Kurtzhau and the Fallen Viking

An LJ entry from 2007, back when Kurtzhau was nearly 4. Reposted because a fellow atheist dad was asking about how to discuss death with children.

“Daddy?” says Kurtzhau, sitting up in bed. “Perhaps he lay down by behind the rock and popped his bow up and the enemy arrows just damaged the rock and he was still alive?”

“You can’t shoot a bow lying down,” I say gently. “And then he wouldn’t have been helping his mates.”

“Well, perhaps he was clever, Daddy?”

“He could have been, but he still got killed, because we saw him.”

“It makes me sad,” says Kurtzhau, hugging his polar bear and rehashing the last hypothetical fight of a warrior a thousand years gone.

A few hours before, Kurtzhau – aged 3 and a lot – saw his first dead body. We were in the Museum to look at “Viking stuff” (“…and  will they have Celtic stuff too?”), and passed a hole in the floor with a display case over it.

“What’s that Daddy?”

“It’s a skeleton, Kurtzhau,” I say matter-of-factly. That’s how we come with the nasty side of life; no fuss, no histrionics, what is, is.

“I want to look… read me what it says.”

So we kneel down at the transplanted graveside. “He was a Viking, I say. About 30 – younger than me, a bit older than SwordGuy… you know, the one you were hitting with swords at the weekend. When this guy died, his friends buried his things with him… that was his shield… those were arrows…”

“Why?”

So I find myself explaining (i) Skeletal structure and decomposition, and (ii) Norse beliefs about the afterlife. Then I say, “Shall we go and look at the trains now?”

“No Daddy.” Kurtzhau takes off his hat, carefully positions it as an elbow rest and settles himself to properly consider the skeleton. “I want to stay with the dead Viking for a while.” A moment or two pass, then, “Tell me a story about him.”

“Well, what’s that thing? Yes, a comb. So perhaps he had long hair and liked to comb it. And those are clippers, so maybe he kept his beard neatly trimmed like Doug does.

And there’s the tip of a knife he’d have worn like this… and the boss of a shield and arrows, so perhaps he was an archer, and liked to keep his beard out of the way. Those are gaming pieces, so perhaps he liked to sit up late around the fire playing a board game….”

Kurtzhau nods and fixes me with sad eyes. Belatedly, I understand that as a child he has little sense of the temporal gulf between us and this mighty-thewed Norseman slain in his prime. This isn’t a “scary skelington” before us, it’s a person. “Now tell me about how he died.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“But tell me.”

“OK. There are no obvious marks on the bone so… perhaps…”

One day, lots of Vikings turned up and attacked the Archer’s village. The locals were outnumbered, so they fled into the hills up a narrow path.

Our man was an true bowman, the best there was. He found a good spot, slung his shield on his back, put a new string on his bow, and began picking off the invaders. Sometimes he hit one and killed or wounded him. Other times he missed. But so fast and furious was his shooting, so accurate, that it slowed down and distracted the attackers. They never noticed the archer’s mates creeping round to attack from the side (attacking from the side is an important life lesson I try to build into Kurtzhaus’s military games).

So the locals fell on the invaders, and put them to the sword. But when they went fetch the Archer, they found him slumped with an arrow in his stomach. Eventually, the attackers had got too close. Some kept him pinned down with a rain of spears, while their own archers worked around the flank to enfilade his position, and that was how he took his death wound.

He was still alive when they carried him home, but there were no proper doctors back then. So all they could do was keep him warm and drugged on herbs. They sat up into the night talking of old deeds. But in the morning, nobody was surprised that he had slipped away.

They dug him a good grave, put his things in it with him – “His game pieces Daddy, and his bow” – and closed it off with planks from his favourite ship. Then they drank beer and sang songs about him. One of them wrote a poem about how brave he’d been and how much they missed their Archer. And they were still reciting that poem generations later.

Kurtzhau nodds solemnly.

So, we potter around the crappily thematic Archaeological display – case of context free spades anybody? – and head home.

It’s after lights out, that Kurtzhau replays the fight, tries to find a way for his Viking to have lived another 30 years or so.

And then we talk  – in terms a three-year-old can understand – about death, and aging, and how we – most of us – live a long time, and that there’s no point in dwelling on mortality.  And how the Fallen Viking would probably not have wanted him to be upset, because Vikings knew how to enjoy themselves and have fun (at other people’s expense mostly, but let’s not go there right now).

“Yes,” says Kutzhau. “But it still makes me sad.”

“I know,” I say. “But that’s OK.” Then I tuck up my perceptive little three year old, with his polar bear and his panda, and try not to think about how a small boy’s bed companions resemble the grave goods of times past.

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