Circumpolar Medieval Historical Fiction

The Intriguing Case of Bagwyn Book’s The Devourer of Gods: Viking Magic in the New World

By Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Assistant Director, ACMRS

Thomas De Mayo’s superb historical fiction offering, The Devourer of Gods, is unique on several counts. It eschews well known periods in medieval and Renaissance global history, opting for a little explored but no less fascinating one: the landscape of medieval Canada. There in the pages of De Mayo’s story, Christianized and pagan Norsemen and women interact with Christianized Beothuk Native peoples, as well as with those Beothuk who, like some of the Norse they fight with/fall in love with/both, preserve their original religion in the face of what promises to be an onslaught. De Mayo has succeeded in showing the heterogeneous nature of both groups: Canadian First peoples and Europeans are hardly uniform entities.

There are Celtic saints who merge with figures of Native American wise men and healers; Sami polytheists from Finland and early Catholics from Norway; and many, many people who, as the author shows deftly, cannot be encapsulated under either “Christian” or pagan” categories. In light of archaeologist Patricia Sutherland’s pioneering research into the nature of Norse/Algonquin peoples in Canada’s arctic Northeast, The Devourer of Gods adds to the growing interest in the world of early medieval circumpolar cultural contacts. In short, there was a New World long before the official period of empire and colonization began in the late 15th century.

Thomas De Mayo answered many questions which ACMRS had in relation to the original inspiration for the book. De Mayo remarked that he always liked Icelandic sagas, and always enjoyed role-playing historical games, including one whose scenario he created and directed for his graduate- school friends at the University of Arizona. As an author, he prefers an understated prose style to communicate his enthusiasm for Viking material, as it indicates the actual tone of the sagas themselves, according to De Mayo. De Mayo finished his doctorate in history, and his studies took him through magical lore, the portrayal of demons and superstition, and the rich world of folk tradition.

De Mayo believes that the Norse material is the best surviving comparative literary corpus, in terms of clarifying the interchange between late paganism and early Christianity. It can communicate, he reminds us, an image of life that is quite close to how it “would have been” either right before, or immediately after, Christianity altered Norse (and Native American) history irrevocably.

So why did De Mayo set the story in the New World? “On a whim,” he laughs, but soon adds that there is more to it than that. Setting it in Europe would have been limiting, whereas making the narrative stretch between Europe and the New World, delving into these little-studied first contacts, diverge from the dominant and better-known narratives of history. Here, in medieval Canada, De Mayo skillfully transports the Norse world of the sagas. When asked what he thinks would have been the result had Norse-indigenous contacts continued (the last recorded ones historically date to 15th century Greenland), he posits that there might have been more of a parity, more of a give and take, between the groups. Provocatively, De Mayo reminds us that the Native Americans might even have emerged as the dominant culture. Some of this, of course, depends on the varying degrees of Christianity among Norse and Native populations. In fact, De Mayo’s use of Latin in the book reflects the varying degrees of Christianization of the Native population.

The fusion of Mi'kmaq Indian lore with Irish hagiography, in the character of Gluscap, the saint/shaman; certain parallels between the Sami religion of Old Lapland and Northeast Canadian spiritual faiths, and many other fascinating comparisons, all merge in what De Mayo terms the “substantial writing capacity” that, in the form of book-based literacy, “transforms a culture at the same time that it records it.” There was syncretism and cultural interchange, De Mayo observes, and he observes that there was also inter-tribal violence: including all the actors in the medieval Canadian scenario, Native and European. De Mayo’s finest achievement with this well-crafted work, is his ability to transcend those same boundaries of “European” and “Native” and present us with dynamic, heroic, annoying, and very real individuals, who demonstrate the achievements, and the messiness, of what De mayo calls “what people do when they come into contact.”

Thomas De Mayo's Devourer of Gods: Viking Magic in the New World is available on Amazon as an ebook for $5.99 or paperback for $16.95.

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