Character Sketch: Svana Raknisdóttir

Svana Raknisdóttir made her way along the shore. She walked lightly, but her feet made fine impressions in the wet, black sand. They were still small, pretty feet which did not show her age, unlike her face, which was netted in wrinkles. Her frail, slender form in its blue dress and apron-skirt and red cloak stood out against the grayness of the sea as she stepped into the water, while it advanced on the Iceland coast.

Rakni Hrafnsson, her father the freeman, was tall and long-armed. She remembered when he said goodbye, kissing her on the cheek, his beard causing her face to itch. He wore blue-black wool and sable. The wooden stockfish-racks were hung full with drying cod outside the huts, but the fishermen and the slaves were silent. Rakni pressed a silver trefoil brooch into her small, childish hand.

Summers and winters had passed, and each day she used to come to the shore. Her father’s ship left forty years ago, filled with men at the oars with spears and axes and round shields, and did not return. It was her elder brother, Ulfkell, who had looked after the farm, he whose eyes were like coals in the firepit. He was once called Sheepslayer; as a boy of five, it was said, he went adventuring and came across a stray sheep, which he killed with his knife. But he also had three men now to his credit, and no one had mocked him with that name in many years. And yet it was what came to the lips of his killer, Vigolfr, as he spat on Ulfkell’s corpse on the yesterday.

Ulfkell Raknisson was fiery, but not wise enough in his younger years to keep the farm prosperous and in his later years to defend it from their many enemies. He was thought dangerous and volatile, and after Rakni did not return from sea his neighbors withdrew from association with Hrafnsheimr. No man took Svana from her father’s hearth, and the years wore on.

Svana kept walking. The sands were rough, even on the feet that had walked through them often. Rakni killed him. He deemed Máni’s attentions unseemly. Rakni killed him, and blood was on his hands when he spoke with me. Barely a man… fifteen….

She was in deeper now, and her dress was soaking above her knees. She let her arms fall to the side, and the water ran between her fingers. “Kristr, Hvíta-kristr,” she murmured. “The ravens fly over the sea.

The sun came through the clouds, illuminating her and sparkling on the water. She loosened her cloak and raised up the trefoil brooch. It was black against the sun, black like a carrion-bird. A wave caught her and she fell. Her cloth became heavy, and the brooch slipped from her fingers. She heard the song of the sea as she began to sleep.

When her eyes opened she was on the black sands. A white-bearded holy man stood in front of her, and he helped her to her feet. Then he cast his stainless linen cloak around her shoulders.

“I am Bishop Jónas,” he said. “Come to the white mountain, swan of Hrafnsheimr. It is almost nightfall.”

He pressed the trefoil brooch into her old, childish hand.


6 comments on “Character Sketch: Svana Raknisdóttir

  1. salvageroost says:

    I am always marveling at how Icelandic / Norse can manage to encompass so much beauty and awkwardness of sound–extremes of both. “Snorri Sturluson,” for instance, sounds like the name of a nose-picking child; other names (Kveld, Jorunn, Thorkel…) will have me in downright ecstasy.

    This is quite pretty, Rex. You mostly avoided the need to portray feminine psychology by delving into an event-narration instead of an emotional-response-narration of her past, but you managed to pull off the scene with an acceptably feminine tone just by making everything pretty. As always, an enjoyable read.

    • Yes, I suppose in a way it was a cop-out; but I was continually hesitant to risk a real incursion (or irruption) into feminine psychology because I was afraid it would sound cliched or shallow. I suppose I’ll have to just work my way up to it one of these days. Fortunately, pretty language can cover (or at least hide) a multitude of deficiencies.

  2. AJC468 says:

    Good: Beautiful sentence construction and flow. Intriguing characters. As always, rich in time and place.

    Questionable: I’m still looking through a glass window. It’s as though the story and its characters were legends and not real people. Remember that background and setting cannot carry a story alone, but the characters themselves must live in their own eternal, vibrant present. Somehow I’m losing a sense of intimacy with them and am experiencing a degree of disconnect. I want to forget that the story I am reading takes place in a past and distant land; let those qualities be part of the negative space, as Mr. Bahr calls it. Negative space influences what the characters say and do but should not draw unnecessary attention to itself. I guess it’s like pantheism. It’s the god that exists in all and is all, and yet remains unrecognizable/indistinguishable in and of itself. I have no idea what I am saying!

    The hardest part for you is going to be taking what you know, which is a dern lot, and not letting it over-inform your storytelling. I know I’m biased saying this, but it’s the difference in a historical versus a literary approach; the difference between the way we recount something and the way we experience it firsthand. Consider the Bible and how it is written. The narration is quiet different from, say, Faulkner. If Faulkner were to write the story of Noah and the Flood…it’d be an entirely different approach to storytelling, wouldn’t it? What I’m driving at is the need to put more and more humanity into your stories. The farther back in time and place you travel, the harder this is to accomplish and the easier it becomes to craft interestingly shaped cardboard cutouts. You must KNOW your characters. If you are going to write about the past, it is not enough to enough to know what happened and what people were then like, you must know what they -think- and what it’s like to be them in the eternal, vibrant present in which they live. =)

    Don’t let any of this feedback or my own ignorance scare you off. I love reading your writing! When I read Kirsten Callahan I get certain things, and when I read Rex Bradshaw I get other things. Both of you bring your own distinct pros and cons to the table, but when I see room for improvement, I smile–because I know you’re both getting better all the time. My only hope is to draft from behind, getting free boosts from the masters. 😉

  3. AJC468 says:

    …I should have proofread that. Icky! Where is my edit button? ;_;

    Bonus: Part of what makes Kirsten’s storytelling so strong is that she puts a lot of herself and the people and places she knows best into her stories, making them come alive for the reader. Between historical excursions, please keep to the practice of writing about the present from what you know firsthand; and try to get inside the heads of people who are different from you. You might find it (them =/) rather spacious by comparison!

  4. salvageroost says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa.

    Alex, this was both surfacely-meaningful and coherent, and I didn’t feel like a literary or psychological genius for being able to understand what you were saying! Are you sure Rex didn’t sign in under your screen name and write this? I’m so used to having to interpret your comments in the most abstract ways…


    This made me happy.

    And yeah, Rex, what Alex said. -Not about me *cough*, but, you know, the rest of it. I have to admit I’m rather drawn to your cardboard cutouts because the colors are vibrant and the details are gorgeous. I would, however, like to see more of your own psychology or that of other people you know first-hand projected in them–a pretty cardboard cutout with a stolen brain implant, so to speak. I would like to see more of the nuances of human experience, as you perceive it directly, being used to flesh out your historical world.

  5. Thank you both for your insightful comments. I fully understand and agree with you in your identification of one of my major weaknesses. The fact is I have great difficulty in drawing out psychological profiles, and I would imagine I get lazy and come up with fun ways to avoid it; and I’m erring on the side of caution as I strive to strike a balance between realism and poetry without falling into the clichés associated with either side. I can usually watch someone, sympathize with them, and come up with probable reasons why they did this or that, but I cannot individualize them and their unique thought patterns the way I want to. I suppose what is wanted is merely practice, but I’m struggling a little to find the first step–to discover where character and environment meet and impress themselves on one another.

    And as Kirsten said, AJC, that post was impressive. If only Dr. Hause could see you now….

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