You found a runestone in Year Walk!

20160316_115108

The setting of Year Walk is a very quiet Swedish forest: snow, birches, the occasional cottage. And a couple of runestones. This game is developed in Sweden and based on Swedish folklore, and you can feel that in the atmosphere of the game. It’s probably no coincidence that the runestones are among the closest I’ve seen in a game to what an actual Viking Age runestone looks like: standing stones with runes running in a band along the edge and all carved lines filled in with dark red (which is the standard in Sweden, but not Denmark or Norway). The similarities do end there, though. These runestones are part of a puzzle, and it’s the lines in the middle that’s the point, not the runes. On a real Swedish runestone, that space would normally be occupied by some kind of decoration: a cross, most likely, or an animal form. The runic band is normally in the form of a snake. But you can probably see the resemblance:

 

U769
U 769, also in snow with trees. Less of a puzzle.

 

The runes on the Year Walk stones aren’t all proper runes, either.

20160316_115352

They seem to be the same on all stones, and transliterate (from the older futhark) as:

* tbþï– * tï{N}sþet * þ{G} * {N}ï * tuþ{O}- *

This transliteration needs a couple of comments.

  • The runes transliterated as ï are an interesting case; that rune is rarely found outside of futhark inscriptions (that is, inscriptions that comprise the entire futhark) and its sound value is unclear. It’s most likely a vowel. (It appears on one of my favourite runestones, which can’t be/hasn’t been interpreted.)
  • Using { } means that the letter(s) between them is interpreted as being from the Latin alphabet. Here’s another wonderful runestone that has Latin characters on it as well as runes.
  • The transliteration – indicates a character that can’t be defined but can be counted as a rune. These are, if anything, so-called pentimal runes, mostly known for being on the 19th century Kensington runestone and in the somehow related Larsson papers (and that is very much a discussion for another time). In that case, they could transliterate as 23 and 2.

Of course, that’s a long description for a piece of runic writing that is probably not meant to be understood linguistically. I find it interesting that the developers/designers decided to just write some rune-like characters and not attempt to give it meaning.

 

Bonus reading: if you’re interested in non-lexical runestones, ciphers, and how a runestone is designed – and you read Swedish – I highly recommend Marco Bianchi’s dissertation on the subject. I’ll probably return to Kensington and other American runestones at some point, but until then, here’s a good article on the subject.

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You found a runestone in Dragon Age: Origins!

This post will feature pictures of a woman looking at things while wearing a succession of funny-looking hats. The things she’s looking at are runestones (and in one case, a wooden column), the hats she’s wearing are mage hats, and the mage hats look funny because she’s in Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), where no one wears normal clothes, least of all normal hats.

Runestone DAO
Hero in hat.

Runestones aren’t central to DAO at all, you come across a couple of them when dealing with dwarves. The example above is pretty typical, a slab in the dwarven city of Orzammar that says “Runestone” and which you can interact with. Doing so gives you a codex entry, written in the same style as most codex entries in the game. Codexes (or codices, if that makes you happier) (in which case you probably write “lacunae” as well) are of course a common way to give the player background information about a game’s world without forcing them to read it all if they’re not that interested.

In Dragon Age, the preferred shape of a codex is as an actual book, and the style of the entries tends to be very bookish: a bit long-winded and academic, and often in the shape of a quote from some imagined larger source. It’s efficient in giving the impression of a vast world you as a player are only a small part of; you’re only seeing snippets of centuries of literature and history from different cultures. One thing I think is a shame though, and this is not just in Dragon Age, is the many missed opportunities for connecting the object you find in the world to the text supposedly written on it. Sure, you’ll often find a Crumpled Note or something on a dead body, and those will have a note-like quality to them (“J – I’ve hidden the MacGuffin under the Super Obvious Tree. Try not to die right next to it. – M.”), but the basic codex entry is generally the norm. The runestones, as well as other carvings, in DAO would feel much more like runestones if the text on them were more like the kind of text you find in inscriptions.

So what do you write on a stone or carve into a wall in a city? Nothing long, firstly. Carving is hard work. Secondly, runestones and wall carvings of the kind you find among the dwarves are very public texts, and that is the whole point of them. What you want to write in that medium is something official and monumental, a declaration or memorial of some sort. So when runestones function as codexes in a game, the information they give the player should be like that: famous names or events in the culture, an idea of what official propaganda looks like. In later Dragon Age games, statues are sometimes used like this, and it would add more depth to the world if the codex entries were more connected to their material – especially if you actually saw the text in-game.*

*Academic terms avoided in the above: materiality, linguistic landscapes, all kinds of things about semiotics.

 

The other kind of runestone in DAO has absolutely nothing to do with writing.

Runsten awakening
Hero in new, very similar hat.

(To be specific, this is from the DLC Awakening, but still DAO.) In this case the runestone is part of a puzzle in which you match the rune on the wall to the rune on the slab. The developers could have chosen any symbols for this, but they went with runes. In fact, they went with actual runes. The purple one is an older futhark and the less visible, yellow one is an l. The runes in the puzzle don’t actually spell anything (my first, overthinking, thought was that they should be arranged in a word), so they really  are just symbols rather than writing. Any time you put a puzzle or other minigame into a roleplaying game, it needs to be at least superficially justified as a part of the world, and that’s what the function of the runes are here. Sure, they look like they’re projected in neon lights, but they do their job as Ancient Symbols. You can just about imagine some olde magick working in this dungeon.

 

 

Urnes
Hero really digs hats.

Finally, and only slightly related to the above, I just wanted to point out that DAO uses Scandinavian imagery and aesthetics in other ways as well, to give certain areas a rustic, Northern feel. That includes, as in the picture above, carvings from Urnes stave church, which has given name to an entire style of art (called, well, Urnes style). That room happens to be a small supplies closet in a castle. Which is apparently decorated with some really, really, really, really high-end carving.

You found a runestone!

The whole idea for writing this blog came from being a runologist and constantly coming across runes, or something called “runes”, or “runestones” in popular culture. Most of the time, I have no problems with the weird and varied usage of runes, but the variation in itself is fascinating. There are so many examples of rune usage in games, films, books, etc. that I thought I’d address them individually in shorter, thematic posts and then try to look at them collectively. The first such series of posts is going to be You Found a Runestone!, which will be about things called runestones in games.

Here’s an old picture of me and a very big runestone:

Bauta

Dorian and Ólafr: peacocky men

By far one of the best characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition is this man.

Dorian-new2
From the Dragon Age wiki page

His name is Dorian Pavus, he’s a smart, funny, and altogether fabulous character. A major part of the way his personality is written is his flirtatious self-confidence; he struts his stuff and will happily tell you that he’s well aware of how handsome he is.

At some point while re- or re-re-playing the game, I wondered why they chose that last name. He’s from The Tevinter Imperium, which is obviously modelled on the Roman Empire. This is something you see not least in the names, which rely heavily on -us endings to show the connection. At first, I thought his name was Parvus, ‘small’, a name that seemed a bit weird for such a big personality. When I realised my mistake and looked it up, I found that he had a wonderfully fitting name: pavus is a Latin word for ‘peacock’. It’s a nice little wink at the way Dorian behaves. It also made me as an Old Norse scholar happy, because Dorian is not the first fictional Peacock to work it.

In the wonderful Laxdæla saga, a boy called Ólafr is the son of the rich Icelandic chieftain Höskuldr and Melkorka, a slave he bought while abroad. Since Ólafr is going to grow up to be a hero as well as a father of heroes, Melkorka of course turns out to be not just any slave, but the daughter of an Irish king, kidnapped at the age of fifteen. Ólafr himself is fabulous. As the saga describes him early on, “It was soon seen that Olaf, as he grew up, was far superior to other men, both on account of his beauty and courtesy.” This beauty in time earns him a nickname:

Olaf grew up with Thord, and became a great man and strong. He was so handsome that his equal was not to be found, and when he was twelve years old he rode to the Thing meeting, and men in other country-sides looked upon it as a great errand to go, and to wonder at the splendid way he was made. In keeping here-with was the manner of Olaf’s war-gear and raiment, and therefore he was easily distinguished from all other men. Thord got on much better after Olaf came to live with him. Hoskuld gave Olaf a nickname, and called him Peacock, and the name stuck to him.

So there he is, Olaf Peacock, or as he’s called in Old Norse, Ólafr Pái (I use the Norse spelling, the 1899 translation quoted doesn’t). It’s interesting to note that contrary to the common idea of Viking Age men being almost comically butch and rugged, Ólafr is not necessarily given this nickname as an insult. He’s handsome and well dressed, and this theme follows him throughout the saga, where his colourful clothes and gold-inlaid weapons are often described. Ólafr also becomes the father of the tragic hero Kjartan, who is said to be the most beautiful man ever born on Iceland.*

That the words pái and pavus look very similar is of course no coincidence. Peacocks aren’t exactly common in Iceland, so the Old Norse word is a loan from Latin. As an aside, the fact that pái starts with a p tells anyone who knows their historical linguistics that the word has to be a loan word, as Proto-Indo-European initial becomes very early in the Germanic languages (which is why Latin has pater while English has father, for example). This is called Grimm’s Law and this is probably not the right place to go further into that.

So Dorian Pavus and Ólafr Pái have this in common, that someone – a game writer, a father, a saga author – decided that “peacock” would be a good way of describing them. They’re proud men, they care about their looks and their outfits, they know how to carry themselves. They’re great additions to any good story, and while they may stand out for all the right reasons, I don’t think they’re as weird as some would like to think.

 

* A couple of asides/recommendations: a) read Laxdæla saga, b) if you’re interested in Old Norse nicknames, there’s an entire dissertation about them by Paul Peterson. The name Pái is treated on page 202. And if you like both of these things, Saga Thing is the podcast for you.

 

Naming Nords in Skyrim

When I played Skyrim about four years ago, I not only developed a strange fear of sneak dragon attacks, but also started thinking more seriously about how game developers name things and people.

Skyrim is set in a sort-of Nordic environment – snowy and windy, mostly peopled by pink people with uncombed blond hair living in sturdy log houses. The major place names are for the most part not Scandinavian-sounding; the main cities are called Whiterun, Solitude, Markarth, Windhelm, Falkreath, Morthal, Northstar and Winterhold. It’s an interesting choice, and probably a smart one, since these names probably are easier to remember for most players. They still evoke a certain windswept sturdiness. And it’s probably not surprising that Morthal is the place described on the Skyrim wiki as lying “deep in the marsh, a foreboding area of Hjaalmarch isolated from other villages and shrouded by a constant and ominous fog”. Spoiler: creepy stuff goes on there.

On the other hand, many of the people your character meets have distinctly Norse names. Within the first hour or so of playing, you’ll have met a fair amount of people with names lika Bjorn, Alfhild and Hrodulfr, mainly borrowed from the Icelandic and Old Norse name tradition. I don’t blame Bethesda for not putting the proper ö‘s and ð‘s in there, although I for one would have enjoyed it. But then I’m in a certain subset of nerd. In general, these names are about as surprising as the fact that it takes ages to get to Solitude – if you’re making a Nordic inspired game, it makes sense to find a lot of names in that tradition. In a later post, I might go deeper into the variations you can find on this tradition, but here I want to focus on three names that stood out to me as I played.

Unless you’re deliberately playing against the grain, the first city you’ll reach in Skyrim is Whiterun, which lies right in the middle of the map. You tend to spend a lot of time here, making armour out of things you’ve killed, selling ancient swords from legendary battles to the first merchant you meet, being the only person who runs everywhere, etc. In the main square, you’ll hear this guy preaching:

In the context of the game, Heimskr here is a religious nut, yelling at people and being generally annoying (which leads to things like this). For this reason, I loved his name: heimskr means ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ in Old Norse. Etymologically, it’s derived from heimr ‘home’; the person who stays too much at home becomes stupid, or you leave the stupid at home. So Heimskr is a great name for the village crazy.

Another couple of names did confuse me as someone who knows the language, and for the same basic reason. At one point, I was asked to go find Captain Aldis in Solitude. It took me longer than it should have, because I was not looking for this:

From the Skyrim wiki: http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Captain_Aldis
From the Skyrim wiki: http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Captain_Aldis

The reason my eyes were not set to Bearded Man was that I interpreted Aldis as a female name. While other games have recently done great trans characters, I never got the feeling that Skyrim was aiming for that, but who knows? The suffix -dís, which determines the name’s grammatical gender, is not only grammatically feminine, but has the basic meaning ‘goddess’. Captain Beard’s first name could actually be interpreted as ‘All-goddess’. Names formed with this suffix can be found on everything from runestones to presidents.

I then had a similar experience when I met Helgi. Helgi is a very common male name in both West and East Norse. known among many other things as the name of a poetic hero. In Skyrim, this is Helgi:

Helgi1
http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Helgi

Although a bit transparent, it is meant to be a girl. Who happens to have a very heroic male name.

What I wonder when it comes to the two last names is what happened to give them this gender swap. Given the clever use of Heimskr, the large number of Norse names that are absolutely fine and the fact that this is no low-budget production, how did this come to be? As mentioned above, I unfortunately don’t think it’s a conscious play on the characters’ gender roles. I also have to assume that the developers had someone research possible names from the tradition they were working from, and since they in general don’t seem to be used randomly regardless of gender, they must have known at some point that Aldis denotes female and Helgi male in the original language. My best bet is that the writers did know this, but thought more about their non-Scandinavian audience. Names ending in –is are often male in English (Harris, Lewis), and you can even find the name Aldis as a boy’s name, if uncommon. The name Helgi might put the non-Scandinavian speakers (poor, unfortunate souls) in mind of any number of names ending in –i or -y, like Cindi or Jenny. The female version of Helgi may also be more familiar, Helga.

While it’s sad to conclude that huge, international game companies could tend to think more about their most likely audience than about total correctness in their historical onomastics, it can be a comfort to see that they do it pretty rarely.

Harbingers

Amends_bringer

This is a Harbinger of Death from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series). As the wiki describes them, they are “blind, with their eyelids covered by rune-like scars”; or, as I would describe them, runic scars. Those are perfectly fine runes, apart from their replacing someone’s eyes. The runes are also from two different runic systems. The left one (the Harbinger’s right) is either a (probably for a mystery sound between and z with a bit of i in it) from the older futhark or an m from the younger futhark. The other one is an Anglo-Saxon ng.

Using runes fits well with making the Harbingers look sinister (again, the eye thing also helps) and with roots in some ancient mystery. I doubt any deep thought has gone into the choice of the actual runes involved. They’re nice and angular, and the asymmetry in the face adds to the uncanniness of the characters.

Inquisitors’ minds want to know

In the early hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Cassandra brandishes a big, heavy book, which heralds the rebirth of the Inquisition (apologies to the non-gamers: quick recaps of events in games never make much sense if you haven’t played them). For a split second, you see a page in this book, and it’s full of runes!

I decided to do an exquisitely* nerdy thing: I wanted to find out what it said. Being better at runology than technology, I was proud that I at least managed to get a screen cap from the video:

Inquisition runes book 2

Some things are clear even before starting to transliterate the text. The runes are from the Anglo-Saxon futhorc; some runes, like the aand g, are unique to this system. There are also a couple of hints that this is a transliteration from a modern language rather than an original text or a translation, the main tell being the use of doubled runes. You can see a couple of X-shaped runes next to each other towards the end of the third full row. Those are two g runes. In runic writing, there is no representation of vowel or consonant length, and next to no norm that tells the writer to write something he or she doesn’t hear – no silent h here. What this means is that doubled runes only occur in premodern runic writing when they’re in two different words, and not even always then. The word in Cassandra’s book containing two g‘s in fact transliterates as suggestions. Another good sign that you’re dealing with modern language is the absence of certain runes, namely the ones that don’t directly correspond to a letter in the Latin alphabet – ng or æ, for example.

So, behold the magic of transliteration from low resolution images of things never meant to be transliterated!

20150331_233622

In the end, I got enough coherent text out of this to have something to Google. The words windows and font recurred, and I got the phrase the windows version youre running (which includes yet another pair of doubled runes, and a missed opportunity for using the ng rune). That search yielded nothing, but another one (about font options in the control panel) lead me to this, the readme file for the font.

This truetype-font was created in 1995 by Morten Bek.

It is supposed to resemble the writings on the maps from The Hobbit, by J.R.R.Tolkien.

If you have any comments, corrections, suggestions or questions, e-mail me at: bek@post3.tele.dk

Note that this is _not_ the Cirth (Certhar) but the letters used on the cover of The Hobbit.

To install in a windows environment, copy the file futhark.ttf to \windows\system or \windows\fonts, depending on the Windows version you’re running. Choose Install New Font under the Font options in your Control Panel (or confront your windows-manual if this is totally incromprehendible).

Please keep this file with the font, whenever you copy it and spread it to your friends.

More fonts are under way….
Morten

Upon double checking I could see that it is in fact the text found in Cassandra’s book. It appears that the game developers used a free online font from 1995 for their half second of runes, and did as the author asks: “Please keep this file with the font, whenever you copy it and spread it to your friends.” I did try to email the address given, but it bounced, as twenty year old email addresses will.

There really is no reason for BioWare to put anything more interesting in there when it comes to the contents of the text. It’s a split second view, and only people with strange ideas of fun will ever try to read it. Instead, it’s the form that matters here. The runes on the worn vellum are a shorthand for something ancient; a tradition that goes back so far that you, as the player and as the role you’re playing, don’t understand all of it. This scene ends the prologue to a very long game, and the use of runes helps to quickly place you in something larger and older than you. Of course, there are also practical considerations. By using a writing system few people can read immediately, the developers don’t need to come up with clever text in the book. And by using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc, they don’t need to come up with a writing system of their own. So that’s how they ended up with a Danish designer’s version of Tolkien’s version of Anglo-Saxon runes.

* An inquisition seeks within, something exquisite is sought out. Etymology!