A blogger recently asked me about the role of faith in my novels. It's an interesting question, and one I wanted to give some attention to here.
To answer the question simply and directly, faith plays a major role in my novels, not because I am particularly religious, but because in the Viking Age, religion, faith and life were entwined.
The period after the fall of the Roman Empire and up through the Middle Ages was a time of religious change and upheaval. By the beginning of the fourth century, persecution of Christians had ended in the Roman Empire, and support for the religion was spreading. There was a Christian presence in Ireland by the year 400, and Clovis I, ruler of the Franks, was baptized on Christmas Day, 496. However, Christianity's spread was not without difficulties. The old gods were still a strong force in parts of England, Saxony, Scandinavian and other regions; while Islam was sweeping into the fallen Roman empire from the east.
In 793, the Vikings arrive in dramatic fashion. "In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people; these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens; and soon after that, in the same year, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne. . .” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).
At first, the raiders targeted churches and monasteries, which were, for the most part, unprotected and rich in gold, silver, and slaves. It is not hard to see how the Christian priests, and through them, the people, must have thought the raiders who killed, pillaged and burned these centers of faith were godless men and (pun intended) hell bent on destroying the church.
While the Vikings must have known of Christianity and heard of its spread, their attack on churches did not seem to be motivated by a desire to destroy the Christian faith. The raids were more practical than that. The churches and their unprotected wealth were easy prey. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the raiders were even willing to adopt the new faith if it could help them in some way, such as get them safely across an ocean, or earn them victory in battle, or, as with some of their leaders, make them rich in gold, silver, and land.
Given all of this, to exclude faith from my novels would be to paint an inaccurate picture of the Viking Age. Only I took it a step further. I chose Hakon Haraldsson as my protagonist. Why? Because in many ways, Hakon is the embodiment of the religious struggles of the time. He is a boy raised in a heathen home until he was eight, then shipped off to the Christian court of Wessex to be fostered, then brought back to the North to fight his pagan brother alongside his pagan people for the High Seat of the land. Can religion, faith, and plot get any more entwined than that? Ok, maybe they can, but you get the point.
The tricky bit was determining just how religious to make Hakon, and what I eventually landed on was a character whose faith would evolve. In the first novel, God's Hammer, Hakon practices much of the teachings of modern Christianity, particularly “love thy brother” and "love thy enemy". In the Viking Age, there is no indication that kings adhered to this teaching, and plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite. Yet, Hakon was young and untested, so I chose to make him a naïve idealist driven by a singular mission to become the first Christian king of the North, a mission planted in his impressionable mind by his powerful foster father, King Athelstan. I did this because I wanted to pit Hakon against Erik and through that rivalry, point to the larger theme of good versus evil that was the backdrop of that time.
In Raven's Feast (the second novel), Hakon’s “goodness” begins to weaken as life’s harsh realities whittle away at his resolve. Who knows how Hakon's faith and "goodness" will evolve as he becomes a man.