THE THRALL’S TALE

Judith Lindbergh

Set in Viking Greenland in AD 985, this dramatic novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three women—Katla, who was born into slavery when Vikings seized her Irish mother; Thorbjorg, a seeress steeped in the pagan Norse religion; and Bibrau, the strange silent child Katla bears after she is brutally raped by her master’s son, Torvard. Together these women recount the hardship and wonder of the first years of the Norse colony and the great change that comes to the settlers after Leif, son of Eirik the Red, brings Christianity to Greenland. For Katla, who has long whispered her mother’s Christian blessings in secret,

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Set in Viking Greenland in AD 985, this dramatic novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three women—Katla, who was born into slavery when Vikings seized her Irish mother; Thorbjorg, a seeress steeped in the pagan Norse religion; and Bibrau, the strange silent child Katla bears after she is brutally raped by her master’s son, Torvard. Together these women recount the hardship and wonder of the first years of the Norse colony and the great change that comes to the settlers after Leif, son of Eirik the Red, brings Christianity to Greenland. For Katla, who has long whispered her mother’s Christian blessings in secret, the Christian era means freedom to live, to worship, and finally to love. But the dawning of the new faith has very different consequences for Thorbjorg and Bibrau, who comes of age as Thorbjorg’s pagan apprentice. Haunting and original, The Thrall’s Tale raises issues of faith, love, power, betrayal, and forgiveness that are strangely resonant in our own turbulent time.

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  • Plume
  • Paperback
  • January 2007
  • 464 Pages
  • 9780452288171

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About Judith Lindbergh

Judith Lindbergh’s work has appeared in Archaeology Magazine and in connection with the Smithsonian’s exhibition Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. The Thrall’s Tale is her first novel.

Praise

“Every once in a while, a writer creates a novel that opens our eyes to a lost world. Arthur Golden achieved this with Memoirs of a Geisha, and now Judith Lindbergh has performed a similar feat…Gripping and wholly original…a story that transports through time and place, but always remains anchored in the unchanging territory of the human heart.”
—Geraldine Brooks, author of Year of Wonders

The Thrall’s Tale is not only a wonderfully rich historical novel, it resonates strongly into our current age with its exploration of religion-driven cultures in collision. The voices of the story are pitch-perfectly convincing…Judith Lindbergh is a greatly gifted novelist and she has created an enchanted and provocative reading experience.”
—Robert Olen Butler, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

“Lindbergh is a master storyteller, deftly weaving meticulously researched detail with unforgettable characters. This novel satisfies on every level …The plot unfolds with the suspense of a thriller, and you’ll stay up all night to follow the many transformations of Katla’s life. With The Thrall’s Tale, Judith Lindbergh emerges as one of the finest historical novelists in recent years.” —Jonis Agee, author of The Weight of Dreams

Discussion Questions

Lindbergh has come up with an extraordinarily original style in which to tell her story—an English that sounds archaic, almost Norse, and yet is perfectly accessible to the contemporary reader. Discuss the ways that she has accomplished this stylistic feat, paying attention to diction, the rhythm of her prose, and old-fashioned expressions.

Katla, the thrall of the title, is an extremely complex character—a strong woman who has been savagely damaged. She ends up being both angry and proud, a loving Christian who nonetheless hates her own daughter. Discuss the various strands of Katla’s character and your reactions to them.

What do you make of the strange, haunting figure of Bibrau? To what extent is she the embodiment of pagan evil; to what extent is she a victim, of her birth, her time, her own disturbed psyche?

At the end of the book, Lindbergh adds a note about her historical sources, primarily the Norse sagas. Take a look at these sagas, especially the Vinland Sagas, and examine their depictions of the characters of Eirik, Thorbjorg, and Torvard. Discuss how Lindbergh has embellished the sagas and how she has reimagined and transfigured her sources.

The novel is narrated by three intertwined women, and each presents a radically different point of view on the action. Discuss why Lindbergh has chosen this method of telling her story and what impact it has on your experience of reading the book. Which of the narrators did you like most? Which did you trust most?

The transition from paganism to Christianity is at the heart of the novel. Discuss how Lindbergh weaves the basic tenets of Christianity into her story. Do you see The Thrall’s Tale as primarily a Christian novel, a book that endorses the Christian faith? Or do you think Lindbergh also respects and values the enduring power of Norse pagan beliefs and practices?

Bibrau constantly refers to her “fylgie,” the spirit who keeps watch over her and goads her to evil deeds, harmful to others or to herself. What do you make of this fylgie? Do you see it as a figment of her own perverse imagination, an objectified aspect of her own psyche, a hallucination? Talk about the role of the spirit world in Norse mythology.

Mother-daughter relationships are central to the book—not only the bond between Katla and Bibrau, but the mentor/apprentice relation between Thorbjorg and Bibrau. At one level, these are relationships dominated by conflict, sometimes violent conflict. Are there other aspects of the mother-daughter bond hidden beneath the surface? Compare Lindbergh’s view of the mother-daughter bond with that of other novelists.

“We are all slaves,” says Thorbjorg, “all of us.” The theme of freedom versus enslavement runs throughout the book. Consider what it means to be a thrall in Norse society and how the coming of Christianity alters the position of slaves in this intensely hierarchical colony. In what sense does Thorbjorg’s comment apply even to free members of the community?

Women are at the center of The Thrall’s Tale but there are also some compelling male characters: Ossur, Torvard, Thorhall. Compare how Lindbergh draws and fleshes out male and female characters. Do you think she does a better job with one gender? Why do you think she has only women narrate the book?

Thorbjorg gets the last word: her lullaby to one-eyed Odin closes the book. Discuss the significance of this ending.