Dark Ages (and Stone Age) Musical Instruments

At last, the long-promised entry on musical instruments!

I’m not sure why the main viewpoint character in “The Storyteller” ended up being an aspiring skald, or musician/storyteller. I knew that Ulfhild/Moth had played the harp long ago in her past — I should point out that though the short story made it into print first, Moth is actually the hero of a series of Very Long Fantasy Novels — but Ulfleif, her distant relative, was initially just a young warrior, destined to be her sister the queen’s captain. Almost at once, though, she turned out to be not very happy with that fate. Possibly having to lug around a sword that may or may not have had a curse on it had something to do with that. Anyway, I belong to the “make it up as I go along, more or less” school of plotting, rather than the “detailed charts and all worked out beforehand” set, and very quickly, Ulfleif revealed herself to be a musician.

She should have played the harp. I like the medieval/Celtic harp. But I saw something about the Sutton Hoo lyre, a musical instrument buried in the Anglo-Saxon grave at Sutton Hoo and since reconstructed, and next thing I knew, Ulfleif played the lyre. Which, as anyone who has listened to me reading the story to a wild fox knows, I habitually mispronounce. It’s one of those words to which I unthinkingly give continental vowels. The fox didn’t mind, but just in case, one says the word to rhyme with pyre, not pier. And that’s in German as well — Leier — so I have no excuse. Oh well. (Incidentally, our fox stuck around for the entire forty-minute reading, through sun and rainshower, and at one point tried to go in the open door of the house. Usually I do read with a bit more emphasis and excitement, but I was trying not to startle the fox … except for the bit where I had to stop to say, “No! Bad fox!” as she contemplated exploring the big human den. But that bit’s not online. Actually, neither is the word “lyre”, correctly pronounced or otherwise, rendering this entire digression rather pointless.)

It’s all very well to have one’s characters playing interesting archaic instruments, but I then want to know all about them, especially what they sound like. When Connie started working on the character of Ulfleif for the manga, she needed to see lyres, in order to create Ulfleif’s instrument and to have her able to handle it naturally. We hunted around and found some interesting sites on lyres and other medieval instruments.

This one has links off to other sites. It also has, embedded, some clips of musicians playing various lyres. My favourite is this one of early medieval German music. Beautiful, isn’t it?

This site is about building a reproduction of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon lyre. We won’t go that far in our research, but it’s neat to see how the instrument is made.

One change we ended up making to the short story as we began scripting the manga was to the character of Mertyn. He’s the god of the hill at Ulvsness, but Mertyn was there before the colonists Ulfhild and Hravnmod showed up. (Gods, in Moth’s world, belong to places, not peoples.) Ulfleif likes to go up the hill to hang around with Mertyn and he encourages her in her music, but that’s kind of dull in pictures. It was obvious that he needed to be a musician, too, so they could play together. Flute, I thought, and then, since I wanted to suggest that he was far older than the folk of “the kings in the north”, I thought of ancient instruments. That led to the bone flute. Connie found this site, about early Irish instruments that have been excavated in archaeological digs, which has some information on stone-age bone flutes.

There are a lot of great resources out there. I’m very grateful to all the people who share their passion for such things with the rest of us.

And now I’m off to HalCon (Halcon? Hal-Con?), to go recruiting for the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia.

Connie's first complete design of Ulfleif


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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