Falling in love with the dead

As Connie was working on the pages that would show Mikki as a young man (young hanyou?) telling stories of his travels to Vartu’s skeleton, bound by the Old Great Gods in his demon mother’s den (an old tribal grave-hill), we started wondering about how we could show this without making him seem really strange in the head. Falling in love with a corpse? A bit creepy. It works well in “The Storyteller”, told in that slightly elevated, remote style that Moth adopts in the hall, but seeing it unfold, one is much closer to the characters, in a way. It should be kind of sweet, not “Ew, yuck, what’s wrong with him?”

Sketch of page 23 -- Mikki and Ulfhild's grave

When I started thinking about it, though, men (and women — though probably not bears) have been falling in love with dead people ever since we became people by beginning to tell stories. (Well, and giving rocks sharp edges, that was important too.) People can fall in love with the idea of a person; that’s what teen crushes on pop stars and celebrities and the guy with the cool leather jacket are all about. People can feel a bond with fictional and historical characters or a portrait painted two centuries ago; they start to wonder about them, to weave a more complex personality around the details that exist. That’s what Ulfhild of Hravnsfjell is to the young Mikki, someone from history — from his mother’s history, as Moraig was appointed guardian of her prison-grave, but also from the sagas of his father’s people, “the folk of the kings in the north”. She’s a story, and she’s real. She’s also someone with a lot of shadows and gaps in her story, a faithful King’s Sword, a traitor, an alleged fratricide. She’s a villain in most of the sagas, but there’s enough there to make her an interestingly tragic one, just the sort of person to capture the imagination of a child, and then a lonely teen. By the time he’s a young man, however old that is in years, Mikki being a demon and semi-immortal, Ulfhild-Vartu has been, in effect, his imaginary friend for most of his life.

In the short story, Mikki’s father is killed before he’s born, while in the manga, it happens while he’s a baby. (This sort of inconsistency is perfectly consistent with the idea of storytelling! Why did we do it? We liked the mental images we had of Moraig and Sammur and their shapeshifting baby.) In both versions, though, his human father isn’t around as he’s growing up; Moraig, though a devoted mother, is both a bear and a demon, and maybe doesn’t appreciate the social needs of a young human. Demons are mostly solitary; little Mikki doesn’t have a teddy bear, and he doesn’t have friends in some nearby village to play with, either. The Hardenvald is still wilderness. What he does have is a skeleton, which is human enough to be the framework around which to weave an imaginary friend. (A couple of my uncles are supposed to have had a dried, smoked mackerel as their teddy-bear equivalent during the hard years of the War — little children need dolls and will personify what they can get.) Once he grows up, gets humanly-itchy feet and starts travelling, Mikki learns all the stories of Ulfhild of Hravnsfjell, his childhood imaginary playmate, and keeps on imagining her. Humans respect demons, and the Northrons seem to have a closer involvement with them than most of the folks of the world, but there’s still a bit of distance, a bit of awe; his cousins accept him as kin, as a friend, whatever he looks like, but maybe there aren’t that many young Northron women who want to get too closely involved with a man who’s only a man at night. So, there’s also a bit of isolation; he’s going to be an outsider everywhere and forever, because he’s more social than a normal demon, and, well, more furry than a normal human. Maybe his mother isn’t really interested in his stories of the world, his voyages with his sea-raider cousins, his travels through the Great Grass. Thus Mikki keeps on going into the grave, like anyone returning home to their familiar childhood landscape, going almost ritually to see the old familiar places, to revisit their childhood selves. He keeps telling stories to the bones.

Ulfhild-Vartu is dead and not-dead, bound and sleeping and yet still a presence in the world. And for most of her life, she was lonely, too. Who knows what that might have had to do with it, all unconsciously, for both of them?

And then there’s the whole saving-his-life thing; heroic rescue by a naked woman with a sword is always a good start to romance.

Of course, falling in love with a ghost from history isn’t necessarily going to translate into a healthy marriage. Devotion to a saint, fascination with Helen of Troy or Eleanor of Aquitaine, courtly love, might not stand the test of reality. But then again, who knows, maybe once you had time to get to know the real person, maybe it might. And Moth seems to be trying very hard, these days, to be the person Mikki thinks she is, trying to live up to his trust. Maybe because he wanted to see her, neither Ulfhild the King’s Sword nor the devil Vartu, he actually managed to do just that.


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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