Reading guide for 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 X
The Thrall's Tale by Judith Lindbergh
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 464 pages
    Dec 2006, 464 pages

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At the end of the tenth century, a Viking adventurer called Eirik the Red set sail for Greenland with twenty-five ships of Norse colonists. Eirik had already explored Greenland on a previous voyage, and he named the vast glacier-bound island Greenland to make it sound more inviting. Here, he claimed, was the ideal place for a Norse colony—fertile, clement in climate, empty of human inhabitants. Hundreds heeded his word and sailed with him. The crossing was stormy and many died in shipwrecks, but eventually fourteen Norse ships reached the rugged coast of Greenland. With Eirik as their leader, the settlers founded two colonies that flourished for several hundred years in this harsh northern environment.

In her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, writer and Norse expert Judith Lindbergh draws on the true story of the Viking colony in Greenland to weave a startlingly original tale of discovery, deception, faith, and redemption. Lindbergh grounds her story in the epic sagas in which the Norse chronicled their heritage, lineage, conquests, feuds, and family ties. From archaeological finds in Greenland and elsewhere in the Viking world she conjures up the intimate feel and texture of daily life. Her characters, some inspired by figures in the sagas, some purely her own invention, come alive as rich, complex figures. Fusing historic details and imaginative creation, Lindbergh has fashioned a beguiling, vividly accurate historical novel.

Three intertwined women share the narration—Katla, a beautiful thrall (the Nordic term for slave), who was born into slavery when Vikings seized her Irish mother; Thorbjorg, a seeress steeped in the pagan Norse religion; and Bibrau, the strange silent child Katla bears after she is brutally raped and disfigured by her master’s son, Torvard Einarsson. Together these women recount the hardship and wonder of the first years of the Norse colony and the great change that comes to the settlers after Leif, son of Eirik the Red, brings Christianity to Greenland. For Katla, who has long whispered her mother’s Christian blessings in secret, the Christian era means freedom to live, to worship, and finally to love. But the dawning of the new faith has very different consequences for Thorbjorg and Bibrau. Hated by her mother as the living embodiment of her defilement, Bibrau comes of age as Thorbjorg’s pagan apprentice and foster child. But in the end, Bibrau’s fascination with the dark side of Norse belief leads her to a fate that neither pagan nor Christian could foresee or comprehend.

With The Thrall's Tale, Judith Lindbergh has achieved something very special—a historical novel infused with both the wonder of legend and the grit of daily life in a bygone age. Every detail in the book, from the relations between Norse masters and slaves to the clothing they wear, from their feasts to their prayers, is based on scrupulous historical research. Every character is drawn with passion, complexity, and imagination. As novelist Jonis Agee writes, “Lindbergh inhabits her characters with rare compassion and honesty, exploring their cruelty, courage, and capacity to love.” Haunting and original, The Thrall's Tale raises issues of faith, love, power, betrayal, and forgiveness that are strangely resonant in our own turbulent time.

  1. Lindbergh has come up with an extraordinarily original style in which to tell her story—an English that sounds archaic, almost Norse, and yet is perfectly accessible to the contemporary reader. Discuss the ways that she has accomplished this stylistic feat, paying attention to diction, the rhythm of her prose, and old-fashioned expressions.

  2. Katla, the thrall of the title, is an extremely complex character—a strong woman who has been savagely damaged. She ends up being both angry and proud, a loving Christian who nonetheless hates her own daughter. Discuss the various strands of Katla’s character and your reactions to them.

  3. What do you make of the strange, haunting figure of Bibrau? To what extent is she the embodiment of pagan evil; to what extent is she a victim, of her birth, her time, her own disturbed psyche?

  4. At the end of the book, Lindbergh adds a note about her historical sources, primarily the Norse sagas. Take a look at these sagas, especially the Vinland Sagas, and examine their depictions of the characters of Eirik, Thorbjorg, and Torvard. Discuss how Lindbergh has embellished the sagas and how she has reimagined and transfigured her sources.

  5. The novel is narrated by three intertwined women, and each presents a radically different point of view on the action. Discuss why Lindbergh has chosen this method of telling her story and what impact it has on your experience of reading the book. Which of the narrators did you like most? Which did you trust most?

  6. The transition from paganism to Christianity is at the heart of the novel. Discuss how Lindbergh weaves the basic tenets of Christianity into her story. Do you see The Thrall's Tale as primarily a Christian novel, a book that endorses the Christian faith? Or do you think Lindbergh also respects and values the enduring power of Norse pagan beliefs and practices?

  7. Bibrau constantly refers to her “fylgie,” the spirit who keeps watch over her and goads her to evil deeds, harmful to others or to herself. What do you make of this fylgie? Do you see it as a figment of her own perverse imagination, an objectified aspect of her own psyche, a hallucination? Talk about the role of the spirit world in Norse mythology.

  8. Mother-daughter relationships are central to the book—not only the bond between Katla and Bibrau, but the mentor/apprentice relation between Thorbjorg and Bibrau. At one level, these are relationships dominated by conflict, sometimes violent conflict. Are there other aspects of the mother-daughter bond hidden beneath the surface? Compare Lindbergh’s view of the mother-daughter bond with that of other novelists.

  9. “We are all slaves,” says Thorbjorg, “all of us.” The theme of freedom versus enslavement runs throughout the book. Consider what it means to be a thrall in Norse society and how the coming of Christianity alters the position of slaves in this intensely hierarchical colony. In what sense does Thorbjorg’s comment apply even to free members of the community?

  10. Women are at the center of The Thrall's Tale but there are also some compelling male characters: Ossur, Torvard, Thorhall. Compare how Lindbergh draws and fleshes out male and female characters. Do you think she does a better job with one gender? Why do you think she has only women narrate the book?

  11. Thorbjorg gets the last word: her lullaby to one-eyed Odin closes the book. Discuss the significance of this ending.
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