Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Characters You've Never Heard Of: SKOLVUS


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"Of all the strange characters on this ship, it is the navigator who is the greatest mystery to me.  John Skolvus is perhaps not as mad at the Captain, but the bright glow of lunacy still flickers across his eyes like the sun on a still river.  Skolvus keeps the worst charts and notes I have ever seen.  I have read old texts in the tongue of the Arabian moors that make more sense to me than his scribbles.  His astrolabe is ancient, rusted and bent horribly out of alignment.  No man in their right mind would use it (I tried one day and it calculated true North being 3 degrees south of Iberia – and we were in Iceland at the time).  Yet both Pining and Corte-Real trust him without question.  He’s like a loyal dog for all the faith they put in him, and for the stench which wafts from him.  Skolvus is a little less bestial than the Germans, but barely.  If they are bears then he is some sort of wolf, a little smarter if smaller and less powerful, but possibly even more dangerous."
- from the unpublished short story "1473"

While is was generally accepted for a long time that Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive in North America, that story was long ago proven to be full of shit. The vikings arrived on the shores of Newfoundland a full five hundred years before Columbus, which has been archeologically confirmed. There are also literally hundreds of stories (of varying degrees of plausibility) about other visitors to the "New World" pre-1492. Henry Sinclair, The Earl of Orkney is a popular one. The Scottish Baron supposedly visited North American a full hundred years before Columbus, which is claimed to be proven by the fact that he later built a chapel in Edinburgh that depicted maize (corn) in some of the carvings, a crop which should have been unknown in Europe at the time. There's the legend of Irish Saint Brendan, who crossed the Atlantic seeking Paradise in the 6th century, and tales back as far at the ancient Phoenicians visiting as early as 350 BC are floating around out there. It's quite possible that Columbus himself had traveled to the New World himself before 1492, which is how he convinced the Spanish government to fund his more famous expedition.

One particular tale that always caught my imagination was that of John Scolvus. Supposedly, in 1473 German privateers Didrik Pining and Hans Pothorst, along with with famed Portugese explorer Joao Vaz Corte-Real, sailed to the New World (probably Newfoundland) along with their navigator, John Scolvus. While there is no physical proof this journey took place, Pining, Porthost and Corte-Real are all real and famous people, and it's fascinating to imagine such a journey could have been possible. On the other hand, though he is mentioned in several texts, usually second- or third-hand and under contradictory names, there is no proof that a man named John Scolvus actually existed. Who is this mysterious and mythical figure that may have led famous sailors to a faraway land that (at the time) supposedly didn't exist?

In my fantastic-fiction version of the history of Newfoundland, a character named Skolvus very much exists, though he is equally mysterious and mercurial as his "real-world" namesake. He appears (so far) in one short story, a fictionalized re-telling of Pining and Corte-Real's 1473 journey that also features a few other famous faces. A great deal of mystery surrounds how he knows how to find the island (since he has obviously been there before) and where he goes after he reveals its location to others. He's not the main character in the piece, but he is important to the fictionalized history of the Isle and I suspect he will show his trickster face again.

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