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Interview: Eleanor Arnason on “Kormak the Lucky”

Tell us a bit about “Kormak the Lucky.”

It’s a story about an Irish slave in medieval Iceland and his encounters with a saga hero, elves, Irish fey and a magical smith out of an Eddic poem.

 What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

The story about the slaves killed to hide the silver comes from Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, a 13th century Iceland novel about the Viking and poet Egil Skallagrimsson. I have wanted for years to write a story about one of the slaves, who survives with the help of elves. I had an image, which was the seed for the story, and I put it in the story: the slave is trapped and about to die, then a door opens in stone, and an elf looks out and beckons.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

Not much. I know a fair amount about medieval Iceland, and I have read many of the Icelandic sagas. I’ve also read Icelandic folktales about elves. I did have to do some research on the Irish fey, and the story was checked by friends who know far more about the fey than I do. I didn’t reread Egils saga before writing the story. As a result I made Egil more scary in old age than the saga does. In some ways, he was pathetic. But he did in fact – as a blind old man of 80 – manage to kill two men. I did reread the Eddic poem about Volund and his revenge. It is impressively violent and cruel. Like many people in myths, Volund is not nice.\

Is there anything in particular you would want someone to take away with them after reading “Kormak the Lucky?”

One of the reviews complained that the title of the story is never explained, and that Kormak did not seem lucky to the reviewer. He is, in fact, very lucky. He survives Vikings, Egil, light elves, dark elves, Irish fey and Volund; and he comes out in pretty good shape. He is not a heroic person, but he is a person who stays alive and gets by and takes an interest in life, even though he is living in a brutal world. The Vikings are awful. Egil is awful. The light elves and the fey are awful.

Egil and Volund are genuine epic heroes, and anyone who wants to spend time with them is a fool. Though reading and writing about them is fun.

Among other things, the story is about getting old.  It begins with Egil frustrated by his age and blindness and wanting, out of frustration, to start a fight – maybe a war – at the Althing. Unable to do this, he commits murder. At the end of the story, Kormak decides to have a good old age, which he does.  We have some choice in how we age. Egil decides to be angry and brutal. Kormak decides to be a kind and decent person.

The story is also about wanting to be free. Kormak and Svanhild both want to escape. They end by escaping to different places and in different ways. Svanhild is completely selfish. Kormak is willing to be helpful, though it’s hard to remember to be helpful in the land of the fey, and he is willing to be human and grow old.

Was the conception or writing of this story personal to you in any way?

Absolutely personal. My father’s parents migrated from Iceland to Canada. The family farm, still owned by a relative, is in Borgarfjord, and Egil is supposed to be an ancestor of mine. He may well be. Icelandic genealogies are reliable.

I studied medieval Icelandic in graduate school and can still understand a bit with the help of a dictionary. I’ve been to Iceland twice and want to go again. “Kormak” is the fifth fantasy story I have written based in Icelandic literature and folklore. If all goes well, a collection of all five stories (and maybe a sixth) will come out at the end of this year.

And I am no longer young. So the decisions the various characters make on how to deal with aging mean a lot to me.

What are you working on now?

A novel, which is a sequel to Ring of Swords, a novel published 20 years ago now. This will come out from Aqueduct Press, once I finish revising it. The working title is Hearth World.

Also a number of short stories. I usually have several stories going at once. I’m not sure this is a good idea, but it seems to work for me. Among them is another Icelandic fantasy, this one about the Laki volcanic eruption in the late 18th century. The eruption changed the weather of Europe for several years and helped cause the French Revolution by making the harvests in France bad. It also killed a quarter of the population of Iceland. I want to have an Icelandic farm family, fleeing the eruption, meet a family of trolls, also fleeing the eruption. Icelandic trolls are big, strong, ugly and not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. They can be dangerous. I like them, or least I like my version of them. 

“Kormak the Lucky” appears in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF.

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