How Total War helped create the Vikingverse and Old Norse for Modern Times
Ever ran straight out of ways to shout bloody murder while driving the forces of Gaul / Sussex / England / The Northmen / Malekith before you? Perhaps a new language would do it?
Such is the concept of Old Norse for Modern Times, a book by Ian Sharpe that teaches just enough Viking-speak to, for example, tell your friends your invasion was successful, you’ll see them on Discord, and you’d like another drink.
It’s a spin-off from his Vikingverse series, a novel and comic anthology that depicts a modern world where Vikings and Paganism dominated Europe and the world through history. We thought you might be into that kind of thing.
As well as going in for our giveaway over on Twitter, you can read below about the series’ origins with Total War, how and why this book came together, and Ian’s plans for entering Valhalla.
CA: Thanks for talking to us today, Ian! Figure a nice place to start might be your history in videogames – have you ever played a Total War?
Ian Sharpe: ‘Have I ever played Total War?!’ – what kind of pseud would I be if I talked to you without playing Total War. That would be terrible. I’ll give you a brief smattering.
I looked this up the other day because my first ever Vikings-based game was in 1984, on the ZX Spectrum, and it was called Viking Raiders.
I’ll freely admit I wasn’t alive, so I may need to look it up.
Ha! I’ve played all the Total War games though since the beginning. I spent a lot of time with Rome, which is remastered, right?
Yes, that’s out now.
Excellent, I’ll keep a look out for that. I spent, well, a lot of time with Medieval as well. When I was trying to visualise my books, I would go in and take screenshots. I would get in a bunch of skins, because – without being rude to your art team – some of them are not always as authentic as they might be. You get mods that make them even more authentic, so I downloaded those.
Then I recreated some of the battles in my novels, like the Fall of Miklagard*. In my novels, the historical events like when the Rus, who were kind of the Eastern Vikings, when they attack Miklagard they are repulsed – but in my novels, as an alternate history, they succeed. So I did the fall of Rome, I did some battles in the Northern Highlands – and I used Medieval II as the engine to do that.
I took loads of screenshots and my wife would come in and say ‘why aren’t you… why aren’t you writing a book?’
‘You’re just playing videogames’
I’m visualising what’s happening!
Not your title, but the original idea for all of this… The Vikingverse is actually a retelling of our history as if the Vikings never lost, right? The premise is that Loki is caged, none of his mischief happens, Christianity is cowed, the Vikings never Christianise, they win every battle – Siege of London, Paris, etcetera.
Then slowly we end up in a Norse present where there’s not Christianity, there’s a different outlook on the world that is the Pagan outlook where instead of Devils and Angels there’s the Jötunn, for example. That all came from sitting down and playing Crusader Kings, and I went all the way through and then I converted it to Europa Universalis, and then I converted it to Stellaris.
I was running an esports company, for my sins, called Azubu. Which was a rival to Twitch – not a very good one, since Twitch got bought for a billion dollars and we went down the toilet. I came out of that and the joke is that was my own personal Ragnarok. I was playing far too much Total War and Crusader Kings and from that experience of the game I thought ‘huh, this is a good idea for a book.’
So that’s the Vikingverse and then Old Norse for Modern Times, the most recent thing, came about as a phrasebook because it’s just funny to think about the things you say playing games, or shout on Discord, or film quotes – it’s just funny to put them in Old Norse. It’s not a way to learn Old Norse, although I suppose you could and we’re doing the audio version of it so that people can listen.
I wouldn’t buy it if you want to learn Old Norse, there’s better books than that, but if you want to be able to use it in the same way you might go into a French bakery and know the word for baguette, or be able to tell them you really love Minecraft – that’s what the book is for. It’s for fun, and I thought it was fun so on the back of two novels and three comics I decided to work with a publisher to get that done.
How do you go about understanding Old Norse, what each word and letter translate to?
So first of all, my personal Old Norse ability is limited so I went and found a professor. Professor Arngrímur Vídalín, he’s in Reykjavík. Couple of things to say about it – first of all, whilst modern Icelandic isn’t the same as Old Norse, it’s within a stone’s throw. In the same way that we can read Shakespeare and go ‘oh, y’know, I might have missed some nuance’ or ‘that word doesn’t quite mean the same’ but we get it.
So it’s not even as far as Latin and English?
Exactly, in fact it’s like English and Middle English or Shakespearian English because Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Modern Icelandic are kissing cousins. So what Icelanders have done is preserve their language – now that’s very difficult, with waves of English taking over. With computers not taking the letters like thorn (þ) and ash (Æ) and stuff like that, right? But they’ve done a good job of preserving it in the same way that the French try to preserve the French language with their academies, there’s an Icelandic academy.
Now my brother asked me the other day ‘how the hell do you translate things like online?’
You can translate the word on and the word line but what you’re going to end up with is not the meaning of the word online.
So this is the point of Old Norse, and I think where it ties in with Shakespeare, is it’s a very poetic language. So this for example [holds up his phone], this phone is called a sími – that just means thread. The Norse and the modern Icelandic don’t really go in for literal translations, they make these compounds that are very poetic.
This computer is called the tölva. That’s based upon völva, which is a seer, a seeress, and then they’ve added number to the front. It’s number prophetess, a tölva. So you can therefore do that in most cases.
That said, when I was going through it with Professor Vídalín, there was some things where he just said ‘I can’t do that, that’s not gonna work’ or ‘I don’t know what that means.’ English humour doesn’t always necessarily translate. In some cases he’s written a footnote, only a handful of times because most of the time it works.
For example, “swing low, sweet chariot.”** I thought, ‘okay, we’re throwing in some sporting phrases: swing low, sweet chariot.’ He’s translated it as something that is much longer, because he’s taken something out of Egill Skallagrímsson’s saga when his mom is saying something to him about owning his own warship. He tells her where to go. So sometimes they’re not literal translations they’re poetic translations based upon the Sagas that represent the same thing.
Good translation basically – when I was a kid I read the Asterix and Obelix books…
Which are amazing, how they do that.
The jokes in French are completely different because it’s all wordplay, it’s all how words sound. You can’t translate it literally, you’ll end up with nonsense – I guess you end up in a very similar situation with Old Norse but even more so because you’re dealing with a language that was for describing boats and farms and cows and not computers and airplanes and lamps.
Exactly, exactly. But then in some cases again, like airplane is just flugvél which is ‘flying engine,’ right? So it’s possible to recreate a lot of it, and in a meaningful way. That’s the whole fun of the Vikingverse right, if you’re imagining this modern future in the novels, as if they did win all of the various battles. Alfred the Great lost his Throne of Britannia – what would the modern world look like, what would we be talking about? What words would we be using?
Now because there’s actually such similarity between Old Norse and English, I mean things like steak and knife and skull…
Very Viking words.
Yeah, anything i-g-t-h, right? Might, sleight, wisdom, all very similar words. Wisdom is just visdom, right? It’s the French and the Latin that come in and change things. Sleight of hand is a good one, but dexterity and agility, words that mean similar things, are French and Latin. So if the Normans never came over, and they never brought Latin and French with them, then Old English exists and Old Norse exists and our words go back to that core.
The reason we’ve got so many words to write with and choose from in the thesaurus is because we’ve got words that come from this route and ones that come from that route.
And it’s also now spread globally, English takes endless loan words from various languages.
Yeah. Exactly. It’s fun as a writer to try and just find words that are the most appropriate, but sometimes you can’t! Or at least you can, but it wouldn’t make sense. I was trying to find the word for defense, it’s completely French, and all of the Norse equivalents are so far removed from English. We don’t use any of them, it doesn’t make sense to transpose them – shield and skuld is the closest, so sometimes you just have to say ‘f**k it, I’ll just say defense because otherwise I’ll confuse the pants off of everyone.’
What surprised you, putting this book together? You’re already quite buried in Viking nostalgia and a view of the modern era.
One of the things was just the sheer volume of Viking stuff that’s out there right now, it really is the zeitgeist. Vikings TV show was on when I started the books, Thor in the MCU – I’ve got quotes from Loki in there and translating things like ‘you mewling quim’ is always good for a book.
The amount of Viking games that are out there – Hellblade, Valheim going great guns, God of War, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. I wanted about 500-odd phrases but there’s so much there for a sequel. There was an article on Wired just last week written about the use of Norse in Assassin’s Creed and how they tried to get it authentic. Civilization, the Civ series, always make sure that Ragnar or whoever talks in Old Norse.
I think that people’s appetite for languages and just to be able to say something – it’s like going to the back of a dictionary when you’re a kid and looking up what the French for, I dunno, penis was, y’know? You just did it, as a kid, you just did.
This is the equivalent, people want to know things about another language and how to say it and Vikings are in such vogue that it makes sense. Plus it feels meaty, because of all the [shouting and growling noises].
There’s just all sorts of languages, particularly Northern European, most of which probably come from Norse in some way, that are just lovely to hear and speak.
There are – have you watched the Norsemen TV show at all?
Can’t say I have.
It’s worth dipping into, it’s quite funny, quite quirky.
The funny thing is that Northern Europeans now sound very melodic, English tends to be flat and direct, they’ve got a melody to it. I wonder whether we’re doing the Vikings a disservice by just making them roar and bellow when actually it was a language of poetry – the skalds, the sagas. People forget that and that’s what’s interesting about the Norse as well, the sheer level of poetry in the descriptions. That’s why the Icelandic sagas remain popular and people get interested in the Norse language.
Also probably why, you look at everything you’ve just mentioned in terms of Viking-based media, they’re always the good guys or protagonists of the story. I think people are just interested – obviously we spent about a thousand years demonising these people between the 800s and the 1800s so it feels like they’re getting their time in the sun.
There is a dark side. In my novels, the Viking present isn’t particularly pleasant, they’re not really the good guys, some of them are, but it’s… Y’know, it goes wrong because there is that inherent class system, slavery – it was a society built on thralldom, they weren’t gonna emancipate people.
So whilst they didn’t have quite the same Christian glass ceiling on women, for example, Christianity has a lot to answer for in history, I play around with that a little bit. But Paganism would have come with its own evils. Just, they might not have had the same problems with women or knowledge, they wouldn’t have necessarily thrown Copernicus under a bus, Galileo into house arrest, that sort of thing.
The Vikingverse – this is sort of a side project for you from that main Vikingverse, do you think Old Norse for Modern Times is something you could expand on?
I do think it’s a multimedia experience. I do think you can explore this in different ways. I probably had the idea for Old Norse for Modern Times long before the actual books. There’s a book from 1990 called Latin for All Occasions which, to all intents and purposes, I just took that idea and made it Old Norse. Let’s make no bones about it – that was a good idea so let’s do an Old Norse version.
The Vikingverse and this are independent of each other. The novels are for Doctor Who fans who like Vikings – that’s a small-ish segment of people. You have to understand time travel. In actual fact I’ve tried talking about it to pure Vikings fans and whilst there’s some historical stuff in there, a pure Vikings fan kinda goes ‘Grandfather paradox? What?’
So, I’m proud of them, but they’re not accessible unless you’re a Doctor Who fan or you like that kind of stuff. But this Old Norse is accessible.
It’s a coffee table book, right?
Right, or take it into the toilet, take it and read it on the toilet. That’s the fun thing about it. So I’ll probably do more. I’ve got the third novel meant to be starting, we’re doing an RPG based upon the Vikingverse. I’d like to turn it into an IP one day…
There’s a kind of Warhammer 40,000 vibe to it. Not that far future, and I don’t do Space Marines and all, y’know, but there’s a slight touch of that. It’s almost like a modern-day 40k, you can touch it more, it’s more accessible. Perhaps one day I go back to my routes and make a videogame.
What does the future of Vikingverse look like?
In an ideal world… it’s so much fun being a creator and building something, then having it resonate. Whilst I’ve run companies and continue to run companies, sometimes into the ground but y’know – building something and having it go somewhere is fun. In an ideal world I would just do this all day long. Write silly stuff about Old Norse and Vikings and play Viking videogames and then combine the two.
If we could come full circle and take that Viking game genesis of all of this, through all the books, through the comics, and then bring it back to making a videogame – then I think my work here is done and I can go to Valhalla.
Perfect, that’s the goal. Thanks for joining us Ian, and good luck on the rise to Valhalla.
* That’s the Viking name for Byzantine capital Constantinople, center of the medieval world and general Important Place, history fans. The Viking name literally means The Great City. Now known as Istanbul, the city is somewhat famous for having had many names.
** In the UK, this hymn is often used as the anthem of the England Rugby team. It was also a surefire way for my mother to get me to go to sleep between the ages of four and eight.