The Gatewatch: A Troll Hunting Saga

“One hundred ways there are to kill

A troll if you possess the skill

And yet a thousand ways to die

For those who have a mind to try.”

— Proverbs of the Greyraven

Long ago the northern realm of Noros was wild and full of wicked trolls. Torin Ten-Tree’s great grandfather defeated the ancient Troll-King and rid the land of their cruelty. Now the people of Noros prosper so long as they guard their borders with vigilance.

Torin travels through Shadowstone Pass to Gatewatch with his two closest companions, Bryn and Grimsa, to become a trollhunter. Tucked within a rugged alpine valley, this distant outpost full of hardy men and women is all that stands between Noros and the creatures that wander the wilds beyond.

Greedy dwarves and crafty trolls thwart their efforts to guard Gatewatch when they learn that the Troll-King has returned to claim his throne. To make matters worse, strange phantoms have been sighted in Shadowstone Pass and Torin fears that the appearance of these two threats is no mere coincidence.

From the riotous racket of mead halls to the deep tunnels of the mysterious dwarves, Torin and his companions will need all the courage, wit, and luck that the gods will grant them to fulfill their oath and defend Gatewatch.

What influence did Norse literature, lore, and myth have on The Gatewatch?

In writing The Gatewatch, I originally set out to create a modern retelling of a few of my favorite Norse Myths. However, as the northern realm of Noros came into clearer view and the main characters delved further into their adventure, I realized I had a full-fledged fantasy series on my hands.

The three main characters, Torin, Bryn, and Grimsa, are inspired by the three central figures of Norse Mythology: Odin, Loki, and Thor. Other characters throughout the book reflect familiar Norse personalities in a much looser sense: Freya, Frigg, Heimdal, and the dwarven brothers Brokk and Eitri to name a few. Certain events come directly from specific myths, such as a drinking contest in an enormous mead hall, as in Thor’s Journey to Utgard from the Prose Edda. Torin’s obsession with riddles (part of his Odin-like nature) culminates in a duel of riddles to the death with a giant king; this is inspired by scenes from The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and from Vafþrúðnismál in the Poetic Edda. The epic poems recited in the book are structured around some of the poetic rules of dróttkvætt, the ancient court meter of viking skalds; many treasure and place names are also directly or closely translated from Icelandic. And, of course, the entire book centers around defending the human realm against giants and trolls, which is a classic heroic task of both Norse gods and Viking heroes.

Certain locations described in The Gatewatch are inspired by historical sites in Norway which I had the pleasure of visiting in 2015. Fjellhall, the great mead hall at the center of Gatewatch, is based off Håkonshallen in Bergen which had to be partially reconstructed after resistance fighters ignited a ship full of munitions during the Nazi occupation. Scenes in the wilds beyond Gatewatch are coloured with memories of my time spent in Odda, a town close to the trailhead of the iconic Trolltunga hike. On my way home, I stopped over in Iceland for a day, and so any readers who have had the pleasure of bathing in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon will recognize its influence on the underground baths visited by the characters in Gatewatch.

Distinctly lacking in The Gatewatch are Viking longships and the northern sea because the story takes place high up in the mountains. This, of course, will be remedied in future sequels, the first of which is already well underway.

Do you consider old literature to still be relevant today?

The challenge with all literature is that it is written at a specific time within a certain cultural, linguistic, and moral framework. The dissemination and reception of literature at the time it is made is always influenced by present circumstances, and its interpretation by later generations of readers is always coloured by their cultural (and these days political) biases.

So I would argue that old literature is not relevant to us directly but instead serves as a fascinating mirror in which we can compare and contrast our experience of the world with those who lived long ago. In reading translations of the Norse Myths I find myself struck by existential questions of meaning and purpose, conflicted by both the wisdom and the hubris of the Æsir, and inspired by the indomitable spirit and humor of those who lived in a much harsher time.

For example, in my article The Stories We Tell: Dystopia & Ragnarok, I compare our current environmental situation with the description of Ragnarok as presented in Völuspá. Our overall response to such a climactic crisis is, for the most part, to despair as we sedate ourselves with material comforts and avoid any meaningful progress towards a solution. The gods, on the other hand, know their fate and embrace it; each runs headlong into that final battle and meets their prophesied end with undaunted courage despite their inevitable doom. I think, at times, we could use a dose more of that attitude in our approach to the big unavoidable problems of our time.

What is your all-time favorite favorite Norse Myth or Icelandic Saga?

What a torturous question! Of course, there are so many wonderful tales from both the Icelandic Sagas and the Norse Myths, but if I had to pick one I guess today it would be Króka-Refs saga, or as I first heard of it, The Saga of Ref the Sly.

Without space here to relate the whole tale, I will share one particular part of the story where Ref demonstrates his far-famed guile. To give some context, Ref grows up in Iceland as a lazy youth who shows little promise in anything until he starts to work with wood. He discovers a passion for woodworking and builds the greatest ship ever to be made in Iceland. Soon after he is caught up in an unfortunate string of confrontations which result in him killing several people. Like so many saga heroes, he is then forced to flee Iceland while the murders are settled.

He goes to Greenland where he lives in peace for some time. With his skills in woodcraft he constructs a hall that, according to the original version I read, has hollowed out timbers. Ref then diverts a stream from up the hill to flow into the hollow logs so that water runs through all the timbers of the hall like water pipes.

Not long after Ref settles into his custom-made hall, King Harald Sigurdarson sends a man by the name of Bard to Greenland. A relative of one of those killed by Ref happens to be in Greenland and convinces Bard and his company to attack him. When they try to set fire to Ref’s hall, it won’t light because the water flowing through the timbers keep it cool. Confounded, Bard and his men retreat and return to Norway.

King Harald Sigurdarson guesses Ref’s means of making his hall waterproof and relates to Bard how he would defeat the outlaw. Bard later returns Greenland and blocks up the stream that flows into the timbers of Ref’s hall. Again they attack the hall and this time it begins to burn.

However, the clever Ref has anticipated Bard’s return and retaliates with a scheme of his own. As the attackers approach the hall to cut off any routes of escape the outer wall falls down and crushes four of them. Before Bard can grasp the loss of his men, he witnesses an astounding sight: inside the hall Ref is aboard his ship which is propped up on wooden rollers. Ref’s men launch the ship down the hill and it slides straight into the water. As he passes, Ref hurls a spear at Bard and the weapon goes straight through his chest, killing him instantly. In his ship Ref then escapes, leaving his burning hall and the bewildered attackers far behind.

The Gatewatch is currently being considered for publication. To follow Joshua and stay up to date with his progress, follow him on Twitter.

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