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Saturday, April 09, 2022

An Interview With Sarah Tolmie by Bryn Hammond

 Today I present for you an interview of author Sarah Tolmie, whose new book All The Horses Of Iceland has just been published by Tor. The actual interview was done by author Bryn Hammond, who kindly agreed to post it here. It looks amazing! I may have to get my own copy.

Take it away, Bryn! 

Author Sarah Tolmie

All the Horses of Iceland 

Sarah Tolmie 

A hypnotic historical fantasy with gorgeous and unusual literary prose, from the captivating author of The Fourth Island.

Everyone knows of the horses of Iceland, wild, and small, and free, but few have heard their story. Sarah Tolmie’s All the Horses of Iceland weaves their mystical origin into a saga for the modern age. Filled with the magic and darkened whispers of a people on the cusp of major cultural change, All the Horses of Iceland tells the tale of a Norse trader, his travels through Central Asia, and the ghostly magic that followed him home to the land of fire, stone, and ice. His search for riches will take him from Helmgard, through Khazaria, to the steppes of Mongolia, where he will barter for horses and return with much, much more.

All the Horses of Iceland is a delve into the secret, imagined history of Iceland's unusual horses, brought to life by an expert storyteller.

Bryn. I thought your style owed somewhat to the sagas, which can be terse, rather phlegmatic on emotions, with a liking for simplicity in telling. Did you set out to write in saga-style? Did the sagas guide you in how to write your story?


Yes, the book is explicitly in saga style. This means some telescoping of action, not the kind of detailed description of travel you get in travelogues or in today’s historical fiction. Travel in itself is not of interest in sagas: it’s a means to an end, and that end is making money. So it’s trade protocols, laws, ceremonies, personalities, all those things that facilitate strangers getting to know one another and working out their relations that they tend to concentrate on (those sagas about “wide-travellers” like Eyvind at least).

Bryn. You also drew upon the Secret History of the Mongols. Most obviously, you transpose names from the Secret History into your ninth-century story, while your note cautions us that these have no relation to the people of the same name from the life of Chinggis Khan. How else did the Secret History feed into your story? Did you think about sagas – any equivalences or contrasts – while you worked with their thirteenth-century contemporary, the Mongol biography of Chinggis with its features of history-writing, oral poetry, and tale? 


Well, the frame story of Jór, the 12-century monk who compiles Eyvind’s 9th-century story from its various fragmentary sources and translates them into Icelandic, making it broadly into a family saga, introduces a similar distancing problem. While many of the events of the Settlement period (in Iceland, that is, so during the 9th century) are recorded in surprising detail, the sources that record them all date from about 250 years later. While The Secret History of the Mongols seems to have been written admirably close to Temüjin’s own lifetime, there is the problem that the text as we have it had to be reconstructed back to its Mongolian original from the work of Chinese transcribers over several succeeding centuries. So very broadly speaking we’re looking at a similar gap. It’s one all medievalists are familiar with and have to strategize around: the gap between dateable history and the chronicles that record it, and the different ways in which oral history, genealogy, folklore and law function and appear before and after they occur in writing.

Bryn. You mention Grettirs Saga in your notes, which I confess is the saga of my heart: to me it is a great work of outsider fiction, and Grettir has unusual interactions with unusual women. As well, it has visitations from the dead, as you do. Your main character Eyvind believes only in ‘men, animals, ghosts, and luck’ – not in gods, as he travels through several religious zones; and asks, ‘What does a ghost have to do with religion?’ He kind of steps in and sorts out the supernatural situation in the qan’s tents, at risk of ritual offence. Ghosts are a universal language, then? 


Ghosts occur in every culture I know of, at least. The dead have to be accommodated into every society, whether that be as ancestors to be worshipped, consulted and propitiated, souls to be prayed for or from whom to seek intercession, or whatever it may be. If you have a genealogy, you are likely to have ghosts. The weird space ghosts have come to occupy in supposedly post-secular culture – the horror space – always strikes me as a sad state of affairs, reflecting the loss of historical vision in our day. Ghosts now are just signs of trauma, undifferentiated.

Bryn. Eyvind despises gods, and he despises seithr – the magic of the Norse world. To him the practice of seithr, associated with women, is ‘unmanly nonsense’ and ‘effeminate’. In your steppe culture, too, it is women we see as practitioners of magic, but here Hoë’lün is the mother of the qan’s wife and comes from a line of ‘white magicians of high rank.’ She connects magical ability with disability of body, which is news to Eyvind. How did you want to present magic in each of these societies?


When you look at who magicians or shamans are, case by case, in many societies, you see people who are variously disabled: blind, sterile, with impaired mobility or unusual speech. (You also see plenty of women and foreigners.) This is true right back into the Neolithic period from the limited fossil evidence we have from burials – these are the people we might expect subsistence level societies to destroy or expose, yet instead they are honoured and preserved. Any fear or revulsion they might generate works to make them sacred. People who present physically as being marginal are, logically, ones you might expect to be able to act at the margins of your society: to interact, always riskily, with spirits or gods. They are the police of that boundary. Perhaps it means that if they are harmed or killed in such endeavours it’s a smaller loss; perhaps their difference and potential monstrosity means that such others, spirits or gods, are more cautious with them, or feel kinship with them.

Bryn. A related question. In your notes you say ‘I avoid using the words Viking or shaman, both of which are often used irresponsibly, in my opinion.’ Instead you call Hoë’lün a magician,  although you also use the culture-specific word udugan. What did you want to shake off in not using ‘shaman’? (I needn’t ask what you want to shake off by not using ‘Viking’ – it’s probably like me and ‘horde’). 


There’s a lot of flaky talk about shamans. It’s used a lot by people who want to claim authority for a religious role but don’t want to use priest, because that word implies institutional power. And because monotheists have invested so much in the word priest, perhaps, and poisoned it. Shaman is a term used to cover a lot of woolly thinking about religion and magic. Any kind of animism is apparently the province of a shaman (i.e., a priest of any of this broad range of religions, without using this term) and can be occupied therefore without institutional sanction (as with many self-proclaimed shamans today). This is bullshit. Somebody who performs the task of a shaman in any real, historical culture is a magician, and magic requires very real and usually institutional (familial, dynastic, ritual, etc.) buy-in from the people it affects. At bottom: religion and magic are the same thing. Extra-human, supernatural forces are called on, and respond; rituals are used to communicate; only people in certain statuses can achieve it. As far as I am concerned, a Christian priest is a magician; a shaman is a magician. A shaman is a priest is a magician. These terms are all interchangeable, and people use them irresponsibly, often to elide their own religious snobberies.

Bryn. Talk to us about travel and trade. For the peoples of the steppe, like the people of the Norse world, I think, trade and exchange were of the first priority. Aside from your horses, it’s nice to see felt as the object of marvel and discovery rather than silk, for once. 


Felt, isgeir. It is pretty incredible. The drama of wet felting as it was done in Mongolia – and still is, sometimes – is huge, galloping horses dragging a heavy rotating drum to crush the fibres together. Wow. And from the perspective of any culture that mostly made fabric by weaving – a huge undertaking, with many stages, that kept most of the women in early medieval cultures busy all the time – you can see how it might have a transgressive edge. Plus frankly, in northern countries, it’s far more useful than silk. Silk is very warm as a lining fabric, but otherwise? Purely for show – now show is very important, we realize, of course. Silk fashions were huge indicators of rank.

Bryn. Eyvind’s travelling companion is a Khazar, David. Among the religions Eyvind encounters, David’s Jewishness is to the fore, and sometimes snarky about Christians. Tell us about David.


There is a story that moves through about two centuries of Muslim and Jewish chroniclers that the rulers of Khazaria, a Turkic khaganate in central Asia, now modern Turkey, were Jews. This was a powerful idea for Jewish intellectuals mostly in southern (Muslim) Spain, as evidence of ongoing Jewish kingship and statehood after the diaspora; it was also used to interrupt narratives about Christian rulership and its growth across the world by Muslim chroniclers throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. For Christian readers in Europe much later it served as a wonder tale about a land unimaginably far away. It’s a niche story but it travelled around and lasted a long time. I personally do not think it was ever true. But as my story overall is a kind of wonder tale (elements of which are common in sagas), I proceed as if it were true. I never take Eyvind or his company to the fabled city of Itil, straddling the Volga, where the sacred king resided in a special compound in the middle of the river, but I do refer to it, and David, the leader of the Khazar traders, along with his kinsman David, is a Jew. His faith comes up from time to time as a theoretical thing – a way to discuss models of kingship, or monotheism, or dietary taboos (all of which, incidentally, Eyvind rejects utterly as a kingless, pagan Icelander who eats anything to avoid starvation). David’s religion marks him as different from the men that he leads: at once more elite (as only the king and the noble class were supposed to have been Jews) yet also as an outsider. This in itself makes him more flexible: he takes to Eyvind right away, just as he is also able to deal more meaningfully with Ibrahim, the Khwaresmian trader, a Persian Muslim, as well as with the qan. For one thing, he is a superior linguist. He is a bit testy about Christianity’s seemingless effortless overwriting of Jewish monotheism, about which Eyvind knows nothing. So he sets him straight a couple of times. David really grew on me as a character. I especially like his complex but taciturn reaction when Eyvind suggests an innovative form of burial ritual that might cover the deaths of unknown Jews massacred in Khazaria.

Bryn. Your story is set in the early ninth century. Historically, the Uighur khanlig existed at this time as a state, as at least an over-government on the steppe. In your steppe world of ‘many kings… greater and lesser, who govern tribes of their own people,’ Uighurs aren’t mentioned as a government, but they are named as cultural agents (see next question). 

Elsewhere I have complained about Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy version of the eighth century in Under Heaven. While Kay writes of Tang China he sticks pretty closely to history, but as soon as he steps onto the steppe, history is absent. In place of the Uighur khanlig he has primitives, and his character’s journey into the steppe is a Heart of Darkness journey into savagery and evil. 

You do NOT do that. Your steppe society is in no way portrayed as primitive. Still, you chose not to write about state-making on the steppe. Did you find it head-scratching at times to write historical fantasy, that does not have to be historical, while avoiding the trap of treating non-state or non-settled peoples as ‘people without history’? 


It’s a delicate thing. In some respect the whole business of the Khazaria story displaces the claims of Uyghurs as political agents or rulers – as they would more or less be ruling over the same space. So wonder tale wins out there. But on the other hand, for me at least, the main and lasting contribution of the Uyghurs to this region is the script. As you know, this book is as much the story of the creation of a book (Eyvind’s polyglot manuscript) as it is about anything. If the language in which the original Secret History was written was indeed shaped (into vertical columns, among other things) by a Uyghur scribe, and if we accept the Secret History, as reconstructed, as the earliest written sample of the language – well, the Uyghur writing system was central to it. In this book I have pushed this speculative moment back as far as c. 830, in which a nameless Uyghur scribe uses his script to record the brief story of Börte’s ghost in Mongolian. And this little manuscript is treated as the wonder it is. Best I could do by way of balance. As to the Guy Kay problem, it’s very real. If you are writing big good versus evil books, which he does (with greater sensitivity than most, however, I will say) – well, somebody has to be evil. His commitment to showing the civilization of the Tang, especially as against many notions of oriental tyranny that still float around in the heads of western readers, more or less embroils him into accepting the Tang’s hatreds, which were chiefly focussed on the steppe peoples menacing their empire. Han racism against Uyghurs is not exactly over, as we can all observe perfectly well today.

Bryn. Your story ‘takes place… before written literacy in Iceland or Mongolia’. But you are interested in origins. For example, to quote your notes: ‘Among other things that this story is meant to gesture towards speculatively is what the Persian-Arabic encounter that was the origin of the ghazal might have been.’ 

In history, Chinggis Khan’s government commissioned writers of Uighur to adapt the Uighur alphabet so as to write down spoken Mongolian for the first time. In your story you seem to have a prefiguration of this. A foreign scribe takes dictation from Hoë’lün, and puts her spoken language into Uighur letters. Eyvind comes into possession of the first document in the language of the steppe culture he visited, which some people tell him is a big deal, a historic piece of calfskin. 

The Secret History of the Mongols sits at an intersection, since it is the Mongols’ first book but also captures glimpses of the wealth that went beforehand in oral storytelling and oral history-telling. Why your interest in the invention of a script to write the language of your steppe culture? Did you have anything to say, in your story (or in this question session), about the advent of literacy and its consequences for an oral culture?


I went over some of this in the previous question. One thing that Eyvind notices about Iceland and Mongolia in his time is the importance of laws. Half of the Secret History, it seems, as you read it, consists of proclamation and application of laws. It is clear that many of these were already traditional before Genghis’s reign – clearly organized and memorized – not least because the numerous laws declared and enacted by Genghis himself (which the text portrays as perhaps his most significant achievement) require context. Likewise, the extensive collection of the earliest Icelandic laws, finally codified as Grágás in 1117, had been in constant use for some two centuries, and were memorized, parsed and analyzed by Lawspeakers, gothi and common Icelanders all the time in their constant litigation. It is a huge mistake to think that only materially rich cultures invest their time in laws: nope, poor people love laws just as much. Where there’s less to go around, and fewer people to marry, more regulation is required, not less. People often have wrongheaded ideas about what kinds of knowledge is preserved orally. The answer is: all knowledge. Huge bodies of complex laws, intricate genealogies, mathematics, rules about farming and building, all kinds of information was transmitted in the world before writing – not just myths and folktales. And when you look at myths and folktales when they are first written down, closest to their oral form, you find they are not vague and airy-fairy – there’s nothing New Age about them. On the contrary, they are exact and obey oral formulaic rules that chunk information into repeating patterns, link them by sounds, and so on: high-technique stuff that made words easier to carry in the mind. 

Bryn. I have seen you mention Independent People, the 1934 novel by Halldor Laxness, which I myself took up on the promise of a twentieth-century Iceland that owed to the sagas. Did I spot a citation of this title within your text? Are there other modern novels you went to for journey companions as you wrote this? 


Yes, somewhere Eyvind refers to Iceland as a land of “black rock and independent people” – which comes straight from Laxness’s title. I can’t think of anything else modern that was especially top of mind, though.

Bryn. There is an expectation that fiction about medieval Mongols, or steppe fiction in general, be military, which frustrates me. Even when you do write about periods of war, as I do, there is so much else going on to include in your view of their world. Besides, to judge from the Secret History, its composers and its audience of medieval Mongols weren’t half so keen on a bloody war story as are modern readers of fiction about them. Do you have any comment on medievalism about steppe peoples, on steppe peoples in popular culture? 


All I can say is it must be very frustrating for scholars of the period, and modern Mongolians today. Just speaking as a medievalist in general, I avoid watching all TV or films set in the period as they are ludicrously anachronistic. And the obsession with violence is the worst anachronism of all. This is us, not them.

Bryn. Lastly, any remarks on your publishing journey, or on the publishing scene as it pertains to a non-genre-standard book like your own? 


I wish I had some wise conclusion to come to for the non-genre-conforming writers among us. I don’t. It is an unending struggle. However, best case scenario: you can connect with the non-genre-conforming readers. They also exist. We find each other.

[author photo]

Sarah Tolmie is the author of the poetry collection The Art of Dying (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), the 120-sonnet sequence Trio (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), and the chapbook Sonnet in a Blue Dress and Other Poems (Baseline Press, 2014).

She has published two novels with Aqueduct Press, The Little Animals (2019) and The Stone Boatmen (2014), as well as three short fiction collections, Disease (2020), Two Travelers (2016) and NoFood (2014).

She is a medievalist trained at the University of Toronto and Cambridge and is a Professor of English at the University of Waterloo.

Read Sarah’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Sarah’s website

All the Horses of Iceland at Tor

Bryn Hammond writes the Amgalant series, a historical fiction version of the Secret History of the Mongols. Her website is  Tweets @Jakujin


Julie Bozza said...

A fascinating interview indeed! Thank you for hosting it, Sue. <3

Debra She Who Seeks said...

This novel sounds like a tour de force! And I love that she's a Canadian author and academic!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Julie! It’s a very good interview, isn’t it?

Hi Debra! I have already downloaded it on Apple Books. It wasn’t expensive, either.

Unknown said...

What a fascinating interview! There's a lot in it that outside my field of knowledge, but I was particularly interested in (and totally agree with) the comments about priests and shamans, and the modern day misrepresentation of both. Of course 'a Christian priest is a magician' - the oft-used phrase 'hocus pocus' comes from the Latin words of consecration at Mass - 'hoc est corpus meum'!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Glad you enjoyed it - er, Unknown. Yes, I had heard where “hocus pocus” comes from. Fascinating, isn’t it? 😉

Unknown said...

It sure is! Sorry, I didn't mean to come across as 'unknown'. My name is Rohase Piercy, I'm a fellow author and a fan of Bryn's writing, hence I read the interview. Wishing you every success with 'Horses of Iceland'!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Rohase! I am sure Bryn will be very pleased. I’ll tweet this and hopefully she will see your comment.