Manuscript vs Myth: The Wolf in the Whale
Editorial Note: ‘The Wolf in the Whale’ centres around the Inuk character Omat, who is Sipiniq, and refers to themselves as both male and female at different points throughout the story. As the book is written in first person and the appropriate pronouns are unclear, we have made the decision to refer to Omat using ‘they’ pronouns for the duration of this article.
Published in January 2019, Jordanna Max Brodsky’s ‘The Wolf in the Whale’ is set in Northern Canada and tells the story of an Inuk hunter called Omat and their interactions with gods and spirits, both those of their own people and those of the mysterious invading Vikings. It was inspired by the fact that the Inuit and the Norse are thought to have reached Canada at similar times and though the two groups are not thought to have had much interaction at this time, the novel queries what might have happened if they did. Though Omat’s people are inspired by the Thule, the author takes inspiration for their traditions and myths from multiple sources, including Greenlandic and Alaskan cultures.
Born biologically female, Omat is said by their grandfather, and the tribe’s Angakkuq (or spiritual leader), to hold the spirit of their recently deceased father and as such is raised male. Omat is raised to be both a mighty hunter like their father and a mighty Angakkuq like their grandfather.
A key theme of the novel – and one encapsulated by the novel’s title – is of Omat’s gender. Initially, Omat is unaware of their biological sex and presents fully as male. When they eventually learn the truth, Omat initially completely rejects the female gender, insisting that they are male and rejecting any thought of presenting otherwise. Throughout the novel, Omat gradually comes to explore and respect more aspects of femininity, even embracing their own. They begin to identify as both male and female, embracing both genders – “I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack” – and their child refers to them as both Anaana (mother) and Ataata (father). A significant event which helps Omat reconcile the two sides of themselves is when they witness a wolf run into the ocean and transform into a whale – inspired by a spirit from Inuit legend which can take the form of a wolf on land, and an orca in water. As the creature that Omat sees can be both wolf and whale, so too Omat realises that they can be both female and male.
The novel is overall separated into two main narrative arcs. The first half focuses on Omat’s journey from childhood to early adulthood, their struggle to become a great warrior and Angakkuq, and the struggles of their tribe in a land where food is scarce, and the gods seem to have withdrawn their favour. It also deals with the conflict brought about when Omat and her tribe meet the brutal Issuk and his people who are unwilling to accept a hunter/ Angakkuq of Omat’s perceived gender, when being either is considered taboo for women (this was the case in the novel, but not necessarily true in real life, where there are historic and contemporary examples of both male and female Angakkuq).
As a Angakkuq, gods and spirits play a significant role in Omat’s life. Their life was saved as an infant by the wolf spirit Singarti when they were believed to have been stillborn and left in the snow. Acting as Omat’s guide, or tuurngaq, the wolf plays an important role in her journey throughout the novel. There are also two Inuit legends which play a significant role in the narrative.
First is the legend of Sanna (also known as Sedna). Sanna was a beautiful girl, but wilful. Though many successful and handsome men came asking for her hand she refused them all. Eventually a beautiful but unknown man, came and asked to marry Sanna. Against her father’s wishes, Sanna agreed. She travelled with her husband to his home where she discovered that her husband was a dangerous spirit – a petrel shapeshifted into the form of a man (in other versions of the myth her husband may appear as other species of bird). Terrified, Sanna fled, and her husband pursued.
Sanna managed to reunite with her father and begged him to help. Though he initially did, Sanna’s petrel-husband summoned a mighty storm. Fearing that he would die, Sanna’s father flung his daughter from the boat. She clung to the side and refused to let go. Raising his knife, Sanna’s father severed her fingers to the first joint. When she clung, he severed the second joint and then the third. Finally, Sanna let go, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Her finger joints became seals and walrus and whales and are known as Sanna’s children. When Sanna is happy she sends her children to the Inuit to ensure that they do not starve.
It is Sanna who controls the food and fortune of Omat’s tribe and, when her favour is withdrawn, she who no longer sends food to Omat’s tribe. This is said by some to be the result of Omat breaking taboo, but this is not the case, though Omat’s existence is intrinsically linked to the goddess’s disfavour. Omat’s father had drowned and so his spirit was condemned to remain in Sanna’s halls – the Adlivun of Inuit mythology – where he became particular favourite of the goddess. When Omat was born, Omat the first’s spirit was reborn with them. Sanna was angered by his escape from her halls, and this anger transferred onto his child leading to her withdrawing her favour.
The legend of Sanna is also significant because of the parallels it draws between Sanna’s violent and powerful husband and the violent and powerful Issuk. When the tale of Sanna is told within the novel, the Petrel is described as having red eyes. When Issuk appears and is also described as having red eyes, the reader is instantly on guard. Like the Petrel, Issuk takes Omat from their family as his ‘wife’ and, like the Petrel, forces Omat’s family to and overlook and even cause Omat’s suffering out of fear and powerlessness – much as Sanna’s father cut off her fingers in the face of the Petrel’s storm.
The second significant legend is that of siblings Malina and Taqqiq, solar and lunar deities. Malina was a beautiful woman and her brother, Taqqiq found himself desiring her. One night he came to the place she was sleeping and raped her. The light had gone out, so Malina was unable to see the face of her attacker. When he came again the next night, Malina smeared soot from the lamp on his fae so that she would recognise him. Upon learning that her rapist was her brother, Malina was horrified. Taking a knife she cut off her breasts and gave them to her brother before snatching a lamp and fleeing. Taqqiq gave chase but dropped his own lamp which spluttered and became weaker. Malina became the sun and Taqqiq, following her through the sky with his weaker lamp, became the moon.
Their story first appears as a cautionary tale told by Omat. This is a moment of triumph for Omat, used to help their friend evade her father’s wandering eye and marry well, with Omat using the legend to emphasise the cultural taboo of close family sleeping together and shaming their friend’s father into doing the right thing. Omat later tells the story again, this time emphasising Malina’s rape by her brother as a way of Omat processing their own violent assault by Issuk.
But hunger, Issuk, and survival are not the only challenges that Omat and their family faces, and they are brutally attacked. Their attackers are Vikings, and among them is Brandr, a man whose destiny soon becomes entwined with Omat’s own. The Viking invaders also bring with them gods of their own; Odin, Thor, and Loki.
Initially the narrative seems to support the concept of multiple pantheons co-existing side by side. It is said that the gods are bound to their followers, their power extending to lands where their people live. Taqqiq for example is said to only be able to reach Canada because Omat’s people had settled there, and this was why he had shown them favour for so long. The Norse gods had encouraged the Vikings to travel to this land because this would allow the gods to escape destruction due to the spread of Christianity in their homeland.
This apparent co-existence, however, is quickly destroyed by Loki’s assertion that the spirits (Wolf, Bear and Raven) and gods (Malina, Sanna and Taqqiq) revered by Omat’s people are in fact Jotun (Frost Giants from Norse myth), and their icy home the realm of Jotunheim (home of the Frost Giants). Even Singarti, Omat’s guide is revealed to be a Jotun – it was Loki who had sent the wolf all those years ago to save Omat’s life.
In the end, Loki’s words were proved true. He and the ‘Jotun’ fought against the Norse gods in the prophesised Ragnarok, with Omat and Brandr both unwilling participants in the fight, with Omat looking only for a way to save their people and drive the invading Viking from the land. During the fight Omat ascends to the skies and convinces Malina to no longer flee her brother but instead to chase him. This reversal causes a solar eclipse, and Omat is said to metaphorically play the role of Hati, child of Fenrir (here represented by Singarti) who swallowed the moon in Norse legends of Ragnarok.
With the battle’s end both sides are destroyed, and the Vikings fled, but the danger is not over. Only two Vikings were left behind – Brandr, now Omat’s husband, and Snorri who is revealed to be a converted Christian. His presence in the land is a danger, as it would bring his god to the land. With reluctance, Brandr leaves, in order to return Snorri home.
Paradoxically, while the invasion of Christianity throughout the land is treated as a source of horror, the displacement of the Inuit gods by the Norse is treated with triumph. With the birth of Omat’s daughter – half Inuk, half Viking – the gods are restored but, like Omat’s daughter, both worlds and both gods are now entwined. Though the gods appear to Omat in their Norse guise, they are different, their iron weapons are replaced with slate and bone. Freya is described as wearing a wreath of yellow poppies – flowers associated with Malina throughout the novel. Loki is even said to appear in the guise of the raven trickster spirit “Qangatauq or Loki, or some being that was now both at once”.
Overall, although the novel tells a fascinating and original story with compelling characters and an interesting exploration of rarely used mythology. That said, the celebration of the Viking gods settling in Canada is somewhat unnerving considering that the Vikings served as the aggressors for the novel, and the fact that keeping foreign gods out of her home was one of Omat’s main goals. This is particularly disturbing when you take into account that – from the author’s own research – the only recorded interaction of these two cultures is a Viking account of encountering ‘a family dressed in white, living in a hole in the ground’ which resulted in the theft of two Inuit children.