Monday 13 June 2011

Huscarlas: Old Plurals are not Created Equal

Huscarlas Futhorc Runes Neon Blue

What you see above is the Old English word huscarlas ("hooz-karl-as"), written in Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. This runic alphabet has its origins in the Scandinavian runes, and was used before the the Christianisation of England.

The word's above form embodies the evolution of my own understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture, language, and religion throughout the development of my game, Huscarlas.

I'd formulated the game's core mechanics before deciding to enrich it with Dark Age English themes. My self-imposed brief was to distil the tactical turn-based genre, and wrap it in a lean, modern interface. During this pre-production phase I'd spent time in London's museums and galleries, hunting for a spark to ignite my concept. It came from the British Museum, whose Sutton Hoo collection lit the kindling of my intrigue with my own past.

Surprisingly, despite being raised here, my education in the history of Britain was somewhat patchy. Beyond a primary school project on the 1066 Battle of Hastings, I'd inadvertently dodged a formal introduction to my country's forebears. Luckily, after this brief spell of learning, I retained that Harold's army included his bodyguards, his huscarlas. They were a highly-trained, standing body of household warriors, who were tasked with the protection of the Anglo-Saxon king. A huscarl was a free man who gave his oath to protect his charge, and could own land and chattels, strengthening his position in society.

I knew that these would be the perfect men to walk the stellar planes in my game, wielding their axes in battle. I set about delving deeper into the life and times of this warrior cast.

The term Dark Ages was well chosen for this period of history, as there are few primary sources that have survived to guide us in its study. Written records appear to begin around the Christianisation of England, when the Latin alphabet supplanted Futhorc. As a result, the sources are late, and mainly ecclesiastical. Physical evidence is also scarce, as the post-Roman British used timber and other perishables in their buildings, rather than the Roman's heavy stone. It would take a lucky encounter with a historical novel to really drive my understanding forward.

By chance, I began reading Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories on holiday, and, as its main character is fond of saying, Wyrd bi∂ ful aræd (Fate is inexorable). The series dramatises Alfred the Great's attempt to unify England into a single country during the 9th century. The books rely on meticulous research by the author to imbue them with historical authenticity, and they seared the Anglo-Saxon people's identity into my consciousness. Although factual accounts of the age exist, I absorbed Cornwell's story, which is spiced with these truths, far more readily than the original sources.

The most striking realisation I took away from the Saxon Stories was the stark distinction between England's settled Anglo-Saxon population and the Scandinavian interlopers who came during the Viking age. Before, I had a muddy notion of generic tribes moving across Western Europe to displace the native Britons, followed by their subsequent conquest by the Normans. This has been replaced by the understanding that, although early Germanic and Scandinavian religions and alphabets are similar, their societies were very different during Britain's Saxon age.

Knowing this, I revisited what I thought I knew about the people I'd based Huscarlas' characters upon. I looked for specific facts about the Anglo-Saxons, delineating between them and their Scandinavian cousins. I had to make a rare foray beyond the bounds of Wikipedia to mine as deep as needed for this information.

It was a relief to find my conception of early Anglo-Saxon theology was not invalidated; as with the Scandinavians, they worshipped the gods of continental polytheism. Where Odin and Thor governed Valhalla for the Norse, Woden and Thunor did the same for the Saxons. Though, there is an interesting morphing of some mythology dependent on the territory in which it was told. For instance, The Wild Hunt, who trace their mad, ephemeral pursuit across the skies, includes King Arthur in some British accounts. The Germanic Pantheon has thousands of years of story built on its rich foundations, and I'm pleased to be able to plumb its depths for inspiration.

A somewhat more revelatory discovery was that my initial working title, "Huscarls", was spelled incorrectly. Although this is the most commonly used plural of huscarl in Google's search results, it is neither Old English, nor Old Norse. There are five cases within Old English, all of which can change the ending of a noun and its plural. The technicalities of the grammar took some time to research, but the correct pluralisation of huscarl is huscarlas, as with all strong, masculine nouns in the nominative case. I would like to thank Professor Muir and Professor Drout for corroborating this.

So, the title was changed to "Huscarlas".

The final evolutionary step discernible from the Huscarlas title above, is my re-discovery of Futhorc. In all the novels and primary sources that I'd read, the text was written using the Latin alphabet. However, I had a recollection from my childhood studies of writing runes with a feather quill. Following a trail of examples, through a series of research websites, I unearthed the use of runes by the Anglo-Saxons before Christianity took hold. To me, it seemed to be the script of the old gods, and its use fitting if Huscarlas was to play out in their domain.

I've been left with a deeper understanding of my subject, and a closeness to it that I'd been entitled to, but had not possessed before taking the time to understand our ancestors.

Huscarlas will be laced with my discoveries, and I hope that you'll join me amongst these legends of yore.

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