Fiction Book of the Month: Theodore Brun on A Mighty Dawn

The author of The Wander Chronicles discusses the first of his novels, and his inspiration.
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Theodore Brun, why did you choose the Norse era when embarking on your A Mighty Dawn, your debut novel?

St Boniface hacking down the oak of Donner

There are really three points of contact for my interest in the Norse world. I studied Scandinavian archaeology at university, which provided the bedrock of knowledge about the material culture of the Old Norse world. But without the sagas and story-telling traditions, I have to admit, I found it dry as dust. Later, came an interest in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which, for me, was a portal into those stories. The Poetic Eddic, Saga of the Volsung, the Saga of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer etc. I became a little obsessed! Still, that only supplied the seedbed. The seed, if you like, was a lecture about an 8th century missionary called Saint Boniface who chopped down the sacred oak of Donner (Thor) in a dark forest in Germany. That sparked something in my imagination – the conflict between the passing world of the pagans and the rising tide of Christianity. After a lot more thinking and research, a story started to form about a young warrior in northern Denmark.

You’ve started your writing career having worked in other fields. Did you always have the story in your mind, or did your decision to write come first?

I never reckoned myself a writer, or really creative in any way. The discovery of the joy that it brought me was a huge part of the journey from lawyer to writer for me. But the whole thing crystallised around the idea itself which kept growing and growing. Eventually I looked at what I had and decided I owed it to the idea to have a crack at writing it.

This was the first of your epic series of novels and was set in Scandinavia, featuring a number of Norse cultures. How much do we know about them?

My stories are set in the early 8th century – so we’re in the dark just before the dawn of the Viking Age. But I extrapolate back a few decades in terms of how that culture existed. There are a large number of texts recording stories and poems from that far back, although the texts themselves date from centuries later (for example, the Völuspá). These can tell us a lot about how the Old Norse lived, even if we can’t pin down specific historic events. Having said that, there are events that probably happened. For example, in my second novel, A Sacred Storm, the climax centres on a battle between the Danish and Swedish kings somewhere in central Sweden (known as the Battle of Brávellir). It seems clear to me from the detail in the saga fragments we have that something along those lines happened, although probably not exactly as described.

Your hero is Hakan, but in your novel he undergoes trauma and emerges as the man we know from the subsequent novels, Erlan. What inspired you to make this change in the character?

I’ve always been fascinated by the meaning of personal names. It felt natural to bring that interest into my novels. In Norse culture, your name and lineage were particularly important. With all the feuding between tribes and clans that characterised the period, a name could be the difference between life and death. In the novel, Hakan turns his back on his family in dramatic fashion. He names himself “Erlan” – which means “stranger”. His obstinate refusal to offer up more information about himself than that seemed bound to provoke conflict which made for more fun in the story. These days, I struggle to see him as Hakan! But I think that conflict of identity will continue to haunt him.

The Jutes in what is now Denmark are one of 3 tribes that settled in Britain, along with the Angles and Saxons. Were they an advanced culture, or simply a bunch of savages and homicidal maniacs?

A bit of both! Their technology was far advanced of their time in terms of ship building, their ability to thrive in incredibly hardy conditions, and other admirable ways. On the other hand, their underlying worldview was founded in large part on violence. You can’t get away from that. The warrior ethic – the highest good being to die in combat – and the loyalty/oath culture that grew up around that did make them incredibly violent and fearsome adversaries. There’s no doubt in my mind that with the coming of Christianity, the understanding of what a human being is, and the value each person has, changed significantly. (And for the better, in my view!)

How useful was your archaeological degree in setting the historical scene in the novel?

Somewhat. The research I did for the novel did feel more like revision of familiar territory rather than discovering things for the first time. That helped.

Ragnarök is an important element to the novel, and the Norse mindset. Just how significant was it?

I think it dominated a lot. Particularly the earliest versions of it (which we get an idea of from the Völuspá). Those lacked the “rebirth” component at the end (at least according to Neil Price) which was likely borrowed from the Christian idea of resurrection/heaven. According to Price, the earliest renditions probably ended in the destruction of the entire cosmos in a giant fire-ball. That looming horror would have weighed heavy on the collective mindset and influenced how they lived and made sense of the world.

How much interaction do you have with your readers, and do you enjoy the questions and comments you receive?

Of course! I love interacting with anyone interested in the stories for whom they provoked a reaction.

You’ve written an epic trilogy, continuing A Mighty Dawn with A Sacred Storm and A Burning Sea. What’s next?

Book Four! – working title: A Savage Moon. The pandemic and a couple of false starts have slowed it up a bit, I admit. But Erlan’s adventures continue. The next instalment should be out next year.

Theodore Brun is the author of The Wanderer Chronicles. A Mighty Dawn is the first and was published in 2017.

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