All posts by etanafon

Writing Like a Viking

In Egil’s Saga, it’s told how Egil fell into the power of his enemy, King Erik Bloodaxe. Egil managed to save his life by composing a 20-stanza poem of praise for Erik, overnight, and reciting it from memory the next morning.

Those were the days when poets really had to work for their living!

You couldn’t just dash off something in free verse, either. There were demanding technical rules governing how a poem could be composed.

Technical Stuff You Can Skip If You Just Want to See a Sample:

Egil’s poem was a drápa, a poem of praise–usually a longer poem, consisting of 8-line stanzas, with a periodic refrain. Each line had to meet certain requirements also. The verse forms for drápas varied, but one possibility was Dróttkvætt or “courtly metre”. This is a trochaic metre (stresses fall on the first syllable of each syllable pair, or foot). Think Longfellow’s Hiawatha–“By the shining big sea water”. The dominant form in English, back when people worried about stuff like that, was iambic, with accents falling on the second syllable. Think just about anything Shakespeare ever wrote–like “This time of year you may in me behold”.

Each verse in Dróttkvætt has 3 feet. Further requirements vary by line–for odd lines, two of the stressed syllables must alliterate with each other, and two (not necessarily the same two) must share a partial rhyme (similar consonants, different vowel sound). For even lines, the first stressed syllable must alliterate with the two alliterated syllables from the previous odd line. Then, two of the stressed syllables within the even line must rhyme with each other.

My Personal Quest:
I have been tackling the task of writing a drápa in English, using the Dróttkvætt verse form. Mine is a relatively short drápa–just 100 lines, 13 stanzas counting the refrain. Still, it’s about the hardest piece of writing I’ve ever done. In the better stanzas, though, the lines play off each other to create a distinctive music that’s hard to describe.

The Sample:

This is my 4-line refrain.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
Wanderer still fares onward,
Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Famed the names of Odin!

My poem is a poem of praise for Odin, particularly his feat of discovering the runes. Odin
is famed for having many names, and one of the extra tasks I set myself was to include a different name of Odin in each stanza. In this, the refrain, I include four, the first three translated into English.

Wish-lord watches high-throned,
This is an odd line, the alliteration supplied by ‘wish’ and ‘watch’. The partial rhyme is also supplied by these two words–I’m fudging just a little on the word endings. ‘High-throned’ refers to Odin’s high seat, from which he can see everything that occurs on Earth. Wish-lord is one  of his more intriguing titles; Valkyries are also sometimes known as ‘wish maidens’.

Wanderer still fares onward,
The Odin-name ‘Wanderer’ of course carries on the ‘w’ alliteration from the first odd line. The two rhyming syllables (it doesn’t need to be a full word) are ‘wan’ and ‘on’. ‘Wanderer’ has an extra unstressed syllable, it’s the only place in the poem I allowed myself that particular luxury.

Found One finds the rune-hoard,
Alliteration and partial rhyme are supplied by ‘found’ and ‘finds’. ‘Found One’ seems a particularly ominous name for Odin, especially from the point of view of those evildoers who would rather not find him!

Famed the names of Odin!
‘Famed’ and ‘names’ supply the rhyme, ‘Famed’ the carry-on alliteration.
There you have it! Not too difficult, right? Now, just keep on doing that for 96 more lines…and for extra credit, be ready to recite it tomorrow morning in front of a hostile audience!

Creating Elf Habitat, Part 3

An important factor in creating elf habitat is to have the right plants growing in your yard. Sometimes these aren’t the ones you would expect. For example, consider milkweed, pictured in bloom above. Its flowers are actually quite pretty. But although I’ve seen it all my life, and pulled up hundreds of them, I never knew until recently that it flowered at all. It turns out that it’s a favorite plant of butterflies, and who doesn’t like butterflies? For sure, elves must be partial to them.

Other weeds that I’m tending to leave alone this summer include plaintain, which has seen long use as an healing herb, lamb’s quarters, which are edible, and Michaelmas daisies. Some people apparently plant these “daisies” on purpose, but they grow wild in my yard. If you burn their leaves, it’s said to drive away evil spirits.

But better to leave them standing, and attract elves instead!

Happy Thor’s Day?

My wife and I were explaining to our daughter a while back that people from all over the world know the God of Thunder. We told her several of the names he’s been given in different cultures, such as Zeus or Perkunas.

My daughter thought a moment. “And in New Hampshire,” she said, “we call him Thor.”

An interesting sidelight to this is that in our town, celebrations, festivals and events are disproportionately scheduled on Thursdays. We never understood why, but it didn’t seem impossible that it was some kind of unconscious homage to Thor.

However, recently we stumbled on a more prosaic explanation: our town, along with many others in New England, was in the 1800s and early 1900s primarily a mill town. And Thursday was payday at the mills.

Still, a great reason to raise a horn (or a glass) to the God of Thunder. Hail Thor!

Creating Elf Habitat, Part 2

I re-titled this series because a) I remembered this is a fantasy writer’s blog, and b) I decided this is really what it’s about: how can one entice elves into one’s yard (or garden, if you’re in one of those places that use UK-speak)?
Not by keeping things all neat and clipped, that’s for sure. You need just a little bit of wilderness. If you’re in the middle of a city it might be a pocket wilderness, but then elves, by most accounts, aren’t very big.
There certainly seems to be some elf-sign in the picture above. And it’s right by our local standing stone–what could be more perfect?

Primitive Urban Wild Garden Crafting (Part 1)

Well, that’s one name for it. Another might be ‘either too short on time, or too lazy, to do much of anything with the garden this year’.  In any case, it’s an interesting exercise. Basically, whenever I manage to get outside, I pull up plants that I don’t like and I leave alone, or maybe even water, plants that I do like. Other than that, I leave everything alone, and don’t expect to necessarily harvest anything. That way, I find out what plants will do if left to their own devices.

The picture shows a sort of climax forest of dill weed, some of it 3 or 4 feet tall. It’s a great spice, but there is a reason it’s called a weed. It has taken over two garden beds and is working on a couple more.


Space Octopuses and Spaghetti Code

Over the years, I’ve read many critiques of current evolutionary theory, so I was very interested in a recent scientific paper that my son found online: Cause of Cambrian Explosion–Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It does indeed make the argument, familiar to Star Trek fans, that life on earth originated elsewhere. Especially octopuses, which the paper speculates may have arrived as an already developed organism riding a comet or meteor to land on the earth.

In other words, H.G. Wells wasn’t as crazy as everyone thought.

You can find the whole thing here. For a scientific paper, it’s extremely readable. I’m not too enthusiastic about the extraterrestrial panspermia part of the argument–I’m more inclined to believe that the Gods had a hand in it all (and if you make it as far as the appendices, you’ll see a note that at least one of the paper’s authors thinks that life is just too improbable to have originated by chance anywhere in the universe).

For me, the chief charm of the paper is its admission of how huge the problems with neo-Darwinism are (including the lack of what should be abundant transitional forms in the fossil record, and the eponymous Cambrian Explosion, when a huge number of complex lifeforms seems to appear suddenly in said record). The Cause of Cambrian Explosion authors even sound, at points, as if they really feel like saying ‘Look, we explained all this before, now we’re doing it again, and you guys still believe that discredited theory of yours? Seriously?’

In particular, I was delighted with the dismissal of the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ on page 12, noting that the theory really doesn’t explain anything. I remember seeing an interview with Stephen Jay Gould, the theory’s chief architect, in the Seattle Weekly sometime back in the nineties. The admiring journalist said something to the effect of “what used to be one of the strongest arguments against evolutionary theory now becomes one of the strongest pieces of evidence for it!” I’ve never forgotten that stunning leap of anti-logic. Its possible applications are endless. For instance, I could assert that your cat often turns into a frog, but only when you’re not looking…so the fact that you never see it shapechange just goes to prove that it really does!

Anyway, octopuses are apparently the poster children for species that appear suddenly with complex, well-developed features, and no apparent ancestors. Hence their prominence in the paper (and my blog entry title).

On to the pasta course. One of the arguments that I’ve often seen advanced against intelligent design is that our genes are a tangled mess. That often makes it hard to isolate a particular gene that controls some characteristic you’re interested in–there’s cross-influence going on, apparent redundancy, as well as so-called ‘junk DNA’ that plays no known role at all. This is supposedly evidence that our genes just happened (it sounds more scientific to say ‘evolved’, which is why I’m not saying it).

Consider computer programming. It’s considered elegant, if not just basic good form and manners, to have well structured, well commented, easily understandable code. After all, someone else might need to maintain the codebase some day. Or that ‘someone else’ may be you, maybe a couple years down the road, when you’ve gone on to other things in the meantime and completely forgotten this project. The other kind of logic–tangled, obscure, hard to trace–is called ‘spaghetti code’, a term even more derogatory than ‘spaghetti Western’.

So far, so good. But why is it a requirement to structure code so that it can be easily understood? Is it because we have super cognitive powers? I would say no. It’s because in the end, we aren’t that intelligent. We need to make things easy for ourselves.

But if the Designers were more intelligent than humans, and never forgot anything, what kind of code would they naturally write? And what would they see when glancing at what looks, to us, like a hopelessly complicated mess? What designs and patterns would jump out at them, so that understanding the whole design at once would be child’s play?

So long, and enjoy your spaghetti!

Dueling Holidays

Happy April Fools’ Day, Ostara, Easter, and the beginning of National Poetry Month!

I’m including some poems in my forthcoming short story collection, Dragon Scales & Other Tales. To celebrate the day(s), here are three that didn’t make the cut.

This one is the most recent, and the most self-explanatory.


As I’m painting the bathroom walls,
I think of Michelangelo.
Okay, so he was painting
A ceiling, and there are a few
Other differences. But I have to wonder,
Did he, while putting the final touches
On a face or cloud, worry
About water damage, chips and dings
Just waiting to happen,
All the ravages of time?
Did he see himself picking up
That old brush again
To patch things up, years down the line?
I doubt it.
Genius flashes, then fades with grace.
Only mediocrity needs maintenance.

This is one from decades ago that I still like.


The phone, ringing
In an empty room,
Makes no sound.
Leaves stick
To the cobblestones.
Sorry, the sun
Can’t appear today,
So we give you the moon,
Who’s been losing sleep
For years
Rehearsing this part…

You startle me
Before the mirror—
Narcissus, deflowered.
The sun pokes
A bright fist
Through morning clouds.

Once, when I was out running some errand in downtown Seattle, I noticed a woman walking across the street. All of a sudden a loud voice said, seemingly from out of the sky, “Ma’am, you’re jaywalking!” It was a cop with a loudspeaker, I guess, up in one of the buildings, but it seemed more like some angry god obsessed with the small sins of humankind. The woman ignored the voice and continued on her way. Later, I wrote this.


City of back alleys
And dead-end ecosystems,
City of ten thousand smokes,
City where homeless men
In ragged clothes
Wait under the freeway ramps,
Looking out over the Sound,
For the next Messiah
To forget them again;

To get around you
I must bend the rules,
Step on cracks,
Cross painted lines,
Ignore the megaphone voices
Of patrol cars
And the Metro buses
Bellowing like bulls in rut.

Your flashing red hand
Holds no terrors for me,
Your little man
Made of white light
Is no friend of mine;
Like a cat I keep
The right of trespass,
And go against the flow
Of space and time.

Can Spring Be Far Behind?

Shelley obviously didn’t live in New England. There’s still a foot of snow out in my yard and the temperature fell into the single digits (yes, that’s Fahrenheit) last night.

But still, spring is in the air, and from March 23rd to March 30th I’ll be running a spring sale on The Road to Hel and Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head. The sale will also run on Amazon UK here and here. I’m leaving Father Winter out of it, since I don’t expect anybody to be yearning for Yule-themed stories about travel to the Arctic until, say, July.

Also, I forgot to post a link to my recent interview with Michael Gardner. Thanks, Mike!