The Weaver and the Witch Queen’s Genevieve Gornichec on Putting Historical Women Center Stage

Books Features Genevieve Gornichec
The Weaver and the Witch Queen’s Genevieve Gornichec on Putting Historical Women Center Stage

Genevieve Gornichec’s The Weaver and the Witch Queen is a remarkable novel for many reasons: Its richly conceptualized world that deftly weaves a thread of magic through historical fact, its unapologetic dedication to centering female and marginalized perspectives, and its wide array of fascinating characters, who all have distinct arcs and goals of their own. Gornichec’s determination to tell stories about the women who are often forced to linger at the margins of the lives of historical men (or, worse, who are blamed for their various problems and failings) is not only admirable but necessary. (And it makes for a compelling read at the same time.)

The Weaver and the Witch Queen is a historical fantasy retelling of the life of the woman who would be known in the Norse sagas as Gunnhild, Mother of Kings. In those tales, she’s almost universally remembered in a negative light, often disparaged as unnatural and assumed to be a witch for daring to hold power in a traditionally male world. In Gornichec’s version, she’s a woman trying to exert agency over her own life in limited ways available to her, and neither she nor her author makes any apologies for that. 

We got the chance to have a long, rambling (ridiculously fun) chat with Gornichec herself about The Weaver and the Witch Queen, Norse sagas, female representation in historical stories, the real Erik and Gunnhild and so much more. 


The following has been edited (somewhat) for length and clarity. [And to remove the staggering amount of tangents that result when early medieval literature nerds nerd out.]

Paste Magazine: The Weaver and the Witch Queen is your second novel and your second book that takes inspiration from some aspect of Norse epic poetry, folklore, or mythology. What is it about this period of history that appeals to you so much?

Genevieve Gornichec: I first got really into this when I was studying the Old Norse language in college, and literally the day that I stepped into that classroom, it changed my life. Because before then I didn’t really know anything about Vikings or any of that. And I had lived in Sweden for four months because my grandfather is from Sweden. So when I was in college, I decided to apply for a scholarship to study abroad. I was over there for a semester, and then I came back and was like, well, I’ll do a Scandinavian studies minor now because I lived in Scandinavia. One of the only classes that semester that was available was Old Norse. So literally, if that class had not been offered that semester when I got back to the States, I might be a completely different person.

Paste: This is also your second book that takes a mythological or historical female figure who really only existed in the margins—usually of a man’s story—and brings them out into their own. I mean, look, I’m not going to front like I didn’t watch or love shows like Vikings or Vikings: Valhalla or that I don’t enjoy the sort of current pop culture trend of historical shows full of female characters just kicking ass. 

But it also often feels very grounded in, I think, a male idea of what a female butt-kicking Viking lady would look, like versus coming from an actual place in the source material. I would love to hear about how you went about finding their voices in the text and making these women feel true to themselves, rather than a sort of male gaze ideal.

Gornichec: Everything you just mentioned, I could literally talk the rest of the time just about,  because this is my pet peeve. Basically, we are treating these historical women as only cool if they can pick up a sword and beat a guy up. 

And I want to preface this by saying that I think that in 2023, anybody of any gender should be able to live their best life authentically without being bullied or harassed for being too masculine or too feminine. In 2023, if you want to be empowered by Lagertha? Right, awesome. Amazing. However, I think we run into problems where, like you said, the only things we think are cool are physical violence, basically. And it goes back to this whole idea of us…  “Oh, equality is women doing anything men can do.” But why isn’t the opposite true? Why do people still make fun of men who are sensitive or feminine? 

So it’s until it goes both ways, we’re treating masculinity as the default and as the goal, and that’s very problematic.  So for Weaver, the reason that I decided to take the book in the direction that I did was partially because of my own experiences doing Viking age living history, which I have done for almost a decade. And it boils down to this one episode that I wrote about in the Book Club Kit which starts with a letter by me and I talk about this whole incident where one of my very first events, my friends and I were washing dishes at the water fountain after one of the guys had cooked this amazing meal for us. And we were like, “Okay, you cooked this amazing meal, we’re going to go do the dishes.” So we’re all sitting there cleaning and this older white man walks by and he’s like, “Ha! So women in Viking times had to do the dishes too. I thought y’all were supposed to be warriors. Where’s Lagertha? Aren’t y’all supposed to be fighting on the field?”

We just stared at him because we didn’t know what to say.  Today, I would’ve had some choice words, but back then I didn’t know enough to be like, “Actually, sit down and let me take this for the teaching moment that it should have been.” But just this pervasive idea that all Viking women were warriors…there are so many problems with this. Number one, even if they were, it probably wasn’t a widespread thing. And they definitely didn’t have molded breastplates and sexy armor. If you were a woman on the field, you would want to look like a man. Otherwise, you are going to be easy pickings. 

And the second thing is that from these stories, we know that there were other ways for women to have power and agency within their society, within their fiercely patriarchal and heteronormative society.  There were different ways that they could do what they wanted, get what they wanted. And in many ways, they were actually less constrained than the men were because the men were bound by this very strict honor code. And men were supposed to behave in a very specific, certain way. Women could kind of navigate [the world] easier, So I just wanted to explore the different ways that women could have power without, being all ‘I am a warrior.’ 

Paste: And Gunnhild, in Weaver, I think very much fights in her own way that isn’t at all about physical prowess. 

Gornichec:  I could have very, very easily made Gunnhild into some kind of warrior witch, warrior princess, warrior queen. There have been people who were disappointed that Angrboda [the main character in Gornichec’s debut novel The Witch’s Heart] wasn’t a warrior queen. But have none of that in our sources. We have her mentioned twice by name, and it’s just as the mother of Loki’s children.

So for Gunnhild, I literally could’ve made her into the warrior that people were expecting her to be, but she’s not because she doesn’t have to be. She’s one of the women who holds power in her society through other means. And I really wanted to talk about the ways that women could control their own lives in the Viking age, despite all of the obstacles stacked against them by their own society and honestly, by other women. At the end of her life, near the end of her life when she is older, Gunnhild, tries to get her sons on the throne of Norway. After—spoiler alert—she and Erik are kicked out of the country. And then eventually Erik dies in battle and she has to come back with all their sons she tries to retake Norway for her sons to be kings.

She is the mother of kings. She never wants to take that power for herself, but she’s always there kind of enforcing the status quo of being a higher-status woman. And being in proximity to power means that she still has power. So that is something problematic that if I get to write more books about her, I can unpack. 

Paste: The media—the films and TV shows that have been based on the stories told in the sagas are really big and exciting and loud. But the sagas, reading them, are like a grocery list of things that happen and people who lived. It’s just a black box you can kind of play with. These are characters there, but they’re not exactly three-dimensional.

Gornichec: And then this happened, and then they went here, and then they went there, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I try to bring voices to these three types of women who might have existed back then. Gunnhild ends up as a higher-status woman, so here are the ways in which she can have power. She has access to more things than most women do, whereas Oddny and Signy being born to a poorer family, had many, many fewer options. They had to find other means. 

Oddny just kind of resigned herself to this humdrum life until she’s forced to go on an adventure, basically. So she’s the Bilbo Baggins. She’s like, “I just want to stay home, but now I have to go rescue my sister.” And poor Signy is like, “I want much more than this provincial life. No, not that. Not that. Oh God, not that.” 

Paste: I feel like Oddny is another one of those very, and I hate to say non-traditional heroine, because I don’t actually think she really is that non-traditional, but I think in the world of fantasy fiction or historical fiction, she is. Like we were saying before, it’s not a thing that people think is on the same level as being a magical witch queen. But she’s still the second character named in the title. Why her?

Gornichec: That? I wanted to bamboozle people. Like I said, I wanted her to be the Bilbo Baggins character. I do not want any adventures today. Thank you. I’m good. And title notwithstanding, I feel like if you look at the story and you look at the characters as they start off, you would think, especially in Gundhill’s intro chapters where she’s just like, “Oddny, she’s not very much fun, but Signy, we can vibe. She’s my girl. We play pranks on people. It’s great.” 

Signy has that main character energy, so I feel like maybe if people started reading Weaver without knowing much about it, they would think that maybe we’re going to follow Signy through everything that she goes through instead of Oddny. Because Signy’s the more interesting one. She’s more outgoing, she has dreams and aspirations.

Paste: She does have big main character energy. I didn’t think about it that way initially, but that’s a hundred percent accurate.

Gornichec: She has main character energy! So the fact that we kind of are like, but here’s her sister who is not pretty and not fun and just wants to be a housewife, or so she thinks, and we’re watching her character development instead. If we were following Signy, it would just be trauma. Just trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma, trauma. And I am not the person to write that. I didn’t feel like that was my place. To give a play-by-play of everything she went through in real-time, that’s something I was not interested in doing. I felt that people could assume what happened to her.

Paste: Not to be like, we’ve seen it before, but we’ve seen it a lot.

Gornichec: And sometimes that can be cathartic for survivors and sometimes it can be triggering. So I didn’t even want to touch it. I will leave that to the imagination. I don’t think that it is imperative that I go into detail about what Signy went through at this time in the story. 

Following Oddny instead was very much about seeing her change and realizing that she could want other things than the things that she was taught to want. Learning she has skills and she can make her own way and give herself other options than the ones that had been previously let out for her, something which Signy had always resisted, but had no real tangible way of overcoming because she didn’t know how.

Paste: Let’s talk about Gunnhild and Erik, because I was so ready to just hate Erik, and then I ended up really loving them together. And I think it’s because of the weird… Well, I’m always a sucker for enemies to lovers. It’s my favorite trope.

Gornichec: Same, same!

Paste: But I love that they’re both, in their own very different ways, kind of equal. They’re not societally equal,  but they are very similar in the way that they look at the world. I assume we probably know next to nothing about whatever their real relationship was, but how do you envision their bond?

Gornichec: There’s so much. Oh, I just love them so much. I could talk about them forever.

One of the things that really influenced how I wrote their relationship was the fact that we have Erik Bloodaxe, who is in the sources, a guy who is the pinnacle of the Viking manly manliness. And then in the sagas, you have his wife who yells at him in public, in front of other people. And my mind I’m thinking, okay, this is the most powerful man in the country. This is a very efficient, seasoned killer who has literally murdered several of his relatives. Why isn’t he divorcing her? This was the thing. He could’ve said, “You have embarrassed me for the last time. Take a hike.” The sources are like, “It’s because she was a witch and probably had him under the spell.”

They don’t explicitly state that that’s why, but there’s the implication that the reason that she is powerful at all in the first place is because she was a witch. But  I like to think of it as, no, no, no, he just really loves her a lot. And so that’s why he lets her do this. They sort it out later. It’s fine. Those incidents of her trying to egg him into action really characterized how I wrote them because so much of what happens in Weaver is the seeds of what happens in their relationship later.

Because at the end of Weaver, they kind of kiss and make up, and they’re like, “Everything’s going to be fine.” Spoiler alert: Everything does not end up fine. They apologized for the way that they acted and such during the dual. However, they didn’t really address why they both acted the way that they did. For Gunnhild, it’s because she thinks that she knows better than everybody else and is going to do whatever she wants. And for Erik, it’s because he is confined by honor and reputation and all this stuff, and couldn’t be seen having his wife act on his behalf. And so that is resolved in the moment, but not in the long term, if that makes any sense. I just love them both so much.

Paste: Talk to me about the choice to have trans representation in a book about Viking-era Norway. That feels really important.

Gornichec: I knew going into this book that I was going to include a trans character, and I started working on this book before The Witch’s Heart was even out. But even back then, I knew I had to do some research because one of the most famous Viking age graves is the Birka grave Bj 581. And it is a grave that was very long thought to be a man’s grave because it was buried with some of the most weapons that we’ve ever found in a Viking age grave. But in 2017 the bones were tested and proved to be female. 

So everybody immediately assumes  “Oh, warrior woman, this is proof, this is proof, this is proof..” And yet there are other scholars who are like, “We don’t actually know that this person identified as a woman.” And that really pissed some people off, specifically transphobic people who were like, “You can’t let women have anything.” Which yeah, but [LGBTQ] people have even less representation in history because for so long, historians were like, “And they were best friends who sent each other love letters and kissed on the mouth.”

Paste: Just bros being bros! 

Gornichec: Yup, just really good friends! So my wanting to include a trans character definitely had to do with the response to that and the idea that we are so unwilling to entertain the idea that trans people or people who we would identify or interpret as trans today existed in the past. They definitely did exist. And I thought that it was important for people to realize that. 

Haldor’s story was not mine to tell. I wasn’t going to go in and give him this big backstory that I was going to write all out. If somebody else wants to write a story where the main character is a trans person in the Viking age, hell yeah, I would read that in a heartbeat. But, for this, I really had to do my research. I had two sensitivity readers, and I worked with them very closely throughout each draft, and they were super, super helpful. It was very much a collaborative thing where they would make suggestions and I would interpret it. I stressed about a lot, but it was more important to me to try to include that, especially right now when there’s so much transphobic legislature going through our country, and it makes me physically ill for my trans friends and family members. Just to be able to have that representation in a book set in the past and be like, “We have always been here. We’re not going anywhere. So take that.” 

Paste: How was writing this one different than The Witch’s Heart? Was it easier?

Gornichec: It was so much harder in every way. I wrote The Witch’s Heart when I was 21. I wrote it over a decade ago. I had never been kissed, never been out on a date and I wrote The Witch’s Heart. I am no longer that person. I could not write that book or anything like that book again if I tried. It’s not that I hadn’t written anything between then and now, but I had never written a book knowing that it was going to be published. So for me, there was a lot of mental stress to get over. There were a lot of voices in the back of my head that were quoting bad reviews of The Witch’s Heart that I had to get over. I internalized a lot of the criticism that I unfortunately willingly exposed myself to, which was very silly. So that lived rent-free in my head. 

Also, I don’t think my publisher knew what to expect because I think they were expecting The Witch’s Heart, but slightly different, which The Weaver and the Witch Queen was not. The Witch’s Heart is a lot of things. I don’t think that you can call it a page-turner, an action-packed adventure. But, here’s something that also I have learned is that anything is a page-turner if you actually are invested in it So it’s a matter of perspective, and I don’t know, whether or not you’re vibing with the book.

But just knowing all that, it was very hard to write The Weaver and the Witch Queen, just knowing that there were expectations. It wasn’t something that I was doing for myself, it was something that I was doing as a job. I was getting paid to do it, which is every author’s dream, right? I will give you money to write a book. How is that not the dream? That is the dream. And yet, for me, it was terrifying. 

Paste: I’ll end with my very favorite question that I always ask everyone, which is more for me than the piece, half the time but still. What are you reading right now?

Gornichec: My TBR is four shelves, and there’s a section devoted to my friend’s sequels that I haven’t gotten to read yet, because I need to reread the first one, and I don’t have time for that. So literally an entire subsection that’s devoted to that. But nevertheless, I just finished reading Elliot Page’s biography, Pageboy. It was really good. I am on a non-fiction kick, so I finally started tackling that section, and now I’m starting How to Be an Antiracist, finally!

The Weaver and the Witch Queen is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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