In the beginning of August, Erica Publishing House released “Kowal słów” (The Wordsmith), a novel by Łukasz Malinowski – a historian and an expert of middle-age Scandinavia. The main character of the book, Ainar the Skald, is known to the readers from “Karmiciel kruków” (Feeder of Ravens) – a must-read for all Viking stories lovers, published in 2013. The author of the novel about a cheeky poet and swashbuckler will tell us about the beginnings of his love for the North, the clash of cultures and plight of a Polish humanist.
Joanna Wasilewska: You are a historian by education, and in 2010 you gained your PhD at Jagiellonian University. Why did you choose history?
Łukasz Malinowski: Since I was a child I was curious of the world. I took interest in all that is different or uncommon. I was passionate about stories, both fictional and from the past ages. At high school, these interests focused on history, although I was also drawn to other sciences, especially philology, archaeology and philosophy. In this way, from my young passions sprung an interest in historical studies, which at that time seemed to me the most interesting.
JW: Why Vikings?
ŁM: I have in me this fascination for wilderness, for primal, stern culture of the North. A different mentality, mysterious mythology, bravery as a rule for code of ethics. All this roused my curiosity. This doesn’t mean that other epochs or countries do not interest me. At this moment I am into Vikings, then I will move to something else.
JW: The hero of your books is a charming Ainar the Skald, an individual met with a sincere enthusiasm of readers of both sexes, and I’m not entirely sure if he’s not loved more by the ladies… Where did you get him from? Did you wake up one night struck by the bolt of inspiration?
ŁM: I heard about the bolt of inspiration, but I haven’t been struck by it yet. Inspiration is a complex state, which one can reach by continuously feeding one’s mind by knowledge, or new stimuli. At least that was what happened to me. Ainar the Skald grew in me for a few years, as he related to historical skalds and heroes who were the topic of my PhD thesis.
JW: About that, there is quite a winding road from doctorate to belles-lettres. What made you change a scholar publication to an adventure novel?
ŁM: Writing a publication, studying the structure of Icelandic sagas and delving into early middle-ages mentality, I felt a need to write something lighter, something what will have a chance to reach a wide scope of readers, and not only a handful of specialists. I built Ainar basing on heroes from Scandinavian sagas, such as Egil Skallagrimsson, Grettir Asmundarson, Örvar Odd or Viga-Glum. Of course I modernized Ainar, so that he was more attractive to a contemporary reader, as I couldn’t aim my novel at thirteen-century Europeans.
JW: I was a bit ironic in calling Ainar “charming”. He is far from fantastic heroes and sinless defenders of morality.
ŁM: He might be far from that, but I created this character to be a hero not according to contemporary rules, but to early middle-age mentality. When you take a closer look at the world described in the series, you will find that Ainar is ideed a hero in this reality, and only seldom does he turn to “sin” and villainy.
JW: Most fantasy authors make their debut in short forms, for example writing on Internet portals. You do not have such experience, do you?
ŁM: Indeed. The Crow feeder is my literary debut. Generally, I started to write quite late. I had my first literary exercises on my MA studies, but later I was preoccupied mainly with science, and only after receiving my PhD did I start to think about belles-lettres more seriously. It had it’s good and bad sides. I lacked in writer’s experience, but on the other hand I knew exactly what and how I want to write. And so I worked on the literary craft (what helped me, were my adventures with journalism, and popular science writing) and almost immediately I managed to interest the publisher with my book. Earlier, I occasionally tried to sell my short stories to the press, but I never sent to any portal on the Internet.
JW: Was it difficult to break through?
ŁM: I sent the first Skald to a few publishers. Some of them were interested, but we cannot kid ourselves, the debutant is not sought-after very much in Poland. Therefore, when Erica laid a solid offer on the table, I chose them without waiting for the final decision from the others.
JW: The editor of your books is Artur Szrejter – also a writer – author of many stories and popular science news about Germanic mythology. Were there no territorial struggles between you?
ŁM: I am extremely lucky to cooperate with an editor who not only knows his trade perfectly, but also is very familiar with the topic of my books. Artur helps me a lot, especially by cool-headed, and pointing out places where I might be hard to understand by a reader not oriented with Scandinavian climates. In other words, he makes my novels more understandable to readers and scolds me for too far advanced historical-cultural references.
JW: Many readers were surprised by Ainar’s pantheon of gods. A common reader expects Thor and Loki <sic!> in a book about Vikings, whilst here he finds some unfamiliar names… What made you to cast well-fixed names-symbols?
ŁM: My approach to the Nordic beliefs results from two things. Firstly, it was historically justified, as there was no one Viking system of beliefs and no consistent pantheon of gods. In early medieval Scandinavia, there was, however, a number of systems, different in relation to one another and connected to a particular family, or particular region. And so, people living in a particular fiord would worship different gods from these living in a neighbourhood valley. And if we’re discussing Vikings, we have to realize that we’re talking about 300 years of history and many countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, England, Ireland or Kiev Rus. There were regional differences everywhere with changes resulting from cultural clashes on top of that. The Scandinavians themselves toyed with pagan myths in XIII and XIV century and in sagas they presented ever-changing faces of old gods, hiding them under different names. Secondly, using less known view on pagan beliefs, I wanted Ainar’s world to be original. I wanted to find a way to differentiate my work from the mass of other writers dealing with the Vikings. In this way I entered the realm of fantasy, because, since I wanted to keep the historical accuracy in material or mental sphere, I let my imagination loose in the fields of beliefs and human imagination.
JW: I know that some of these who read the first tome did not like the fragments describing Christian religion (or monks, to be exact) in less than favourable light. Did you expect Ainar to be controversial?
ŁM: Writing a historical prose I relate to mentality and beliefs represented by people of that period. In case of Skald it was X century. And so I happen to write about things that are difficult, or maybe a bit controversial from contemporary point of view. In general, I am fascinated by religion and cannot understand why fantasy writers so seldom reach for it. It is, after all, an inseparable element of human civilization and a lion share of world’s culture relates to history. All the more, when writing about X century it is impossible to separate oneself from the system of beliefs at that time, as it was a part of everyday life more strongly than today, and thus it created people’s mentality.
JW: In the second tome there is a bit less of seditious topics…
ŁM: I never wanted Skald to become a series with a religious theme, as for example a series by Piekara (“The Inquisitor cycle”). The crow feeder was a book about passion and the clash between a pagan point of view with a Christian morality. In The Wordsmith I concentrate more on other things, although religion is still important to the characters. The latest novel is about madness and its changing faces, which is only loosely connected with the religion.
JW: The first Skald is located in the North, but in the second tome Ainar travels to places new to him. One of the new characters is called Alosza – not a very Nordic name…
ŁM: There are so many novels about Vikings and yet, almost all of them take place in the north of Europe. It’s hard to find there any free “literary lot” that could be ploughed with a pen. Luckily, Vikings travelled to the farthest corners of the world known to them at that time, which gives me a lot of freedom in choosing the action for my novels. Such approach is difficult and rarely used by the authors, as it requires not only a deep study into Scandinavian culture, but also a study of people who lived in the region you describe. However, I always liked cultural clashes and so I thought it might be an interesting idea to describe very diversified middle-age societies through the eyes of a Scandinavian hero. That’s why Ainar appears in Norway, Iceland, Ireland, in the east of Rus, and later in Byzantium and maybe in North Africa. In my books one might find (so far) elements of the culture connected to Scandinavians, Irish, English, Slavs, Finno-Ugrics, Pechengs, Hazaras, Oghuz Turks, Burdases, Volga Bulgarians, Arabs, Persians, Africans and the Wagadou Empire. Thanks to this approach I can for example present a Viking riding on a camel.
JW: Are the elements of fantasy from the second tome at the same time elements of folklore? As I understand it a shrewd peasant on a bear and a man with a flacon are not taken from pop culture…
ŁM: Whilst writing about the east of Europe I looked into the Russian folklore, tradition related to bylinas. It was in this climate that I described Joyful Ilya, the boy with a bear. This character also relates to middle-age jugglers who entertained the public with trained bears. This so-called “bear wrestling” or “bear dancing” was a common entertainment. This might seem too light, too fairy-tale compared to cruelties of the world, but I can assure you that this popular Russian motive was interpreted by me and as the story goes, it becomes darker and bloodier. Haukrhedin, however, whose head is dwelled by a man and a hawk is a direct reference to Scandinavian beliefs regarding shape-shifting hamramirs.
JW: Regardless if he’s fighting the monks, with the absence of monks, on a horse, or on a camel, Ainar still remains a Skald and does not shun of presenting his creativity. Does writing of Viking poetry takes a lot of your time?
ŁM: Construction of skaldic stanzas is difficult, especially in the Polish language. Viking poetry was mainly based on the rhythm created by alliteration, that is repetition of the same letter in the accented syllables. There were a few metres in poetry, which determined exactly the way this rhythm was supposed to look like (for example the first and the second line must be connected with common alliteration, whilst the third created another alliteration). The most popular means of style was kenning, that is poetical circumlocution. An utmost effort was made into not calling things by their names, and so “a ship” would become “a marine stallion”, whilst “a warrior” would be described as “a tree with a sword”.
JW: You frequently visit conventions where you appear with different lectures. Do you feel a strong bond with the Polish fandom?
ŁM: I I feel a bond to fantasy as a broadly defined cultural stream. I have a liking towards the fantasy community, but I’m not bound to it because I don’t know it well. I started to attend the conventions only in 2013, because of the debut of the “Feeder of Ravens”. However, since my early years, I have been connected to the fantasy as a reader and a viewer.
JW: The premiere of „The Wordsmith” took place during the Festival of Slavs and Vikings in Wolin. Are you a member of historical re-enactment group?
ŁM: I have a huge fondness towards the historical re-enactors, although I have never been a part of it. I grew up in a small town, where there was no Viking re-enactment group, and after my wedding, when I moved to Kraków, I did not have the time to pursue another hobby. I have a lot of friends among the re-enactors, though.
JM: Same as among the readers?
ŁM: During the latest festival in Wolin, a very nice lady came to me with information that she organizes RPG games localized in the world of Skald. It was surprising for me, but also very nice.
JW: Apart from writing books you also write articles for a few periodicals. It is known in Poland, however, that it’s difficult to make a living writing books. Do you plan further scientific career?
ŁM: Everything is in the transition right now. I’m trying to cultivate history in every possible way and combine my scholar work with writing. I am not, however, connected to any university at the moment, although I still hope this will change. The truth is, no one values young humanists in Poland, and the authorities would happily see them behind the borders of our country. Writers, philosophers, historians and philologists seem not to be needed for the society. What counts here is money and new technologies.
JW: So there is a real risk that one day you will leave Skald and all his Viking assets and take a course of a forklift operator, or explore the secrets of machining?
ŁM: For me this sounds more complicated than writing books, but who knows? If I won’t manage to get readers’ attention with my creativeness (I’m hopeful so far, as people want to interview me) I will have to stop and retrain. But let’s not go to defeatism, I hope all is going to be well.
JW: You won’t find an interview with a writer without a question about what he writes or watches, so let’s be done with it…
ŁM: I read different things. As a historian I digested a whole mass of scientific books, but I was never averse to fiction. I read fantasy, classical literature and historical novels. I know so many excellent writers, that I cannot pick the favourite one. I guess it would be someone among the following group: Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, George Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Andrzej Sapkowski. I also like books by Michaele Chabon, Charles Bukowski and Cormac McCarthy. I also appreciate Polish fantasy writers with Łukasz Orbitowski, Jarosław Grzędowicz and Robert Wegner in the lead. It’s the same with movies, I can’t really choose. Following the thesis that we apotheosise our youth I think that I would choose something from my school years: Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Lost Highway, Clockwork Orange, everything by Coen brothers. I will also mention a tremendous Spanish movie The Secret in Their Eyes which stayed in my memory for a long time and surely is among my favourite movies. Presently I also watch American series, especially these dealing with history and drama.
JW: The second tome of “The Wordsmith” will be published in the autumn, but this isn’t the end of Ainar’s adventures, is it? And besides you have more than fiction in your plans.
ŁM: The non-fiction book will be publishing of my PhD thesis The hero and the villain. Pagan warrior in the culture of middle-age Iceland which will also appear in autumn. Besides, I am already writing a new novel about Ainar the Skald, located in Byzantium and the Greek Isles. It will be a novel about pirates, hooligans and a court collusions.
ŁM: Byzantines of Constantinople adored harness racing organized in the Hippodrome and the most ardent supporters organized themselves into demes. There were four of them (Red, Blue, Green and White) and most researchers compare them to nowadays football hooligan groups. Sometimes they would demolish the city or stand in the lead of the uprising of the city’s poor, but usually they organized themselves the competitions (each deme would present their own harnesses, acrobats, dancers, etc.) and they had their own “police” that kept order in some district of Constantinople.
JW: All that is left to say is thank you and wish you every success.
Translated by Przemysław Walerjan