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Iceland is changing. The volcano Hekla bubbles and smolders, looming over Iceland’s inhabitants and threatening to erupt over their farms, families and livestock. Christian missionaries have the ear of the Norwegian king, and all of Iceland’s citizens are being encouraged—and then told—to convert to the new religion and abandon their pagan ways.
Change doesn’t come easily, however, and it isn’t without its price. Freya, one of the Aesir— Norse gods who guide and manipulate the lives of Iceland’s mortals – sets off on a quest to find the Brisingamen, a golden necklace that sparks desire in the hearts of all who lay eyes on it. The fates have told Freya that her destiny and the destiny of her race is tied up in the necklace, and it is through her quest that she does indeed begin to shape the course of her life, and the lives of those she encounters.
Meanwhile, the beautiful mortal girl Fulla is caught between her grandfather, Hogni, who has raised her since her father was killed in a battle over borders with a neighboring family, and Vili, the handsome son of her father’s killer. The two youths feel a connection with one another despite their family’s old rivalry, or perhaps because of it, but as their friendship and love grows, their families’ renewed rivalry – and Hogni’s stubborn adherence to tradition—loom larger over them, like Hekla’s shadow, threatening to keep them apart forever.
Betsy Tobin’s beautiful rendering of the inhabitants of Iceland circa 1000 AD is a testament to the region’s rich mythological and cultural history. The Norse gods and goddesses come to life on these pages, more earthy and practical than magical, and yet not without their moments of wonder. Tobin’s knack for combining history and myth, and well-developed characters with luxuriantly detailed setting, brings to life this ancient world in a way that few books do. Ice Land is a stunning work of historical fiction that examines the changing face of family, tradition, loyalty, and love: what binds us all together, no matter the century.
Betsy Tobin was born in the United States and moved to England in 1989. She lives in London with her husband and four children.
A CONVERSATION WITH BETSY TOBIN Q. You detail your extensive reading of the NORSE myths in the afterword – how familiar with the myths were you before you began your novel? Did you do research simultaneously, while writing, or did you read as much as you could and then write? How important was it that you stay true to the mythology and traditions of Iceland?
Q. You detail your extensive reading of the NORSE myths in the afterword – how familiar with the myths were you before you began your novel? Did you do research simultaneously, while writing, or did you read as much as you could and then write? How important was it that you stay true to the mythology and traditions of Iceland?
I spend a great deal of time researching all my books, probably six months to a year, depending on the topic. This is also important time for the subconscious to be working out details about the story and the characters, so that you have a wealth of material in ‘deep storage’, as it were, before you start writing. I continue to research, as necessary, right the way through the writing process (and even afterwards) as gaps in my knowledge become clear. I also use research to trigger creativity and unblock myself if I become stuck. Sometimes it is the most obscure bits of information that will hold the key to a character or a scene.
With respect to Ice Land, while I drew inspiration from both the myths and the Icelandic Sagas, I used them more as a jumping off point for my own narrative, rather than a retelling. Some of the plot and several of the characters in Ice Land are based on myth, but I deviated freely when I wanted or needed to. At the same time, I also tried to make the historical detail accurate. But at the end of the day I’m a novelist, not a historian: my ultimate responsibility is to the reader and the narrative.
Q. What was your biggest challenge in writing this book? Do you think writing historical fiction, and fiction based on myth, is easier to write or more difficult to write than novels based on 21st century, contemporary life? What makes writing historical fiction fun? (And what are some of the pitfalls?)
Bringing mythic characters, or any amount of ‘magic realism,’ to an adult audience in mainstream fiction is certainly a challenge. I tried to treat the supernatural material as matter-of-factly as I could, so that it blended more or less seamlessly into the narrative, and the reader was not forced to examine it too closely, or ponder its likelihood! I wanted readers to be pulled into the story in such a way that they did not question the more unusual elements of the storyline, but accepted them at face value. We do this all the time when we read historical fiction anyway, so reading mythic fiction is just another step along the same path.
Q. Were there certain Norse myths, or parts of the Freya myth, that you had to cut from the original draft of the novel? If so, why were they cut?
Norse myth is a vast and varied body of literature, based loosely on retellings of the Poetic Edda, a collection of verse poetry spoken aloud for centuries before eventually being recorded by scholars in Medieval times. I drew on only a tiny fraction of this material for my tale. And I have taken enormous liberties with the Myth of the Brisingamen, altering both Freya’s motivation for acquiring the necklace and the reasons why it was stolen by Loki and Odin, as well as the final outcome of the story. The character of Fulla, for example, is purely my own creation. In the original myth, Freya is asked by Odin to stir up trouble on earth, setting neighbour against neighbour and brother against brother. When she steals Fulla, this is the unexpected outcome of her actions. So in that sense at least, I stayed true to the original.
Q. Is it tempting to revisit other myths and make them the subjects of a new novel? What did you find the most rewarding part of writing this book? How did it compare to the process of writing your first work of historical fiction, Bone House?
I suspect I would have little trouble re-visiting this terrain, as there is a wealth of material to draw upon for inspiration, though so far I’ve not been tempted to do so. That said, it was a very difficult book to get right, as it combined a lot of very disparate elements (history, myth, religion, geology, etc). Bone House was actually a very straightforward book by comparison: it used only one narrator to tell the story in first person and followed a very linear time frame. The setting was also very confined: all the action took place in one tiny village, and most of it in one house!
Q. What are you working on currently?
I am just finishing a very different sort of book about the illegal Chinese community in the UK. It is part-thriller, part ghost story, and portrays modern Britain as an alien, mystifying and occasionally frightening world for its main character, a young Chinese man called Wen. The book examines what happens when we are suddenly yoked out of our culture by circumstance. It is about identity and culture, a theme I often write about, as someone who has moved permanently away from my own country.
- In Ice Land, the magical and mundane not only coexist, they interact: How did you like the way Betsy Tobin wove together the lives of the Norse gods and the humans who inhabit Iceland? Also, evaluate the book as a piece of historical fiction – as Tobin sets her book during the century when many natives of Iceland began to convert to Christianity. Did the book feel more like a fantasy novel, or more like a work of historical fiction?
- Similarly, was it difficult to move between the two main storylines (Fulla’s, and Freya’s)? When the two storylines intersected, and all of the characters came together at the end, was the integration seamless? How else might this convergence of the storylines be important? (What might it symbolize?)
- Discuss the ways in which the first chapter, written from Freya’s perspective, sets the tone for the rest of the novel. What motifs and themes does it introduce, or foreshadow? Additionally, discuss the way Freya explains her role as a “god” in Iceland -- how does it make her existence, and the existence of the other gods, seem more ordinary and matter of fact?
- Fulla is introduced almost as Freya’s mortal counterpart – on the whole, she’s docile, obedient, and innocent. How much of this is due to her age, and how much of this is due to her nature? Describe and discuss the ways we see Fulla change over the course of the story – in what ways does she parallel the changes occurring in Iceland? (Likewise, how does Freya reflect these changes, too?)
- Fulla’s grandfather, Hogni, represents the older generation in Iceland, a generation that believes in pagan myths and traditions and is resistant to the wave of Christianity spreading across the land. Discuss the ways in which his beliefs are put to the test when he and Fulla travel to the Althing to find her a husband, and later when Vili stays to nurse him after he’s wounded.
- At the same time that Fulla and her grandfather are searching for her future husband, Freya is bartering with the dwarves for the Brisingamen. Knowing how Freya felt after being deserted by her husband, Od, and knowing that she was not shy about her sexuality, were you nonetheless surprised when Freya agreed to sleep with each dwarf brother in exchange for the necklace? What did each night reveal about the dwarves and, more importantly, Freya? Was Freya’s choice to trade her body for the necklace much different than Hogni’s decision to trade his granddaughter for wealth, connectedness and security? What comment do you think Tobin is making about sexuality through these characters?
- Describe Freya’s relationship with Dvalin over the course of the novel and compare it with that of Fulla’s developing relationship with Vili. How are the two romances similar, and where are they – importantly – dissimilar? Which do you value more, and why? Which relationship feels more complex, and richer?
- Discuss the importance of family in the novel by examining and comparing and contrasting the following relationships: Freya with Freyr and Njord; Vili with Thorstein; Fulla with Hogni; and Dvalin and Idun. What does the book (and the myths) reveal about the role of family in the lives of the Scandinavian people?
- Compare the four women in Dvalin’s life – Idun, Gerd, Menglad, and Freya – and the way he treats them. Discuss the ways in which being abandoned by his mother at an early age most likely affected his relationships with women later in life. Why do you think he resisted being saved by Freya at various points throughout the book? What makes him accept Freya’s last and final rescue when Hekla errupts? (Why has his attitude toward her changed, and how has it changed?)
- Likewise, compare the male characters in this book with the female characters. What traits are prevalent in almost all of the female characters? On the whole, what are the men like? What does this division between men and women say about the social structure of Iceland circa 1000 AD?
- Discuss Odin’s revelation at the end of the novel, when he discloses to Freya that he believes he is Fulla’s father. Does his sudden interest in the girl feel genuine? What do you believe it might signify beyond a familial tie? (Why else would Odin feel compelled to connect with the girl?)
- When Hekla erupts at the end of the novel, she acts as a catalyst for change – not only in the physical landscape of Iceland, but in the attitudes and emotions of its inhabitants. Describe the possible ways Hekla may also be a symbol within the novel – what does she symbolize? Why is it important (significant) that Freya refer to the volcano as a female entity? Similarly, how do the chapter divisions titled “The Norns” foreshadow what will happen in the pages that follow?
- Compare Ice Land to other works of historical fiction that you may have read. How is it similar, and how is it unconventional? Did you enjoy it? What was your favorite part of the story?