Fame is the New Religion: Myth and Mayhem in Modern Viking Britain

FAME IS THE NEW RELIGION: MYTH AND MAYHEM IN MODERN VIKING BRITAIN

I used to listen to a local radio chat show and imagine the host’s appearance from his voice. It spoke of a paunchy, balding family friend, the sort who visits every Christmas with bad jokes and a box of dates. When I saw his photo – sleek-suited, pointy-shoed and skinny as a spoon – I felt like phoning in to complain.

A conversation with Francesca Simon reverses the experience. Her phone voice is just what you’d expect from the photos: cool and measured, smart and curious. The author of more than a hundred books, most of which celebrate a small hero of horridness, sounds hungry with wonder.

Simon’s latest series is set in a modern Britain where Christianity never took hold and Viking gods are still worshipped. With two titles published and one due next year, the trilogy has blossomed from a single book.

‘I never start out to write more than one,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even with Horrid Henry. But as I began The Sleeping Army I realised it was much too big for one book.’ The second, The Lost Gods, was longlisted for The 2014 Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and she’s currently writing the third, The Monstrous Child. The series has proved a wonderful vehicle for exploring her many enthusiasms. ‘The books bring together a massive amount of my interests. They have been a way for me to write for older children and also look at different sides of myself.’

So what are those interests which have fused to produce a sparkling satire on modern culture? The first is mythology, a lifelong love of hers, as a former student of medieval history and literature. Her starting point was the Lewis Chessmen, discovered on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis in 1831. The twelfth century Viking pieces are carved out of walrus ivory and include four berserkers as rooks. For Simon, who writes by asking questions, the answers developed into the first book. ‘I knew they were a sleeping army – but whose, and what was their mission? The pieces are Scandinavian … so I started reading the Norse myths.’

After eight months of experimenting with settings – Viking times? Real or mythological places? – a friend asked her the breakthrough question: what if Christianity never happened? ‘I knew that was it, and that the story would be set in modern times.’

This brilliantly simple backdrop – a modern Wodenist Britain – has allowed her to explore two other areas of interest: religion and fame. In The Sleeping Army, the young heroine Freya unwittingly wakes four of the Lewis Chessmen by blowing a horn in the British Museum. Whisked into Asgard, home of the gods, she finds Thor, Woden and the rest of the super-crew on their last godly legs, set to fade away unless she succeeds in a thankless mission to restore their youth. In The Lost Gods the rejuvenated deities thunder down to earth in search of worshippers to re-establish their power so that they can defeat the Frost Giants.

‘I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that gods require worshippers,’ says Simon. ‘I totally understand why we worshippers would like to have gods. But I don’t understand why gods want to be worshipped. I was interested in that relationship and to me it always makes sense that without worshippers they are not strong.’

But arriving in Midgard (earth – central London to be precise) the gods meet mockery instead of reverence. They soon realise that fame is the new religion and celebrities have taken the place of gods. Sacrifice, prayer and divine adoration are so last century. As Woden moans, ‘People are worshipping other people instead of us.’ To restore their fan base, the gods are forced to turn to showbiz.

What delicious ingredients for a parody of celebrity culture. The Lost Gods is a glorious blend of irony and fun that highlights our society’s disturbing fixation on fame for fame’s sake. ‘Fame has become divorced from achievement,’ says Simon. ‘It’s about wearing expensive clothes and being photographed … it’s about being worshipped.’ And that’s where the gods come thundering in, literally, to the office of a PR agent who introduces them to the world of tweeting and talent shows, football and fashion.

If all this sounds a little finger-wagging, Simon pulls it off with great skill and fun. Introducing modern Wodenist Britain is a feat in itself; readers are dropped in from the first sentences of both books. ‘Gods damn you!’ yells Freya’s mum in The Sleeping Army. And The Lost Gods begins, ‘Two men and a woman stood in the middle of the Millennium Bridge in the Thorsday morning rush hour.’ Contemporary jokes caper through both books: there’s Richard Dawkins railing against Wodenism in his latest bestseller The Gods Delusion, and there’s the BBC weatherman thanking Thor for stormy skies over the south-east. And in The Sleeping Army, Freya answers a questionnaire she finds while hanging around in the British Museum:

‘Discover Long-Ago Religions!

Pretend that people in Britain worshipped the Christian god (called Christ) instead of Woden, Thor [etc.].

What would be different?

We’d worship one god instead of many.

We’d be called Christians instead of Wodenists.’

 

Then there are the curses. ‘You can be such an old herring’, ‘Go play with the trolls’, ‘May he be bound with his son’s guts and poison splashed on his face.’ Topping them all is the resounding poetry of the berserker Snot:

‘Eagle food

Raven food

Warriors all end up as bloody food.’

 

Snot is the one of the stars in a pantheon of boorish bigheads. There’s Woden, the Father of Battle, who orders London commuters to bow and tremble in awe, and Thor, who can eat ten pizzas in one sitting. Freya, the Goddess of Plenty, is a kind of divine Miss Piggy who reshapes the fashion world as a size 16. They’re a bunch of supersized superegos, not a million miles from the author’s most infamous human creation. ‘I’m drawn to very selfish characters. I love the goddess Freya especially ­­­– she is Horrid Henry.’ The polytheism was another draw for Simon who describes herself as ‘not particularly religious – but I’m very interested in religion. And I’ve always wondered why monotheism is considered so superior to polytheism. If you have many gods you tend to be more accepting.’

You also have endless opportunity for intergodly bickering. The deities’ childishness, and that of Freya’s mum, who regresses into a teenager in The Sleeping Army, lead to a role reversal reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s young heroes. It’s up to Freya to bring maturity and wisdom to the book. Simon describes her as ‘a quiet heroine, very ordinary. I think that sometimes people don’t know what they have inside them. Sometimes ordinary people rise to do quite extraordinary things.’

And that kind of heroism – from doing rather than being – earns Simon’s admiration more than any cult of personality. While fame for fame’s sake baffles her, she appreciates recognition that comes from achievement, in much the same way that the Vikings celebrated great deeds. And she considers her own degree of fame to be as good as it gets. ‘I’m famous for what I’ve done. That’s a good place to be. Because I’m a writer I’m famous for my books, not my face. If I ever get approached by people – which in my day to day life is very rare because my face isn’t particularly known – there’s a certain purity about it. If you’re going to be famous, I think my level of fame is about the best you can have because you can lead a very ordinary life but still gain great recognition for your achievements. To me there is a kind of perfection in that.’

Growing up in Los Angeles, she has known a lot of famous people. Raised in a Jewish home, she’s no stranger to religion either. While writing the books has made her less religious, she finds great meaning in the rituals. ‘I think that the Jews particularly cope with death in a way that’s inspiring. Everyone knows exactly what to do: turn up at the house of the bereaved person and look after them for seven days. Everybody knows what their role is. It’s a religion that’s very focused on living, which I think is important. The Viking religion is the same in that they have no interest in the afterlife either.’

Simon too believes this life is all we’ve got. ‘Achilles had the choice of a short, blazing life, with a fame that would live forever, or a long, ordinary life. I’ve never understood his choice of the short life. Who cares if people you’ve never met remember you?’

Paradoxically, books are, of course, the ultimate way to be remembered. She admits to a thrill every time she sees her own on shelves or a child engrossed in one of them. ‘I have no interest in being well known as a person. But yes, what I’m doing is very much something that will last and I love being well known for my writing.’ With more than twenty million books and CDs sold in Britain, and translations in twenty-seven countries, she can rest assured of that.

 

image © Francesco Guidicini