Our former environmental editor writes a fascinating Viking saga

A DNA test revealed the Viking roots of writer John Ingham

A DNA test revealed the Viking roots of writer John Ingham (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

At sunrise and sunset, the longship is lit by reflected rays, perfect for this land of fire and ice. A short walk away, not far from Iceland’s parliament, are the remains of a 10th-century longhouse with relics dating back to the 870s, when the first settlers crossed the Atlantic from Norway.

It is this longhouse, complete with a cattle barn, that forms one of the key locations in my novel, Blood-Eagle Saga, which has just been published.

The story has been a long time coming. I have been fascinated by Vikings ever since, as a child, I read a children’s history book by RJ Unstead that included dramatic color images of rampaging Scandinavians.

With their spectacular ships, axes, spears, and swords, and their incredible voyages around the world, they seemed far more exciting than many of the monks, kings, and authors in other chapters. I got hooked.

Since then I have read everything I could get my hands on. I got as close as I could to the original sources, reading Norse sagas and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century Icelander to whom we owe much of what we know about Norse mythology.

My own fictional saga narrator bears his name as a tribute.

And I’m not alone in my fascination. Sharpe author Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling series of historical novels Last Kingdom, about the birth of England and Alfred the Great’s fight to repel the Vikings, has inspired a television series of the same name.

And the History Channel drama Vikings has drawn record television audiences.

Solfar Suncraft.  Reykjavik

Solfar Suncraft. Reykjavik (Image: Getty)

I also became interested in Anglo-Saxon and Northern European literature, Beowulf being one of my favorite books. I even tried to learn Old Norse myself. I finally gave up because I couldn’t find any old Scandinavian to talk to!

But to further the spirit of the saga, Blood-Eagle is written in my own version of the Viking verse. It is very simple and easy to read. Happily, Vikings didn’t mind rhyming, but they did like alliteration, which I found helped the story flow.

The Daily Express, my employer for over 30 years until I retired last year, also played an important role. My visit to the Reykjavik longhouse was while I was working on a number of features on climate change, including entering one of Iceland’s retreating glaciers.

Photographer Jonathan Buckmaster and I also went to the site of the Viking parliament, the Althing, a vast plain below the continental rift between North America and Europe, a jagged fracture of rock that tears across the landscape.

On another occasion, writing about plastic pollution, we went to Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the High Arctic. Whether the Vikings got here is debatable, but they seemed to get everywhere. It’s perfect for them.

Rich with walruses and polar bears, whose ivory and fur were coveted, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. It’s also the only time I’ve been on a plane where everyone stood up to marvel at the scenery: snow-capped mountains and glaciers falling into the sea.

But on my own I’ve also visited Viking sites in the UK and Scandinavia, even sailing through the Greenland fjords where Erik the Red once settled.

My favorite sites are the Oslo Ship Museum, where you can see preserved Viking ships, impressive handicrafts, and Maeshowe in Orkney, a Neolithic burial mound that the Vikings stormed in a desperate attempt to escape a blizzard.

You can still see their graffiti, carved into the walls with their axes.

The Daily Express also uncovered a possible reason for my Norse obsession.

For a function, I once took a DNA test. It showed (correctly) that I was of Irish descent on my mother’s side. In my father’s, it was 90 percent likely that I was of Viking descent, probably Danish. My last name is Anglo-Saxon, it means “home of the people”, but maybe one day, 1000 years ago, a Viking did what Vikings are famous for.

Based on that, I was sent to Denmark to investigate my Viking past and I left on a reconstructed ship from Roskilde.

I did it again in Norway, and those trips around the bays, pulling the oars before the sail was up, showed how tough the Vikings must have been.

There were no satellite communications, no flares, no lifeboats, and the longships had little protection from the elements. No wonder they were wild when they charged ashore.

Ingham is likely of Viking origin.

Ingham is likely of Viking origin. (Image: Getty)

But they were much more than berserker warriors and brutal assassins. They were farmers, fishermen, merchants, skilled craftsmen, and wonderful storytellers. Their wives ran their farms and businesses while they were away.

They were also enthusiastic slave traders, capturing prisoners in their raids and selling them to a life of misery in the Viking world. A captive captured in Ireland could end the Rus’ in what is now Kyiv.

They also presided over a society that would now horrify us, with slaves vulnerable to being killed on a whim. Certainly if her daughter brought home a Viking and introduced him as her betrothed, she wouldn’t be opening the fizz, unless she was trying to sedate him with champagne.

My own Viking story begins in the Reykjavik longhouse. Relocated to Norway, it is the snowy home of the brutal Viking warlord Sven Ravenfeeder. While sailing with his warriors, a white-haired stranger, Snorri, emerges from the frozen desert and offers to pay for his voyage by telling a saga.

Sven agrees but, to the delight of his men, drops a noose around Snorri’s neck and tells him: “If we like your story, you will live…”. Snorri sings for his life about the search for loot and the honor that he pits against two rival Vikings. -Grim and his former right-hand man Asgeir-against each other.

Sven and his men are transported across the Atlantic to a new world of debauchery, where the Vikings clash with an equally proud and violent warrior culture, that of the Native Americans.

Named after an Icelandic journalist friend of mine, Asgeir enlists the help of his muse, Mary, a shape-shifting former Irish slave who has every reason to hate Grim.

The story sees the world through the eyes of the Vikings, and particularly their vision of what made a great warlord and warrior worthy of Valhalla.

You’ll find a ghost fleet, trolls, a man-eating bear and, in a nod to Beowulf, a dragon. There is also a Native American tribe that has a special reason to welcome Asgeir and his warriors.

At the heart of the story is a question that sends Sven’s men into a drooling frenzy: who will be the Vikings’ favorite execution victim: the Blood Eagle? I won’t spoil the drama by revealing it here, nor the gory details.

But what really captured my imagination about the Vikings was not their thirst for blood, but their incredible globe-trotting.

Thanks to their large ships, which could transport overland between rivers, they spread from Newfoundland to the Caspian Sea, and from Greenland to Constantinople, where the Vikings formed the Emperor’s Varangian Guard.

My book explores how far they might have reached across the Great Lakes and great rivers of the United States, leading directly to the Great Plains.

John Ingham's Bloody Eagle Saga

John Ingham’s Blood-Eagle Saga Now Available (Image: John Ingham)

It includes elements of fantasy, in part because the Vikings themselves were mystics, and explores the many similarities between them and Native Americans, not only their fighting prowess, but also their gods, the paramount importance of courage in battle, and their deep connection with nature.

Like the Vikings, the Native Americans have also fascinated me but, for obvious reasons, they are much less accessible here.

I have also read journals of early 19th century explorers who toured the United States and found a dazzling array of Native American tribes and bears lurking behind almost every tree.

A few years ago, I went to the scene of Custer’s “Last Stand” with his 7th Cavalry, at the Little Bighorn in Montana. He then made his way to Wounded Knee, where a few years later the 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of Sioux.

Little Bighorn is a national park. Wounded Knee was hard to find and only had a hand made sign. I wonder why?

But the Vikings are the main men in my book and the reason they have wide appeal is because of their remarkable fighting skills and fearsome reputation.

They ruled a world before they woke up. If you have any questions, Blood-Eagle Saga awaits you. I hope you enjoy.

  • John Ingham’s Blood-Eagle Saga (Austin Macauley, £11.99) is out now. To request a copy, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. For free UK postage and postage use code FREEPOSTAGE, offer valid until 18th January. johninghamauthor.es

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