If anyone shows you the island of Gotland, a Baltic outpost of Sweden brimming with Viking treasures, it should be writer Octavia Randolph.
A regular visitor since 1999 and a resident for many years, the woman behind the popular The Circle of Ceridwen Saga series is now guiding her readers through personal tours of the island she calls home.
Both of this summer's week-long tours are fully booked. However, Octavia, ever the engaging host, hints at potentially offering more next year. "Ask me after September 9!" she jokes. Regardless, she remains a one-woman treasure trove of Gotland lore.
Before her visitors begin arriving from as far afield as Australia, she takes The Viking Herald on her journey of this fascinating isle, describing her relationship to the setting for many of her books and outlining the vast standing stones of the Viking era that make Gotland so unique.
The Viking Herald: Tell us about yourself, your books, and how you came to be on Gotland.
Octavia Randolph: I write an 11-volume and rolling series of historical fiction novels called The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I'm working on what will be the twelfth book right now.
It takes place in the last part of the ninth century during the time of Alfred the Great, and the physical setting is not only the island of Angle-land (Anglo-Saxon England) but Denmark and the island of Gotland.
The two main protagonists end up living in Gotland at the end of Book III, so part of every single novel from that point takes place here.
My own experience with Gotland began in 1999 when I was on an extensive research trip for my novels through Scandinavia.
Even though few may be aware of where Gotland is, there is no person reading this article or interested in the Viking era who has not seen images of the standing stones from Gotland because they are literally in every illustrated book about the Viking era.
Octavia Randolph beside one of the famed Gotland stones at the Bunge Open-Air Museum, which is situated near the original discovery site of the stone. Photo: Octavia Randolph
Standing stones and bronze artifacts
The Viking-painted standing stones, the Gotland stones, tell us more visually about the era than any other source.
These artifacts have been rich sources of information for centuries, on which scholars have heavily relied to deepen their understanding of the period.
They are unique. Not only were they the first to be formally carved and dressed, as opposed to being etched into living rock, but they were also specifically cut, then intricately carved and painted.
This practice was distinctive to Gotland during that era, revealing details such as the rigging of ships, weaponry, women's hairstyles, and vignettes from the sagas.
They also tell about everything from the Bronze Age to Christianization. They're amazingly diverse sources of information.
So, I came for only three days in 1999 to see these stones, many of which are housed in a beautiful little museum here in Visby called the Gotland Museum.
A few of them have been hauled away to Stockholm, but there's a tremendous amount of stones here, beautifully displayed in the Standing Stone Hall.
There is also a vast amount of silver and gold treasure on display here in Visby, and that is because more than 700 hoards have been unearthed here, including the largest ever found, unearthed in July 1999, a few weeks before I arrived.
This enormous hoard, weighing 67 kilograms (148 pounds) of silver, is known as the Spillings Hoard, named after the farm where it was discovered on the Northeast coast of Gotland.
And like many of these hoards, it was discovered while someone was plowing.
There were also 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of beautiful and well-worked bronze goods, strap hinges, and buckle ends. These were probably on the property of a smith – always a prosperous member of society.
These magnificent stones offer us unparalleled insights, and Gotland itself is a veritable treasure trove. Over 200,000 coins have been unearthed on the island. Remarkably, in the Spillings Hoard alone, a staggering 14,300 coins were found in a single burial deposit.
Most of them were Arabian dirhams, again spotlighting Gotland's importance during the silver trade routes because here you have this island in the middle of the Baltic, which was an ideal place for ships plying the silk road to stop, take on water, and replenish. They were very skilled traders.
The Spillings Hoard, the largest Viking silver treasure ever discovered, was unearthed in 1999 on Gotland. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber / Wikimedia Comonns CC BY-SA 3.0
Ships, sheep, and sealskin
Shipwrecks occurred here on the west coast, where I live, in a town called Paviken, which is now just a lagoon and a bird sanctuary.
Paviken was a small yet bustling hub where one could get their ship repaired, acquire fresh supplies, and, of course, engage in ample selling and bartering.
Gotland is interesting because it was a peaceful place without a king.
The hoards were buried by prosperous farmer-traders, positioned uniquely in the middle of the Baltic. They traded what they had, such as the renowned fleeces from Gotland sheep.
Bees thrived on the island, making beeswax a traded commodity. From the north came prized goods like walrus tusks and hide. Sealskin, beaver...
So, the farmer-traders of Gotland prospered immensely during the Viking era. Those familiar with the period are well aware of Gotland's reputation for wealth. All those rich Gotlanders! And it was true.
I came because I wanted to see these things and fell in love, and then eventually, I returned, having been granted a writing fellowship at the Ingmar Bergman Estate – it just made me come back more and more frequently for research and inspiration.
And then five years ago, in 2018, I was permanently relocated, and I am now a permanent Swedish resident.
So now I'm living in this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town of Visby, surrounded by one of the most intact medieval walls in all of Europe. It's an enchanted place to live and, indeed, an inspirational place for me to work.
TVH: Where did the first inspiration for these books come from?
OR: The books stem from a girlhood fascination with the making of England. I was really interested in what shaped the idea of England.
Particularly the story of Alfred. He was such an exceptional young man, arising during a genuine time of crisis.
He stood out as a tactician and diplomat, especially as the heptarchy was collapsing. He faced the onslaught of these truly superior warriors. It required immense effort to outspend and outfox them.
I try to keep a very balanced nuance on the followers of the old religion as well as the very devout Christians. Obviously, Alfred was a Christian himself.
The conflicts were enormous, and it was just such an amazing time in history.
Like many, I have always been captivated by the contents of Rooms 39-41 in the British Museum, home to the Sutton Hoo treasure. Those incredible artifacts – the buckles, carnelians, exquisite gold and silverwork, and, of course, the corresponding items from the Viking era.
They're thrilling, beautiful, and you look at the imagination from which these physical objects came to us, and you've got to be interested in the people behind them because they're so exquisite.
These cultures left nothing unadorned. Even wooden spoons were decorated...
Nature abhors a vacuum, and these cultures did too. Even the most humble items we find often bear some form of embellishment. There was a natural sense of grace and beauty in the way they used objects.
The Ardre Stone, a Viking-era replica, features a depiction of a fully-rigged ship with vibrant linsey-woolsey sails and elite warriors; the original resides in Stockholm. Photo: Octavia Randolph
TVH: Why did you choose to write fiction?
OR: I'm a born storyteller, and I wanted to tell the story from the female point of view.
In order to do that, I wanted to use actual historical personages but build my fictional characters around them. I wanted a more nuanced view of the religions and a more balanced view of the greatest conflict, Dane versus Saxon.
That was something I could best achieve through fiction.
I was naturally led to create stories from that beautiful armature, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the sagas give us. It's quite an armature that the novelist has to work with, where there's plenty of room for invention.
'Maybe this happened because of that' - the role of a historical novelist often involves solving mysteries and posing questions. They should present intriguing queries and suggest solutions to historical enigmas for which we don't have clear answers.
TVH: Please tell us about the tours you're organizing.
OR: This is brand new! Back in 2019, I announced that I wanted to hold a tour so that my readers could come and be inspired by the same landscapes and see the same treasures that inspired me. It sold out immediately.
It was initially scheduled for August 2020... However, I decided last year to proceed anyway.
Essentially, the same participants who registered four years ago will now be joining the first tour from August 18-25. Those on the waiting list will attend the second tour, which runs from September 1-8.
I'm only doing two tours this summer.
We're taking over a small and very charming hotel, the St Clemens in Visby. From there, I'll be leading my readers on motor-coach tours into the countryside to see the things that my characters saw.
We'll visit the site where my main character, Sidroc the Dane, lived on the island's East Coast. It's something that people are very excited about.
I think it will be quite a lovely experience, with us being in costume part of the time and having a farewell feast in a stone cellar from the 12th century.
It's going to be fun. I want to share my love of the island with my readers and everyone else interested in Gotland, so doing an in-depth cultural tour like this appeals to me very much.
I love the research part of what I do, and I love sharing the history of the island with others.
My guests are coming from North America, and there's a significant contingent from Australia. I'm deeply grateful to my devoted Australian fans; considering the distance, it's a genuine gesture of support.
I have one wonderful reader coming from Spain and a couple from Great Britain. This will make for a diverse international group, and it will be marvelous to finally meet these readers in person.
Writing can be very isolating, but I have an extremely active Facebook presence. So many of these readers I do know from interacting with the fan group, but to finally be able to speak with the actual people.
Cremation chamber from the third or fourth century, showcasing Gotland's rich history with intricately carved stone boxes designed for ceramic urns containing remains. Photo: Octavia Randolph
TVH: Do you worry about the effects of tourism on Gotland?
OR: I'm promising that I won't let Dubrovnik happen here because that would be tragic.
Right now, the official tourist agency is very happy with what I'm doing because this is a type of focused tourism in which people come and stay for seven days.
I'll be guiding them into the countryside, where they'll visit small museums and dine at little farm restaurants.
We do have a tremendous number of cruise ships landing here – a big new quay was built six years ago to accommodate more cruise ships, and unfortunately, since the war, all of the cruise ships that used to go to St Petersburg now come here, so our load has been doubled.
And those people just come for a few hours, and then they're gone. I want something completely different.
I really want to bring people here to see the landscape and be in the countryside.
They should not only enjoy the splendors of Visby, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason, but I also want to take them out to the countryside.
This way, they can truly experience what my characters felt in the ninth century. That's what they're so eager for, and that focus will always remain central for me.
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