A femine take on the saga

Judith Lindbergh’s first novel has the epic feel of an old Norse saga with a distinctly feminine twist. The Thrall’s Tale is the story of three unique women — Katla an Irish slave; Thorbjorg an old pagan priestess; and Bibrau Katla’s revenge-seeking daughter.

“I never really cared for that stereotypical image of the Viking warrior” she says on the phone from her home in New Jersey. “It was too macho and barbaric for my tastes.”

But during a leisurely stroll down by the docks while living in New York Lindbergh came across three replica Viking ships that had sailed from Norway. It planted the seed that would take the author halfway around the world to study and research a book 10 years in the making. “These ships were very beautiful but what was particularly interesting to me was there was a woman who was on one of the ships. She was one of the crew. She wasn’t trying to be beautiful but she was a very stunning woman and I watched her working on the ship. It started me thinking about women of Viking times which I knew nothing about. So I started doing a little research about what women’s lives were like back then and it was a really fascinating discovery of this whole other side of the Norse history.”

Lindbergh threw herself into detailed study of the era its relics and its records. And when the experts and the library could tell her no more she embarked on a more personal level of research. The opening chapters of The Thrall’s Tale show Katla’s journey with her master Einar from overcrowded Iceland to the richer promise of Greenland. Lindbergh herself took the trip by boat although not quite the Viking warship of your typical saga.

“It was a Soviet-era ice-class research ship” she says with a laugh. “It was a very low-budget tour that went from Iceland to Greenland and it actually followed the exact path that Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson would have probably travelled.” The boat sailed directly east from Greenland mimicking the rudimentary navigation of the sun that Viking travellers would have employed.

Lindbergh took quite a few photographs along the way. So many in fact that her friends encouraged her to do a show. This led to more exhibitions at such prestigious venues as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as part of a two-year travelling exhibition. Her love of the subject matter infused both her camera lens and her writing style.

“These places were really powerful to me they really informed the flavour and texture of my novel because Greenland is a place where you really feel how utterly small humanity is; how insignificant in the face of natural forces. And it was natural forces I suspect that actually ended the Norse settlements in Greenland. In a lot of ways that sort of feels similar to the climate issues of today.”

Those aren’t the only parallels to modern life found in Norse history. The coming of Christianity to a pagan world as dealt with in the novel also echoes some ideological clashes of today. However Lindbergh believes the reasons for Christian conversion among the Norse settlers had a distinctly secular cause. “According to the scholarly research many of the reasons they converted were economic. The Greenlanders and the Icelanders were very dependent on trade with Europe and almost all of Europe was Christian at the time. And the Christians were basically forbidden to trade with pagans. So in order to survive whether they believed it in their hearts or not they agreed very purposefully to convert to Christianity.”