Witches, Wise Women, and Widows: A Cultural Look at Viking RPG The Banner Saga
There was a storm warning in Reykjavík the night I started playing The Banner Saga. As my computer booted and my tea steeped, I made the rounds in my apartment, securing the latches of my windows — double-paned, of course, to keep the cold out. Bare birch branches writhed eerily outside, and the sky, which had danced pink and green four nights prior, was coal gray. It was a good night for a Viking story.
I glanced at my watch as I launched the game. I had to start playing, but I was eager for my partner to come home. Most Icelanders I’ve met have a strong affinity for their heritage, but my partner is a cultural paladin. Our shelves are crammed with epic poetry, archaeological resources, and dictionaries of dead languages. When my mom came to visit last summer, my partner had a story (or a song) for every mountain and waterfall we drove past. There’s a single-handed battle axe resting against her bedside table. Y’know, just in case.
I didn’t want her to play the game with me. I wanted her to snark.
Loyal defender of her culture that she is, my partner’s feathers get easily ruffled by secondhand portrayals of Vikings or Norse mythology. She grumbles whenever we walk past tourist shops selling plastic horned helmets (the horns, in case you’re unaware, are not a Viking thing). Watching The Avengers involved a lot of skeptical looks directed my way. Though I know she’d love the gameplay, she’s never given Skyrim a fair shot, on account of being too busy laughing at the mispronunciation of Icelandic names. Whenever someone portrays Viking culture inaccurately, she appears, in a puff of ocean mist and blacksmith sparks, to set the record straight.
I knew nothing of The Banner Saga beyond the basics: A Viking-themed RPG made by a small team of former BioWare devs, with turn-based strategy, very pretty artwork, and a soundtrack by Austin Wintory, who has yet to compose game music that I don’t enjoy. Now, I’m fine with derivative uses of any and all folklore, but I also take great enjoyment in watching my partner go into incensed academic mode. The moment the game started, however, my hopes of snarky running commentary scattered. I leaned forward, pouring over the little details. The cursor was styled like a cloak clasp, the same kind I’ve seen in museums. The clothes looked right. The weapons looked right. The helms lacked horns. The words — I knew words like that.
“They’re speaking Icelandic in this game,” I said by way of greeting as my partner walked in the door.
“Are they,” she said dryly, brushing the freezing rain out of her hair.
“No, seriously, listen,” I said. “There was Icelandic in the beginning of the game, and it segued into English.”
“Uh huh,” she said. I knew what she was thinking. Skyrim.
“Real Icelandic, with real Icelanders,” I said. “Come on, I know what you guys sound like by now.” Not that I knew what had been said in the game. If it doesn’t involve grocery shopping, bus travel, or common topics of conversation at a family dinner, I’m lost. The presence of the language, though, intrigued me, as it indicated that the use of the word saga in the game’s title was more than just window dressing. The Icelandic Sagas are about as Viking-y as it gets. They’re a collection of prose histories, detailing the settlement of Iceland and the political drama that followed. They walk a muddy, bloody line between historical fact and folk legend, but basically, if you want to know what Nordic life was like a thousand years ago, the Sagas are your best bet.
“Do women fight in the Sagas?” I asked, as I directed my archers around the grid. In The Banner Saga, women carry bows, never axes.
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Women in the Sagas don’t fight.” She thought for a moment, smirking with recollection. “But they are incredibly badass.”
I consulted her on that point the following evening, after I had completed the game on my own (she did watch for a while the night before, declaring the clothing to be, in her scholarly opinion, “totes legit”). I needed to know specifics. The women in The Banner Saga felt subtly different than what I’ve grown used to in fantasy games. I was hungry for context.
Let me back up: Historical accuracy has been a big point of discussion in gaming circles as of late. Between the MedievalPOC to-do and Cara Ellison’s excellent essay on female representation in noir fiction, historical accuracy — or rather, perceived historical accuracy — is something I’ve been chewing on a lot. It’s the go-to justification for excluding female or minority characters, or for portraying them as oppressed — which is fine if you’re describing an actual historical setting in which said things really happened, but doesn’t hold much water if you’re telling a fantasy story. On the surface, The Banner Saga seems guilty of this. It’s a world of horned giants and magic, but women are not warriors here. They cannot become clan leaders. In combat, they are always archers or casters. This sort of thing has irked me greatly elsewhere, but here, the approach felt different. They weren’t going for historical accuracy, they were going for — if you’ll allow a made-up term — folklorical accuracy. They were trying to mimic a particular type of story, using a very specific culture as a foundation. I had the sense that in this world, women and men existed in separate social spheres, with distinct but equally important roles. It wasn’t that women couldn’t do what men did. It was that they didn’t.
“That’s exactly right,” my partner said, referring to actual Vikings. “They had super strict roles, but women were highly respected in Norse culture. They weren’t equals — there were bride prices, and that kind of thing. But women weren’t property, not like you’d see elsewhere in Medieval Europe. In Iceland, you’d most likely be literate. You’d be able to inherit. You couldn’t inherit a title, but you could inherit everything else — land, money, power. Some women held a lot of power. I mean, who do you think was running everything while the men were off making war?”
Such a woman is present in The Banner Saga: Oddleif, a chieftain’s widow. She can’t take her husband’s title, but she gets stuff done. Everybody knows her and respects her. “The chieftain of Skogr was considered one of the luckier men in town when he wooed the beautiful daughter of a well-known fighter,” her character description says. “These days most people consider him a lucky man for marrying someone who knows how to run a town.”
“What about witches?” I asked. “There are a couple witches in the game, and they’re awesome. Everyone’s scared of them. The most powerful character in the game is a witch.”
My partner’s eyes lit up. “Oh yeah, witches,” she said with relish. “Witches are all over the Sagas, and you do not mess with them. Witches, and wise women. Men always seek the advice of wise women. Wisdom’s what women in the Sagas are most often praised for. Everybody knows that they know what’s up.”
“Yeah, in the game, women aren’t leading the charge, but they plan stuff. The way my game ended, the two characters who played the biggest part in saving the day were both women. The men kept the monsters back, but those two were crucial.”
She nodded approvingly. “Women are always making stuff happen in the Sagas.” She launched into the tale of Auðr djúpúðga — Aud the Deep-Minded, who controlled a ridiculous amount of land during the early days of Icelandic settlement. “Women in the Sagas — oh, queens, there are so many awesome queens — they’re the ones with the best schemes. They don’t fight, they just figure things out and throw dudes at each other. That’s the difference between Viking men and women. Men get in ships and go raiding. Women stay at home and plot.”
“I get the sense that things like honor and courage and strength weren’t masculine characteristics in Viking culture. Is that right?”
“Absolutely. Those are neutral traits. Men and women just achieved them in different ways.”
That notion is evident throughout The Banner Saga, and it has made me aware of how accustomed I am to having one standard fantasy world template. In the stories I grew up with, men are warriors. Warriors are best. Women are weak, so they can’t be warriors. They have to be healers, or casters, or not there at all. That idea is so deeply ingrained that when I push back against it, when I shout that women are strong, too, my gut reaction is not to demand an expanded redefinition of strength, but to want to be a warrior. I am delighted whenever I can play a female character in full, practical plate. After playing The Banner Saga and picking apart its cultural basis, I’ve found myself pondering why I am so drawn to that sort of thing. If I had grown up with stories and games that presented female characters as being as powerful and visually impressive as their male counterparts, would I still want to be a warrior? Would I still want it if I hadn’t grown up in a culture where honor and courage and strength are tied to one narrow set of coded imagery? If I hadn’t been explicitly told again and again that the only things worth doing are the things that men do, the things I’m not allowed to do? I don’t know. I might. I do have a penchant for big swords and tanking. I think that’s just who I am. But I liked the witches in that game. I liked the women who solved problems and made things work. I liked how accepted and admired they were. I liked that none of them were there to be romanced or ogled. I liked that they were people. I liked the idea of there being more paths to glory than melee combat alone. Me personally, I’d prefer to live in a world where I’m free to wield a mace or a magic wand or no weapon at all, without my gender playing into it (I’d like the same for men, too). And I also think that we could use a lot more stories where women do pick up swords and become leaders, not just because we’re capable of doing so, but because we have done so, all through history. But this story — this story showed women with a different sort of strength, and I think it’s good to explore that, too.
“You know me,” I said to my partner, “I usually get so annoyed in RPGs when the only women are archers or casters. But this I was cool with. I think they were trying to keep the archetypes and social structure intact, but wanted to include female characters in the gameplay anyway. Which is pretty cool. I mean, they could’ve chosen to keep them out of combat altogether, and blamed it on the folklore.” I frowned. “It’s weird, though. I hate being told that I can’t have an axe. It’s funny that it doesn’t bug me here.”
My partner smiled. “It’s because you know this stuff. You understand Viking culture.” She paused, and gave me a wry grin. “More than most Americans, at least.”
I took that as a compliment.