Filling in the knowledge gaps to make a new Viking hero

Historian V M Whitworth’s debut novel is a Viking tale set in England. She talks to Chris Bond.

THERE’s something about the Vikings that captures the imagination.

Perhaps it’s to do with their wild reputation, or maybe it’s the image of Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas fighting over Janet Leigh in the 1958 film, The Vikings. Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say our fascination with these swashbuckling Norsemen hasn’t dimmed over time.

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In the last couple of years there has been a succession of Viking literary sagas, films and books, the latest of which is V M Whitworth’s The Bone Thief. Set in 900 AD, it tells the story of Wulfgar, a young man being groomed for the priesthood in the Kingdom of Mercia, who is sent by his master on a dangerous journey to recover the bones of St Oswald and thus save their kingdom.

Whitworth, a historian who studied in York, came up with the idea while researching a seemingly unsolvable historical mystery – namely how did St Oswald’s bones survive the fall of Bardney monastery to the Vikings and end up being rescued and brought to Gloucester some 35 years later? When her sources ran dry, she decided to fill in the missing gaps herself.

“I spent hours debating with friends what might have happened and I realised that I was never going to find out from history but that it could make a rattling good yarn,” she says.

This is her first novel and she admits writing historical fiction presented her with different challenges.

“As a historian if you come across something you don’t know you gloss over it, but when you’re writing a novel you suddenly have to start thinking about what might have happened. Even though I’ve studied this period for many years I realised how practically little I knew about the lives of ordinary people, what they ate, what kind of underwear they wore and whether they travelled with a saddlebag. These kind of things just didn’t occur to me as an academic.”

But her knowledge helped her to create an authentic protagonist in Wulfgar. “He’s an innocent abroad. I needed someone a bit naive who could go out into the wilderness and the Dane lands, rather than a scheming political hero. We tend to think of the Church now as old-fashioned but in 10th century England no secular authority was interested in promoting women’s rights and opposed to slavery, but the Church was. So by making Wulfgar a young cleric I was able to create a character that was historically accurate and one readers would sympathise with.”

Creating a character that readers warmed to, though, wasn’t easy. “The Viking world could be violent, there was slavery and gender divisions, it’s an alien culture to us. So the challenge for me was to ensure that modern readers could respond to the main character without disgust and bafflement.”

Whitworth studied at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York and is back in the city this week for the 27th annual Jorvik Viking Festival for the launch of her book.

Although she now lives in Orkney, Whitworth spent more than a decade in York, working as a tour guide and lecturer. She is now writing her second novel, which is set in the city.

“Along with Dublin, York was the axis of Viking power in Britain and one of its two capitals. We think we understand the Vikings, but the excavations at Coppergate only account for a tiny amount of Viking-age York and from this we try and construct a picture of what life was like.”

The Vikings have a violent reputation, one that’s been well earned, but Whitworth says they weren’t just thugs who left a trail of devastation wherever they went. “They have this macho image with the longships, swords and helmets and there’s this idea they were brutes who were covered in mud, but they had an ordered hierarchy and they had kings and queens.”

Their influence also spread much farther afield than many people perhaps realise. “They reached Greenland and Canada and as far south as Constantinople. If you’re interested in Mediterranean history, the Vikings were there, and you can find Viking graffiti in Venice, they were everywhere and they carried their culture with them.

“They were glamorous, even the word ‘Viking’ sounds exciting. There was an exoticism about them, they were adventurers who get your pulses going on a visceral level.”

The Bone Thief, published by Ebury Press, is out this week at £19.99. V M Whitworth will be signing copies of her book at York Mansion House, at 2pm on Thursday.