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Author Topic: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken  (Read 974 times)

Offline Yora

Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« on: January 08, 2016, 04:43:28 PM »
Yesterday I saw someone asking about obscure regional heroes or legends that would be deserving of being made into movies and being born in Hamburg and growing up in Lübeck (and intending to move back there this summer), I was thinking of the 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker. I only remembered the story about his beheading in Hamburg but not the story of his preceding capture and so looked him up at Wikipedia.

And let me tell you: Northern Europe in the late 14th century was awesome! At least when you're writing fiction based on it 500 years later. George Martin was very successful with his idea of War of the Roses + Dragons and this stuff certainly has similar potential. (Though he already was an experienced writer at that time and I am not.)
I am still struggling with my Bronze Age Sword & Sorcery material so maybe spending some time thinking about something very different might be a good diversion. This is nothing serious yet and maybe I'll shelve it to pull it back out in 10 years or it takes up enough steam that I decide to focus on it now and come back to the Sword & Sorcery stories later. But right now it's mostly toying around with ideas.

The source material is really wonderful, though.

Part 1: The Historic Background

The region is the southern Baltic Sea and the main powers the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as the mostly independent German Duchies of Holstein and Mecklenburg, with the independent city state Lübeck right between the two. Lübeck had no king or duke but was ruled by an elected council of rich merchants who owed allegiance to nobody but the emperor (who really was more a chairman of a loose confederacy). Together with the merchants of many other trade cities they formed a guild known as the Hanseatic League that was more powerful and wealthy than many mid-range countries. [Powerful merchant lords, awesome!] Trade in the region was mostly iron, lumber, and pelts in huge quantities, and also amber and salt which could be worth their weight in gold at times. And since all the countries are arranged in almost a circle around a big body of water in the middle, transport relied entirely on ships. [Don't know much medieval fantasy based around ships.] You may notice the island Gotland sitting right in the middle of it all. This does become extremely important several times. In the southeast corner on the map you'll see the Duchy of Prussia, as it's called by the 16th century. During the 14th century it's the territory of the Knights of the Teutonic Order who had been occupying it since their crusade against the pagan Slavs some 100 years earlier. [Warrior monks creating their own country after defeating the heathen locals? That's fantasy gold!] They were only a minor player in the real history, but deserve a much bigger part for a fictional story.

The previous century had been the time of the Little Ice Age and in the early years of the 14th century the Baltic Sea had frozen over several times. [Frozen seas? Nice.] Iceland was facing severe dangers from the arctic winters and contact with Greenland had been completely lost. [Spooky!] And of course you get famine and where there's famine there are bandits and wars. And just as the weather started to slowly improve: Plague! By the end of the century half the population of Europe was dead. I always wanted to do some post-apocalyptic plague fantasy.
And in France you got the 100 years war going on. Which didn't affect people in northern Europe directly, but "trouble in the South" always sounds nice. And also could mean really great business opportunities for merchants with a ruthless streak. In Italy there was some trouble about the popes. And the Balkans were having some troubles with the Turks, which some may remember became a pretty huge deal for all of Europe not much later.

Compared to that, Northern Europe seems to have been relatively lucky and untroubled. But they had their own problems. (Excuse any historic errors you spot, I am still early in the research and this is only inspiration for fantasy, not meant as a historic novel.)

The Prologue
King Valdemar of Denmark started from a very bad position when he became king of Denmark in 1340, with his father and elder brothers having died in a war with the Duchy of Holstein that controled much of the country. But he was able to win it back with a very successful campaign and also got Copenhagen from the Bishop of Roskilde (in Denmark), which he made the new capital city. Since the Danish colony in Estonia had turned out pretty much useless he sold it to the Teutonic Knights. Instead he wanted to conquer southern Sweden which is right next to Copenhagen. Tradition says that in 1349 a ship full of dead men ran on ground on the northern coast, and thus the plague came to Scandinavia. Within a year, half the population of Denmark was dead. But Holstein was also hit pretty hard and Valdemar expanded his possession even further south.

Meanwhile in Sweden, King Magnus was having a civil war against his son Prince Erik and offered Valdemar of Denmark the southernmost part of Sweden and that his second son Hakon would marry Valdemar's daughter Margrete, if he would help him against Erik. But then Erik suddenly died and Magnus didn't want to give Valdemar the promised reward and so Valdemar just took southern Sweden himself.

Now Valdemar pretty much had control over what ships travel in and out of the Baltic Sea as there are only a few narrow channels through the islands between the Danish and Swedish main land. But he still thought that the merchants of the Hanseatic League were getting way too dangerous and so decided to conquer the island Gotland in the center of the Baltic Sea. The main city of the island was Visby, which was a member of the Hanseatic League and so the merchants decided to declare war against Denmark. Which they lost.

Back in Sweden, King Magnus had arranged a new marriage for his son Hakon, this time with princess Elisabeth of Holstein. Which you may remember as the people who killed Valdemar's father and brothers. So Valdemar kidnapped the bride enforced that prince Hakon would marry his daughter Margrete as originally agreed. The Swedish nobles could not accept their king giving in to their enemy like that and removed Magnus from power. The throne did not go to any of his son but instead went to Albert, the Duke of Mecklenburg who was an enemy of Valdemar of Denmark. Sweden, Mecklenburg, and the Hansa joined their forces to get back at Valdemar and this time they defeated him. As part of the peace treaty the Hansa merchants no longer had to pay taxes when their ships traveled through Danish water between the North and Baltic Sea, and more important, got a say on the selection of any future kings of Denmark.

Now it gets messy
Even though Magnus of Sweden had been disposed by the Swedish nobles and replaced by Albert of Mecklenburg, his son Hakon was also the heir to the throne of Norway on his mothers sides. Since Hakon was married to Margrete she became the queen of Norway and they had a son Olaf. Valdemar's only son had died after being wounded in the conquest of southern Sweden and that meant that Olaf was not only the crown prince of Norway but also a possible future king of Denmark.
But Margret was only the second daughter of Valdemar and had an older sister, Ingeborg. Ingeborg was married to Heinrich of Mecklenburg. And their son: Albert of Mecklenburg, the new king of Sweden!
So when Valdemar died without a son, king Albert of Sweden was the obvious first choice for a successor. But in the end the king of Denmark was still elected by the nobles. And since the treated after the defeat of Valdemar, this also included the merchants of the Hanseatic League. While they had fought together against Valdemar, they had since become rivals of Mecklenburg (which lies just outside the city walls) and didn't want Mecklenburg-Sweden to also get control over Denmark. So instead they pulled enough strings that the election was won by the little prince Olaf of Norway. Hakon of Norway died leaving his wife Margrete as regent of both Norway and Denmark at the age of 27.

So this was the end of that? Not exactly. The nobles in Sweden realized that they had made a mistake when they replaced their king Magnus with Albert of Mecklenburg and rebelled (again) to kick him out. (Sadly, young Olaf had already died because he would have been the heir of King Magnus.) The Swedish nobles needed help and turned to Margrete, who had been the wife of Magnuses son and mother of his grandson. [For fictionalization it would probably be better to have Olaf still alive at this point.] With help from Denmark the rebellion in Sweden went quite well but the loyalist troops retreated to Stockholm. Denmark was on good terms with the Hansa merchants who would besiege the city from the sea with their ships while the Danes covered it on land. Something had to be done and back in Mecklenburg King Albert's father Heinrich assembled an army of impverished nobles to fight the Hansa navy as privateers. Which worked pretty well.

But eventually the Swedish rebels won and the loyalists were defeated, Margrete got control of Sweden and Mecklenburg no longer had use for the privateers. But raiding Hansa ships was very lucrative and so the sailors just kept on working as pirates for their own profit. The pirates became a big problem and took over the island of Gotland (remember that one?) and made it their home base. This disrupted trade in all of Northern Europe a lot and finally the Teutonic Knights had enough of it and invaded Gotland. [Warrior Monks vs. Pirates!!!]

Some of the pirates escaped from Gotland and made it through the Danish islands into the North Sea. The only place they could now turn to was East Frisia, which used to be a happy egalitarian anarchy but with the plague and everything had turned back into tribal chiefdoms. [Post-apocalyptic barbarians!] But the Hansa merchants still had trouble with pirates in the North sea and so they send out a fleet specifically to find the remaining pirate ships and destroy them. Which they did and also captured some of their leaders [outlawed noblemen from Mecklenburg] and had them publically beheaded.
After half a century of chaos the nobles of Scandinavia apparently had enough of it and made Margrete officially the queen of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which at that time also included Iceland and most of Finland. She ruled for another 25 years and while her successors first had some trouble and Sweden again became independent a decade after her death, Denmark and Norway stayed together for over 300 years. (Which I think Norwegians today don't feel very positive about.)

If you follow events directly the whole thing would be much too drawn out and some things like the pirates, Teutonic Knights, and Frisian chiefs only appear as small side notes at the very end. But I think it's an impressively big piles of great ideas and inspirations that can be turned into a really cool story.
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Offline Yora

Re: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2016, 06:08:10 PM »
Part 2: Fantasy Adaptation

As I mentioned, I was born in Hamburg and grew up in Lübeck, often bathed in the border river between Holstein and Mecklenburg, and was on vacation in Denmark at least half a dozen times. The biggest brick church in the world, which the Hansa merchants built to show off their fortune is where I go to Christmas service every year. My school was named after the flag ship used by mercenaries that exterminated the pirate fleet. All these things were taking place not near home, but in many cases is the history of my city. But even though I am a huge history buff and my mom as well, I've never really heard much about any of that before. It's probably much better known in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but as world history goes this is really pretty obscure material. While doing some first research online, the vast majority of useful resources was in German with almost nothing in English.

I've also long been thinking that the history and culture of the Baltic Sea is severely underrepresented in modern fiction. Of course you have Vikings, but almost all the time it's dealing with Iceland, Norway, and England and a very specific and narrow time period. Of course it's an interesting period, but never really touches on what's all going on in Sweden, Russia, and Poland.
Our sea is rather small and calm, the landscape mostly flat (fyords are cool, but on the North Sea), and even the forest nothing compared to Siberia or Canada. We had bears and wolves, but everyone has those. The land has it's simple charm, but even I have to admit that it's overall rather boring and unexciting. (Though partly it might be because that's what I consider normal.)
The one example of fantasy that I can think of that is significantly inspired by the general region and time period is the Witcher. Which you may now I am a huge fan of! Normally I am into Bronze Age and Iron Age stuff with maybe some Dark Ages thrown in, but Middle Ages and Renaissance never interested me much. (Too frilly, too much institutions and administration.) But the world of the Witcher as it is represented in the videogame adaptations/expansions looks and feels great, I think I can work with that.

Format and Structure

When it comes to chosing a format, I don't want to go with the obvious epic fantasy trilogy or something like that. Those aren't my style and it would probably end up as a Song of Ice and Fire clone. Nobody needs that. As protagonist I am thinking of a mid-level mercenary commander who is leading a band of men over the course of a few years. I am particularly intrigued by the impoverished nobles who became privateers for Mecklenburg and then took over Gotland as their pirate haven when they were no longer needed, only to be kicked out by the Teutonic Knights, fleeing to the Frisian Chiefs, and eventually being hunted down and exterminated by the Hansa in a final battle at Heligoland. Yes, probably most of them were murdering and stealing, but they are also in a really crappy position, constantly being hunted and discraded by their allies. Most of them didn't get rich but were primarily trying to somehow survive. Which in the end they didn't. (Now that could make for a very dramatic final act: Setting it up that death seems certain but leaving it completely open whether he can somehow literally save his neck until the very last moment.) The Rise of the Triune Queen would merely be the backdrop that creates the chaotic situation where mercenaries are hired and fired by different sides at constant basis.
Though I could also imagine having two more characters who are in completely different situations but their paths end up crossing several times. Maybe a Danish court lady and a Swedish priest or something like that?


But I am also feeling quite excited about the possibilities for Worldbuilding. I am, completely unapaolgetically, a huge fan of classic High Fantasy worlds. I love elves, dragons, and giants! Not necessarily these three, but I am always a little bit disappointed by worlds in which 98% of all people are humans. My favorites for this kind of world are probably mountain trolls and river people. They are just the very first things that come to my mind when I think of fantastic beings. And since the whole politics are about sea power and sea trade, there needs to be sea monsters. I don't think anyone ever claimed sightings of Kraken in the Baltic, but whatever.  :D

As a kid I was on vacation both on the Baltic Sea and the North Sea many times, and I just have to say that compared to the North Sea, the Baltic is boring. Much less wind, pretty much no waves at all. Being on a beach feels much more like standing on a very large lake. I like fantasy landscapes to be really dramatic, and a big pond connected to the oceans by two really narrow gaps between islands just won't do. What I am thinking of is taking the map of the Baltic sea and making it both wider and connecting it in the north with the Arctic sea where Lapland is. That already feels much better. Ships would not have to go through the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden, but the alternative is going through the arctic sea which is a massive detour and really unpleasant. That little strait is still going to be hugely important. (Like the Sunda and Malaka straits in Indonesia.)
There also needs to be a central island like Gotland that everyone wants to control because of it's immensely important strategic location.

I love the idea of the Little Ice Age, but I don't want to do an obvious "Winter is coming" thing. But more closer to the facts, "Spring has come" might also work quite well. Winters are finally starting to get less severa again and agricultural yields are increasing and there is a sense of gold rush among the merchants. Everyone wants to be first and that may require stabbing those who got ahead of you in the back. But a warming climate also means you can visit islands in the far north that have been inaccessible for generations and as glaciers retreat again they reveal things that have been burried beneath the ice for years. Lots of spooky potential.

In the real world, the people of the Baltic Sea had all been Christianized by the 14th century, but in some parts only quite recently. The Teutonic Knights had led a crusade against the pagan Slavs just a century earlier. I don't want to do a monotheism thing with that world, but I like the idea of the eastern peoples having more ancient nature based gods while those in the west are more abstract philosophical. Instead of having established a powerful state, I would make the Crusaders just having established a first foothold in the East. They are an important force, but neither the Easterners nor the merchants and nobles in the West really know what to make of them.
Also, in many old Swedish stories the Fins are known to be dangerous wizards, so giving the Easterners strange shamanistic magic sounds like a wonderful idea.

Regarding the politics, taking over two kingdoms would not be grand enough. That's just common conquest. Getting three kingdoms through manipulation is much more magnificient. So the political landscape needs at least three kingdoms. (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) To make the world feel bigger and more realistic, two powerful duchies also sounds good. (Mecklenburg, Holstein) To that the domain of the Warriors Monks (Teutonic Knights) and we have a good number of players. There also have to be the merchants, so at least one independent city state in the West (Lübeck) and I also like the idea of a huge boomtown in the barbaric East (Novgorod).
I always find the idea of East Frisia being contoled by chiefs in the 14th century strangely funny. (Maybe you have to have been there to get how weird that idea sounds.) And having a region that kind of became a post-apocalyptic anarchy after a plague also seems pretty cool. But currently I don't know where I would put it on a map or how to give it an important role in the greater story.

The final stand for the pirates was at Heligoland, which is a rather strange place. On a map it does not seem that far from the coast, but since all land in the whole region is mirror flat you can't see any  trace of land in any direction. All you have is this not really big hunk of red rock sitting in the middle of an infiniate expanse of water. But it's not so far out in the sea that it isn't relatively easy to find with ships so people knew very early where it is and how to reach it. And apparently it was a very important holy site in ancient times. A lone magic island home to ancient gods in the middle of the sea? And pirates trying to hide there? That has to be used somehow!

I think that mostly sums up my initial ideas that I came up with spontaneously. Now the next step seems to be to develop it into something more complex and coherent with a clear direction. But it really feels like a very fun undertaking.
Spriggan's Den

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Offline ArhiX

Re: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« Reply #2 on: January 10, 2016, 05:23:01 AM »
In the beginning I just wanted to say, that what you had write contains many many more words, than I was being able to write down in a few days.

I always like to stick to one and only world, pumping any good idea I have into it, because it's usually easy for me to create new plots, but creating characters just takes 10 times the effort for me...
Anyways, lately even I acnowledged, that our past is also very very interesting place to go for a search of some inspiration. I recently found out, that my country might have actually been founded by a group of bandits, who got so rich and famous by invading other villages and grew so strong, that they were able to literally WIPE OUT the entire group of tribes (think of what Romans did to Etrusks) slaying almost everyone, and selling some of them to Jews for silver. It's only later when they decided to baptise the country, and make themselves a bunch of "Holy Knights". History is written by the victors I guess. As long everybody else are illiterates. :P
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Az arche mahi Azem. Sevishta. Aiwithura. Azata. Pareshi...

Offline Doctor_Chill

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Re: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« Reply #3 on: January 10, 2016, 05:40:54 AM »
Holy crap I would read this in a heartbeat. I don't have much substance to say right now, if only because I'm trying to wrap my head around the possibilities you can think of.

Wow this makes me excited. I knew the history behind most of this (I blame EU3), but to hear it more clearly and in a fantasy slant makes it all the more awesome. I mean, a post-apoc tribal land riddled by plague? Out in Eastern Europe? That strikes me as so riveting I can't begin to describe what's running through my head.
“It’s a dangerous thing, pretense. A man ought to know who he is, even if he isn’t proud to be it.” - Tomorrow the Killing, Daniel Polansky

Offline Yora

Re: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« Reply #4 on: January 10, 2016, 01:12:05 PM »
I am now very much considering to integrate it into the Bronze Age setting I already have. Socioeconomically it would be a completely different context, but I think many of the individual elements that sound really cool could still work. And the region around the northern merchant city has been troubling me for quite a while, not having a really good idea what it should look and feel yet.
For a story of high politics it probably wouldn't work. You'd need to have all that late medievel political and industrial infrastructure. But for a story about a single mercenary who is only aware of things as far as he can see, I think it would not be a big difference.
Spriggan's Den

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Offline Yora

Re: Story Idea: Kalmar Union + Kraken
« Reply #5 on: November 29, 2017, 05:37:28 PM »
After some 10 years of dealing almost entirely on bronze age inspired exploration adventures, I've decided to try something fresh for a change, and work on something that is actually much closer to the majority of my favorite works of fiction in tone and narratives, which is overwhelmingly noirish, dark fantasy, and fantasy horror. Northeastern Europe is a great frame of reference for that and this reminded me of this pretty cool idea that I had not really put much further thought into over the last two years. I've read my previous notes that I'd written here and I am once again really excited. This is just such a cool idea.
I had already browsing for ideas for a new world for the last two weeks, and I think this story should work quite well in combination with it.

So consider this back in active development.  8)
Spriggan's Den

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