What Would You Do? - A Dilemma About History in Children’s Fiction
I came across something very interesting a few weeks ago, which reignited a debate I had been having with myself ever since I started writing children’s fiction. I learned that so much of what we think we know about the Vikings is total bullshit. And keep in mind, I have lived in Denmark most of my life, so I am not talking about Hollywood or video game Vikings, with their horned helmets and two-handed swords. I am talking about the concept that almost all Scandinavians have.
I will get back to how I came across this information in a bit, but for now let me just explain why this had such an effect on me. My middle grade series (Shawn From the Shed) involves time travel. In the first book, the characters travel to medieval England. In the second, soon to be released, book, they travel to a different time period. For both, I had to really debate with myself about how much artistic freedom I had. How much of it should be “real” history vs the setting that kids expect and want to see. Hollywood routinely makes a butchery of history, but their films and series are hugely successful.
In the end, I decided to stick with a generally realistic setting. Now, please understand, my age group is 8-12 (and likely the younger end of that spectrum), so naturally I simplified many things and I took a few liberties. I also do not have anything gruesome, no killing, limited violence (with no bloodshed) etc. But I decided early on that I was not going to butcher history. I wanted the kids to have a better understanding of the past once they were done, not a worse one. So, overall, I tried to stay true to a kid-friendly historic setting. This was not always easy because reality is rarely as entertaining, flamboyant, or fair as fiction.
And here is my dilemma. My plan was to send them to the Viking Ages in one of the next sequels. Seemed like a perfect setting. It was something I thought I was fairly familiar with, and it is a setting kids love… what could go wrong? Well, how about the notion that we are using the word Viking all wrong? Or that the mere concept of “Viking” was a construct of the 19th century to bolster a fading national identity?
I recently came across a book by Danish historian Anders Lundt Hansen. The Danish title of the book is “Sølv, blod og kongemagt – Bag om vikingemyten”, and it deals with the myths that everyone, including native Scandinavians believe about the Vikings. I won’t go into detail, and I would highly recommend this book – though right now it does require knowledge of Danish. However, the basic idea that the Scandinavians were Vikings seems to be wrong. Viking was a word meaning pirate, which was something a few Scandinavians engaged in. Moreover, the “Viking” culture that we often see, with brave warriors that laugh in the face of death, is also not based on actual history but rather on sagas of incredibly dubious historical accuracy. Nor was the success of the “Vikings” due to the fact they were just inherently tougher and better than everyone else.
And just in case you are wondering if perhaps these claims are false, the first thing I did was call up a friend of mine who is also a Danish historian. He not only confirmed this but began throwing so many more facts and issues to back up our erroneous notion of the “Vikings” that I genuinely regretted asking him in the first place. I would share my friend’s name, but I cannot risk that one of you contacts him and ends up on the receiving end of one of those lectures. No deserves that. No one.
So, this got me thinking. What should I do about my future book? If I present an accurate depiction of the Scandinavians (and even refrain from using the word Viking in the traditional way), the setting will seem unfamiliar and wrong, to both kids and parents. But if I present a classic Viking setting, then I would be entirely dishonest.
The closest I have come to a conclusion is that either I show a true (albeit kid-friendly) depiction of those times, or I never send them there at all.
So what would you do if you were in my shoes? Drop me comment and let me know.