By Peter Alexander Kerkhof
What if you could sail the seventh century North Sea coast and step in the footsteps of a legendary Danish warlord like Hrothgar or Beowulf? Would you pillage the realm of the Frisian king Radbod or sail on to the lands of the Franks where the cities were made from stone and the ploughs from iron? It’s all possible in the soon to be released story based RPG cum settlement manager ‘The Great Whale Road’, an indie game developed by a small Spanish studio called Sunburned Games. The lead developer, Joachim Sammer, has situated the game in the European Dark Ages (500 – 750 CE), the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the reign of king Charlemagne; the time when Germanic speaking peoples established new kingdoms and laid the ethnolinguistic foundations for present-day Europe.
Although the game takes place roughly two hundred years before the Viking Age, the Great Whale Road capitalizes on the popularity of these bearded mead-loving barbarians in TV-shows such as Vikings (big surprise) and The Last Kingdom. At the same time, though, The Great Whale Road aims to be true to its historical inspiration and appreciate the uniqueness of the seventh century. A good deal of research by the team laid the foundations for what feels like an authentic experience of Early Medieval northwestern Europe. This research is visible in the beautifully drawn 2D-backgrounds, a fascinating map of the seventh century North Sea coast and the detailed storylines. Even the name of the game, ‘The Great Whale Road’, draws from historical sources and is actually a cryptic designation for ‘the sea’ that is found in an eighth century Old English poem. Nevertheless, one area where the team’s drive for authenticity initially did not shine through was in the use of personal names and place-names. Although the team did mean for the names to be historical, some personal names were taken over in a corrupted spelling, some place-names referred to settlements that did not yet exist in the seventh century and in some cases even modern settlement names were used. After a comment on the game’s Steam page about these inconsistencies, I got into contact with Joachim Sammer. And being both a linguist and a video game nerd, I offered to provide the historical name forms for the Danes, the Franks and the Frisians.
Why do you need a linguist for finding historical names, you are asking. Can’t you just look up the historical names in a history book? Well, especially for the Franks and the Frisians, it is not easy for a layman to find authentic name forms, both for personal names and settlement names. An important reason for this is that the historians who write most overview works on the period rarely know these names themselves. Rather, historians, who specialize on Latin source material, tend to use the latinized forms for Germanic names because that is the way the contemporary authors, often Old French speaking monks, wrote them in their Latin chronicles. This is why Frankish kings are known as Chilpericus, Clovis and Clotharius, names that differ quite a lot from the corresponding Germanic names in Old High German and Old English because of their latinization. Linguists however are interested in the language the people really spoke (which was not Latin) and through linguistic reconstruction they uncovered the true spoken forms behind the latinizations which in this case are Hilperik, Hloduweh and Hloduhari. It is these ‘spoken’ name forms in languages such as Old Dutch and Old Frisian that I suggested the game developers should use.
A similar problem involving latinizations affects the place-names of the southern settlements you can visit in the game. In Belgium and France archaic Latin and Celtic name forms from the Roman period were continued far into the Middle Ages. This despite the fact that large areas of northern Gaul became Old Dutch speaking after the fall of the Roman empire and the Roman era name forms were replaced by Germanic adaptations. For example, the Flemish city of Ghent is first encountered in seventh century sources as Roman Gandavum, but an eighth century Anglo-Saxon chronicle provides the Old Dutch name form as Gant and Gent. Since Ghent has been Dutch speaking since the fifth century, it is highly plausible that the Old Dutch name was used in common parlance and the Latinate name was just an archaic vestige from an older period that could only be found in dusty old book rolls.
It is interesting to note that Old English sources preserve Old Dutch name forms from all over northern France. Unbeknown to many historians, early medieval settlements like Boulogne, Amiens, Condé and Paris were known in the seventh century by their Old Dutch names as Bunnan, Embenum, Cundath and Persum. The fact that the Anglo-Saxons knew these cities by their Dutch names reflects the widespread bilingualism that must have been common in France all the way up to the Carolingian period. In the video game, several of these Old Dutch name forms are used which makes sense since all the story lines are written from a Germanic speaking perspective, whether it be Danish, Frisian or Frankish. In that sense, the Great Whale Road is quite unique in popularizing linguistic knowledge that even historians specialized in the period are often not familiar with.
For the Danish personal names however, Joachim Sammer insisted on using thirteenth century Old Norse instead of the more appropriate Runic Norse name forms. For who would recognize a name like AnulaibaR (preserved in Old English as Anlaf and Old Irish as Amlabh) as the Old Norse Viking name Ólafr? A reliance on Old Norse personal names also allowed a more straightforward integration of Viking religion in the story line. Instead of addressing your prayers to WodinaR, ThunaraR and FraujaR, expect to invoke the more widely known god names Odinn, Thor and Freyr. Although from a marketing perspective this approach is understandable (Viking mythology is after all immensely popular) in my opinion it represents a missed chance to show the ‘real names’ of the early medieval Scandinavians to a non-academic public. Inevitably, design choices had to be made to appeal to a large public and a Viking-like theme might do just that.
So when is the game going to be released? On the 30th of March, Sunburned Games will officially launch the retail version of The Great Whale Road. The only story line to be playable will be the Danish one which has been in Steam early access since last summer. Later this year, the Frankish and the Frisian story lines will follow suit and there are possibly more story lines (an Anglian and Mercian one?) on the horizon as downloadable content. As a medievalist and an Old Germanicist, I have to say I am very happy with the development of a video game set in the Early Medieval Dark Ages. This period of barbarians and intertribal warfare is fascinating in so many aspects and definitely deserves more attention in pop culture. The Great Whale Road succeeds in bringing this period to life and includes some historical name forms which thus far have never been used outside of academia. So if you ever wanted to sail the seventh century North Sea and visit the lands of the Frisians and the Franks, you can do so this spring. And at the same time please appreciate the beautiful Frisian, Frankish and Danish place-names while you are plundering these settlements and selling their trade goods in the next town over.