BookBrowse Reviews The Thrall's Tale by Judith Lindbergh

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The Thrall's Tale

by Judith Lindbergh

The Thrall's Tale by Judith Lindbergh
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2006, 464 pages

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Set in Viking Greenland in AD 985, this dramatic historical novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three women straddling the pagan past and Christian future

From the book jacket: Katla is a slave and daughter of a Christian woman captured in a Viking raid on Irish shores. Setting sail from Iceland with her master's household, she heads toward the distant promise of a new homestead in Greenland. Also on the ship is Thorbjorg the Seeress, a much maligned and persecuted healer and prophetess who is ever faithful to the call of her patron god, Odin.

Upon first arriving in Greenland, Katla is brutally raped by her master's son, Torvard. The child of this union is Bibrau: taciturn, reclusive, infused with the savagery of her conception and suspected by many to be a changeling. But the seeress Thorbjorg, following a vision from her god, takes Bibrau as her apprentice. The young girl becomes an adept at healing and Norse magic, but her bitterness perverts the wisdom Thorbjorg gives. As her power grows, Bibrau twists it to good or evil at her whim, inflicting her will on Thorbjorg's household, her mother and the tight-knit Greenland community.

Comment: The word epic is thrown around a little too freely in literary circles, but if any recent book deserves the title it is The Thrall's Tale which recounts the early years of the settlement of Greenland by the Norse led by Eirik Raude (Erik The Red). Much of Lindbergh's inspiration is from the contemporary chronicles known as Eirik's Saga and Graenlendinga Saga, collectively known as the Vinland Sagas, which record that in 985, Eirick Raude led 400 settlers and 25 ships from Iceland to the shores of Greenland; and the Norse myths found in the Younger Edda (compiled in the 13th century) and the earlier Poetic Edda.

The Thrall's Tale is told through the eyes of three strong women, Katla, a thrall (slave) born of a Christian-Irish mother captured and enslaved in a Viking raid shortly before Katla's birth. Katla's beauty and her prayer beads set her apart from the other thralls and draw the unwanted attentions of the master's son, which leads to the maiming of Katla and birth of her unwanted daughter Bibrau, the second voice of the tale. Lindbergh thinks of Bibrau as a "silent scream." "She personifies all the terrible thoughts that one can have in a moment of rage or at the realization of hatred ..... Her very silence is at the core of her belligerence and power. By making her mute by choice, Bibrau is free to say anything, do anything, and no one would ever know her true intent except the reader."

The third voice is that of the seeress Thorbjorg (who, like a number of Lindbergh's characters, is extrapolated from a passing mention in the Vinland Sagas). Thorbjorg sees in Bibrau a surrogate daughter and apprentice, someone to whom she can teach her mystical Norse wisdom, but even she fails to see the devastating evil that lurks in Bibrau.

Her characters are realistically flawed and no-one, with the possible exception of Katla's love interest, Ossur, is entirely likeable. However, with a large cast, it can be difficult to keep track of who's who, not least because, in keeping with the practice of the time, a great many of the names are prefixed with Thor, denoting kinship to the thunder-god of the Norse. Lindbergh has done her best to distinguish between them by using the prefix Thor for some names and the more modern variation, Tor, for others, but it is still a little muddling and a list of key people and their relationships would have helped.

One of the most notable aspects of The Thrall's Tale is the language used. It is as if Lindbergh has scraped away the Latin influences on the English language leaving behind the archaic syntax and vocabulary of the older Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse roots. The result is a moody, dark writing style, positively reeking with atmosphere and foreboding that, once one is used to it, evokes the bleak landscape and tough people to a tee. In the interview at BookBrowse Lindbergh explains that the language used came to her after extensive reading of the the old chronicles, but mostly from reading the eddas which are considerably more musical and poetic than the somewhat matter of fact chronicles. Lindbergh does not speak Old Norse or Icelandic (modern Icelandic has changed relatively little since the 13th century) so relied on translations, and was particularly drawn to a translation by Lee M Hollander which was rich in the music, poetry and emotion that she longed for, which she allowed to seep into her, so they could ooze out in her character's voices.


About the author

Lindbergh, who had formerly published poetry, travel and cultural pieces in various journals, was inspired to write The Thrall's Tale after seeing full-scale modern replicas of the ships that had sailed in Lief Eiriksson's wake on the journeys he took from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and Canada and then down the North American coast (see map in sidebar). She was struck by the fact that the ships were barely bigger than oversized rowboats, and completely open to the wind and sea and waves. This led her to start researching the story of the early Greenland settlements, their early promise and mysterious demise. She was most intrigued, not by the disappearance of the settlements themselves, but by the powerful image of the pagan seeress, Thorbjorg, who prophecies in Eirik’s Saga. Her exploration veered quickly into the realm of archaeology as she slowly uncovered fragments of detail and placed them together in the growing mosaic of her outline

She is currently working on a novel set in an entirely different time and culture, "farther in the past but again about women's lives" Being a little superstitious she doesn't like to reveal more.


Did you know?
Sunday is derived from the Scandinavian/Germanic word Sonntag - sun day. Monday comes from Monandaeg - moon day, from the same roots. Tuesday is named for the Norse god Tyr or Tiw, the god of war. Wednesday (Wodnesdaeg) is for Odin, also known as Woden, who sat at the top of the Norse pantheon. Thursday is for the Norse god of thunder, Thor. Friday, frigedaeg, is for the female goddess Frigga, Odin's wife and the goddess of marriage and home. Only Saturday has its roots in the Roman pantheon - Saturn, the Roman god of time and harvest - when the Ango-Saxons invaded England, the Roman dies saturni became saterdaeg.

This review is from the February 21, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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