What is Barbarism?

A review of: Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings (OnSpec #88, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Regan Wolfrom’s The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings recreates a Norse worlds where Seidr, magic, meets Viking might and ideas of strength. Wolfrom challenges ideas of masculinity in this short story, using a group of people, the Norse, who are often associated with the extremes of masculinity and male violence, to complicate notions of heroism and the masculine.

Wolfrom creates two protagonists: Sveinn, a young Norse man at the height of his strength, and his uncle Thialfarr, a Seidrman, magician, whose body becomes weak with the more seidr he performs. His strength, his power of magic is antagonistically linked to his physical strength and health. His social purposes are collective, sacrificing himself for the greater good of his people. Sveinn, much like our modern conception of the Norse, is heavily individualistic, assertive, aggressive, and fundamentally threatened by idea that don’t fit into his world view. He sees Thialfarr as fundamentally feminine and threatening, but possessing a power that he desires to claim for himself. Sveinn fears that cooking and other ideas associated with the feminine will bring shame upon him, while Thialfarr tries to teach him to shift his ideas to a broader understanding of collective power and the need to protect his people and care for them.

Christian and pagan are set side by side in this Norse world where magic and masculinity are put in opposition to one another to open questions about what the idea of ‘power’ means.

Wolfrom also questions ideas of the monstrous and situates the Skraelings, an enemy of Norse people as not monstrous, but, rather, a different group of human beings with similar life challenges and experiences. Re-situating the Skraelings questions the idea of ‘otherness’ and suggests the need to explore cooperative practices and understandings rather than violent opposition. Worlfrom privileges the notion of understanding other people over constructing others as monsters. Wolfrom reminds us that words and thoughts really do hurt, and, in the world of magic, can literally change the surrounding environment and patterns of fate.

This story is well researched and insightful, posing a different conception of the Norse while challenging ideas of individualist, violent masculinity.

The Hill Where Thorvald Slew Ten Skraelings was published in the most recent volume of OnSpec, a magazine of the Canadian fantastic, and you can explore OnSpec at http://www.onspec.ca/

Derek Newman-Stille

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