Yesterday I wrote about how I landed in urban fantasy as opposed to traditional epic fantasy. One part I didn’t mention, however, was the delicious morsel about what excites me so much about urban fantasy.
Imagine, if you will, a lonely young girl who moves too often to put down roots. They’re too poor to get even macaroni and cheese, something so mundane, yet something she longs for. She’s seen a lot of places, explored a decent portion of her world. Imagine one day that lonely young girl stumbles across something magical. Maybe it’s a bauble. Maybe it’s a family heirloom. Maybe it’s a dead rat.
Regardless, whatever that magical item happens to be, that girl is now dipping her toe into something new. Something exciting and different. Perhaps it transports her to another world through a rabbit hole. Perhaps creatures from another world leak into hers. That formula is so magical because it creates possibility, a sense of wonder and maybe.
Maybe I’ll get my Hogwarts letter someday.
I think within everyone there is a hope for something wondrous. A secret place where reason and knowledge of reality dim themselves into a muted hush, where we hope that lifeless wick might just burst into flame because we tell it to.
That’s what drew me to urban fantasy — the idea that one day as I sit and eat my macaroni, I might discover a bit of magic.
I first read about runes when I was about eleven. I’d picked up the Forbidden Games trilogy by L.J. Smith, where Jenny Thornton and her friends are transported to Niflheim, the Shadow World, by a series of runic inscriptions. I devoured any information I could find about these angular letters. So, gentle viewers, I thought I would share just a bit of what I’ve found with you, as well as some of my own thoughts and analyses on the subject.
The runic alphabets evolved as a written language in Scandinavia. The most commonly mentioned, the futhark, are angular representations of sounds — letters. They were used to write, to label — even to graffiti. Aside from sounding like a dangerous space-verb, the futhark runes had other properties attributed to them.
One thing I always found fascinating about runes is that some scholars believe that they evolved not primarily as a method of transcribing spoken language, but as magical symbols. In Norse legend, the runes were used to create the nine worlds. It was said they had the power to bring life to what was dead and alter reality.
As someone who believed from a young age that words have power, I’m sure you can imagine how intriguing this concept was to a budding linguophile.
These symbols were carved into stones, signs, monuments — even in some cases built into edifices. Being angular and easy to carve also lent itself to design in the framing of ceiling supports, where you can see runes of protection built into half-wood buildings.
Some runes, called branch runes, resembled Celtic ogham writing (like the ogham inscription on my wedding band!) Runes were also worked into art, sometimes forming tent-like designs and circles.
Anywhere the Vikings went, you can find instances of this alphabet. I remember the first time I visited the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland. Scotland is home to the single highest concentration of neolithic monuments in the world (is my nerd showing again?), and on that trip I toured quite a few of them. One of them was the Maes Howe.
The Maes Howe is a chambered cairn set about a mile between the twin lochs Harray and Stenness, also about a mile from the remnants of a neolithic village, a small stone circle, and one of the largest and most impressive circle of standing stones the world has to offer — the Ring of Brodgar. About five thousand years ago, the people around those parts were awfully busy.
The Maes Howe is spectacular for a bunch of different reasons. Aside from being older than the pyramids and meticulously constructed with slabs of interlocking stones of varying widths and lengths, it housed a few invading Vikings several centuries back. They bashed in the top of the mound, used it as a temporary hideout, and then got pretty bored. They amused themselves by scrawling graffiti everywhere, such as: “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.”
That rather touching inscription is the caption for a rough picture of a slavering hound.
Ah, runes. Where else can you find such entertainment? Magic and Viking jokes all rolled into one? If you didn’t know about this stuff before, you’re welcome.
The writing of my trilogy has taken me all over the world (figuratively) to study mythology. I’ve drafted bits and pieces from many different cultures into what makes up the leading mythos of my story. After my fascination over a decade and a half ago, runes finding their ways into the story was quite inevitable.
The history of runes is a living thing. It survives all over Northern Europe — there are even pockets of folks who still worship the Norse gods and use runes in ritual. All I know is that for me, there’s a lot more to learn and find out in this world — and it’s like hunting runic inscriptions among seas of macaroni.
What bits of history catch your attention? What lore stands out to you? How does your life resemble urban fantasy? Tell me! I want to know.
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