These are the limits I put on Heimdall’s powers of sight and hearing:

  • He can’t see through solid objects, clouds, fog, etc.
  • Just like we have to focus to hear in a loud pub, so too does Heimdall have to focus to hear certain things. I also thought of his hearing as a keyword search. Listening to everything all the time might drive a man mad.
  • And, what might someone do to cripple Heimdall’s capabilities? Someone who maybe has a vicious streak and a deep hatred of the Aesir. 😉

Consider, too, that the Jotunn know that Heimdall has these abilities. So, in my world they developed a sign language to keep their secrets. And, they moved underground not only to escape Utgard’s unforgiving climate, but also to shelter what words they did speak. Maybe that’s not particularly inventive, but these actions do seem like logical responses to an enemy’s advantage.

Not only do the Jotunn have to deal with Heimdall’s prying eyes and ears, but Odin sends his ravens (Huginn and Muninn) out in the morning to fly around the whole world. When they return, they whisper all the news they saw and heard into his ear. Odin also has two wolves, Freki and Geri. I have them act in a similar capacity to the ravens — except they mostly travel at night. And, Odin’s Hlidskjalf…his High Seat…lets him see out over all the worlds.

Sucks to be a Jotunn, eh? But wait, there’s more!

In the Hovamol, stanzas 147-165, Odin lists all the “songs he [knows] | that king’s wives know not, nor men that are sons of men.” Beyond those songs Odin knows many other types of magic. He learned one type from Freyja and other magics from his time upon the tree.

In all, I found six sufficiently different types of magic in Norse myth: gandr, galdr, necromancy, rune magic, shapeshifting and what I loosely call “proto-familiar spirit” magic (disir/fylgja).

That’s a huge amount of different magic to deal with in a series let alone a single book. In his third law, Sanderson suggests that writers expand what they already have before adding something new. Given my goal (faithfully retelling Norse myth) I couldn’t cut magic types — they’re all used at different points.

Instead, I tied them all back to a single power source which practitioners would have to harvest, refine and then use.

At various points in the narrative, then, practitioners use up all the magic they have. That’s all they get until they put some work into getting more. I have an entire scene dedicated to Odin harvesting and refining “magic.” Beyond that, once the magic is consumed, there are consequences. Vidar experiences that firsthand.

Additionally, I further limited the magic by sticking to what the sources said that magic could do (with some conservative, logical, interpretative leeway :)). As an example, I have two different ways for the characters to shapeshift — greater and lesser. The lesser is really freakin’ creepy & is based entirely on an account in an Icelandic saga.

That said, those who know multiple types of magic can do the most things. Odin knows all types of magic; Freyja knows almost as many as Odin. Vafthrudnir knows almost as many as Freyja. Loki only knows one type. Vidar knows one, is learning a second and will, eventually, learn more.

What I ended up with were enormously powerful characters. Since I didn’t want them a-whompin’ and a whoopin’ every living thing to within an inch of its life, I pitted my Aesir against opponents who were equally powerful. And then I showed the strongest Aesir (Odin) getting the crap kicked out of him — while also showing normal folk getting their asses kicked by the beasties that Odin, Vidar, etc., can easily dispatch.

So, long post, right? And I haven’t even hinted at how magic is used by the Alvar, Svartalvar and Jotunn. Maybe in the future. Oh yeah, that reminds me, prophecy is a huge part of Norse myth. I guess I didn’t discuss that, either.

 

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*This is what I did there. 🙂

In the beginning…

…was Audhumbla, the primordial cow, and Ymir, the first Jotunn. Both existed in the Ginnungagap, the void between the fires in the “south” and the cold in the “north.”

Ymir (a male) suckled upon Audhumbla. She licked the first “man” from a block of ice. That man, named Búri, had a son named Burr. Burr married Bestla and they had three children: Odin, Vili and Ve. Ymir (also called Aurgelmir) was the progenitor of all Jotunn. He had three offspring (via autogamy)– two sons and a daughter.

The above is a heavily abridged version of the Norse origin myths pulled from the main sources*. To suit my books, I tweaked the myths — but I stuck as close to ’em as I could**. When I couldn’t figure out the lineages (among other things), I went to secondary sources like Simek, Lindlow, Crossley-Holland, Davidson, etc., to help me figure out what and who should go where and when.

So, with that out of the way, here are my tweaks (some of ’em, at least).

Ymir’s sons are Thruthgelmir and Bolthorn. I haven’t figured out his daughter’s name yet, but it’s going to be XYZ-gelmir. She was Búri’s wife. Bestla is Bolthorn’s daughter.

In a prior post, I mentioned that the distinction between Aesir and Jotunn is somewhat muddy. From the above, you can see why. Odin is himself part Jotunn — descended directly from Ymir through his mother (Bestla).

Since it was clear enough, I made no changes to Odin’s lineage. Thor and Vidar are Odin’s children by two different Jotunn women (Jord and Grid). Yet more mud in the Aesir vs. Jotunn waters.

And so, with all that in mind, here’s the gist of my (global) backstory:

Once, there was a tribe led by Ymir. He caused a massive falling out with some of those in his tribe — Burr and Bestla. Sh!t went down that snowballed into the tribe splitting apart and leaving the land in which they had lived for so long. Some went with Odin and became Aesir; some went with Bergelmir and became/remained Jotunn; some went with Thruthgelmir and became the Sons of Muspell. Because of this initial conflict, the Aesir and Jotunn have been at each other’s throats ever since.

And, yes, I’m leaving a lot out 🙂

 

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*The Norse Myths come to us from two main sources: Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda (also called the Elder Edda).

**Note that my characters are not gods, nor are they super-advanced techno-aliens (Marvel) or little grey aliens (Stargate SG-1).

Why these characters? Part 3

The last couple characters in my books are probably among the least well-known figures in Norse myth.

Let’s start with Hyrrokin. She’s a female Jotunn who rides a wolf that has vipers for reins. In my book she rides a wolf named Viper, because…ow…bitey.

She has two references that I recall. In the first, she shoves Baldr’s boat into the sea setting the rollers aflame and causing the land to rumble and quake. All of which angers Thor. He takes up his hammer (Mjolnir) to smite! her, but is prevented by the other Aesir. The second reference I’m not going to mention. Hyrrokin may also be depicted on this runestone. And yes, I use one “k” in spelling her name.

If I had some elbow room in developing Frigg, Vidar and Hodir, I had a warehouse full of elbows for Hyrrokin (and Vafthrudnir). Which probably puts me on a list somewhere.

For Hyrrokin I had to figure everything out — fun, but tough, especially since the reference above was a weird situation. Why would Odin call for a Jotunn to help float Baldr’s ship? Her death was also problematic because it was just a mention — no circumstances, no sense of time between the Baldr event and her death, etc.

Eventually, I tied Hyrrokin’s backstory directly into the main motivations for the Jotunn themselves. (I use “Jotunn” for singular & plural; not accurate, but simpler.) And I made her a warrior. I know where she’s headed through Book Two, but it still feels a titch flat.

Vafthrudnir (in Old Norse, the accent is always on the first syllable) has his own ballad. It’s cool — a battle of wits between Odin and Vafthrudnir. Think Gollum & Bilbo in The Hobbit and you’re not far off.

Two things (among others) made Vafthrudnir compelling:

  1. Odin pitted his wisdom against the Jotunn’s.
  2. Frigg cautioned Odin, saying that among all the Jotunn* she doesn’t know one mightier.

To me, then, it seemed that Vafthrudnir was at least Odin’s equal — and that’s how I’m writing him. My Vafthrudnir is a shaman, a shapeshifter, older than he appears, and has a really big axe to grind against Aesir skulls.

 

*In a future post, I’ll go into the differences between Jotunn, Aesir and Vanir.

Why these characters? Part 2

In my personal category of lesser-known Norse deities, I included: Frigg, Hodir and Vidar.

Frigg (sometimes Frigga) and Hodir (sometimes Hodr) are likely better known than Vidar. All three are pretty cool cats. Well, not cats. That’s Freyja. She’s got a cart pulled by ’em. It’s also possible, according to some, that Frigg and Freyja are different aspects of the same deity. But not in my book! (Literally, not figuratively.)

Anyway.

Frigg is a Jotunn who marries Odin, the Alfather. The top dog. Why does she do this? I answer that. Odin ditches her all the time to go a’wandering. What does she do? I answer that. She sees the doom of all men, but never speaks it. How does that work? I answer that.

Hodir is the blind brother of Baldr. Both are the sons of Frigg & Odin. Why is Hodir blind? I answer that. How does he get around? I answer that. What does he do in the story? Same as in the myths. Read ’em if you want spoilers. In my book, hopefully I deliver on it.

Vidar is the son of Odin and Grid, a Jotunn. He’s nearly as strong as Thor, rarely speaks and does…some other stuff. Eventually. 🙂 He’s one of the characters who hooked my imagination and dragged me into writing. Contrary to the myths, he talks quite a bit in my book. “Vidar stared at him” would get a bit boring, after all.

Because less is known about these Aesir, I felt like I had more elbow room in developing them. But, since one of my goals was (and is) to be as true to the myths as possible, I took each mention of these Aesir and extrapolated upon them. 

As an example, developing Frigg meant asking questions (as above) and researching women in Viking/Norse society. Not only did that help me visualize how she dressed — which was practically important for multiple scenes, but gave me an idea of gender roles and how Frigg could break them.

One such historical tidbit on roles helped me resolve a problem in Odin’s plot line (it’s a doozy). Since that happens at the end of Book Two, I had to foreshadow it — which meant writing several new scenes and making multiple references both in Book One & Two. Ideally, all of those look like worldbuilding so that resolution happens in the second book looks “surprising yet inevitable.”

 

Why these characters? Part 1…

I have seven POV characters in my first book. The second book introduces an 8th. What will probably be Book 3, introduces five new POVs — but I haven’t decided which of the original 8 will also have POVs in that future book. A total of 8 is probably all that I can handle, let alone a reader.

So, for Book One…here’s one way to somewhat arbitrarily categorize my POV characters:

  1. Well known (Odin, Loki)
  2. Not well known and/or not much known about them (Frigg, Vidar, Hodir)
  3. Really not well known (Hyrrokin, Vafthrudnir)

Odin and Loki pretty much have to be in the story b/c of the way I’m telling it. It’s tough writing them b/c:

  • They’re so well known in a particular, popular way (Marvel comics & movies, mostly)
  • I want them to be as much like their appearances in the Poetic Edda as possible. I don’t dislike the Prose Edda, but the Poetic is a titch more “original source”…and there are other sources, too.*

In Marvel comics, I got hooked on Odin, Loki, Thor, etc., via Walter Simonson’s Thor. I was reading ’em as they came out (yes, I’m that old) and they were awesome. Loved his art & stories. Then the Marvel Cinematic Universe came around 20+ years later and I was totally baffled, until a friend explained it to me.

Odin in the myths is NOT a kindly Anthony Hopkins stuffed into gold armor. In the myths, Odin is about as terrifying as it gets — and I’m trying hard for my Odin to be like that. Probably the best Odin I’ve read (outside of the Poetic Edda) is Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Wednesday. (Ian McShane is playing Mr. Wednesday in the TV version of American Gods; if you saw Deadwood, McShane played Al Swearengen…and was fan-effing-tastic.)

Loki, according to Rudolf Simek’s dictionary, is NOT the god of fire. Nor is he the adopted son of Odin as depicted in the comics & movies.

However, Loki is a shapeshifting Jotunn who, after becoming Odin’s blood brother, both gets the Aesir into a lot of trouble and then gets them out of it again. Usually. He’s often seen as a trickster figure — cutting off Sif’s hair is one example — but he’s more complex than that.

In my readings of both Eddas, I came to see a Loki who was mischievous in some stories and then flat-out “I’m coming for you” evil in others. Reconciling those two Lokis was tough, but I think I’ve a good handle on it. Reading the books by Crossley-Holland and Lindlow, along with Simek and a ton of other stuff, definitely helped. (In a future post I may detail some of the research I did.)

As with Odin, I’m going for a Loki who’s true to the myths first. Obviously there’s a large dose of my own creative license involved, but I’ve tried to ground my changes in scholarship not some wackadoo impulses. I also know where the shoals are (Marvel’s stuff), so I can steer clear of all that.

In my next posts, I’ll dive into the two other groupings of POV characters.

*A discussion of the source materials is fodder for dozens of blog posts, at the absolute least.