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Sunstones and skraylings: a bit of alternate history

A lot of the fun of writing fantasy is in the world-building, which consists largely of taking a bunch of ideas that you find cool, and fitting them together into something new and interesting. When creating a secondary world, you’re free to take absolutely anything you like and try to make it work, but in historical fantasy, you’re somewhat more constrained by facts. Note that I say “somewhat more” – there’s still leeway to make connections that would have you laughed out of your undergraduate history class, but as long as you can make a convincing case to your readers, you’re good to go.

Danes about to invade England (c12th; Pierpoint Morgan Library)
Danes about to invade England (c12th; Pierpoint Morgan Library)

The “connection” I made in the world of Night’s Masque is that there is somewhat more continuity between the Viking voyages across the Atlantic and the later voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. Whereas in our world the earlier voyages seem to have been largely forgotten, in Night’s Masque at least some of this history has been preserved, albeit in garbled form.

My original impetus was that I needed a name for my New World non-humans, and I liked the anglicised version of the Viking skræling (their word for Native Americans) that I’d come across in Michael Moorcock’s recent Elric novels. It suggested something otherworldly and slightly sinister – just the thing for my fanged and tattooed traders!

I decided that the Vikings of Night’s Masque had brought back stories of these enigmatic people, and that the name had been preserved in folklore for five centuries, until John Cabot’s voyages to Newfoundland revealed them to be real. However this was the only historical link I foresaw between the 11th and 16th centuries – until earlier this month.

Icelandic spar crystal (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Icelandic spar crystal (source: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Viking legend in our world, their ships used magical “sunstones” to navigate, but until recently this was dismissed as just another fanciful storytelling element. However, careful research into the polarising properties of a piece of calcite crystal found in a shipwreck have shown that it could indeed have been used for navigation.

So far so cool – I love anything to do with ancient technology, particularly when it turns out to be far more advanced than we like to give our ancestors credit for. But what really gave me a Twilight Zone moment was the identity of the ship on which the sunstone was found. Not a Viking longboat, but a 16th century warship that sank near the Channel Islands.

The Elizabethans were using sunstones, just like the Vikings.

My immediate reaction was: whoa, cool! And then, damn, why didn’t I think of that first? The trouble with realistic world-building is that you don’t want to push the coincidences too far, or you risk breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…

The mundane explanation is no doubt that sunstones continued to be used in Northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. But I like to think that, in my alternate history at least, the Vikings took their sunstones over to the New World, and the skraylings adopted this new technology for their own navigation and  traded the stones with Elizabethan sailors. Let’s face it; it’s a much more interesting explanation!

Further reading

Comments

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Erin M. Hartshorn

Ooh, very cool!

Of course, I am, to a certain extent, lazy — I do secondary worlds so I can throw whatever I want together without having to make sure it’s consistent and believable to somebody who knows our history.

And yes, I like your explanation for how the Elizabethan sailors got the sunstones.

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Felix Pearce

I loved that sunstones thing when I spotted it in the news – possibly even more awesome than the Antikythera mechanism. We have this wonderfully baseless post-Enlightenment arrogance about the modern world’s monopoly on innovation and common sense 🙂

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Prudence

Thanks for the info. It just happens that we have a calcite crystal about the size shown in the picture. Must try this out and see if I can get it to work!