Three of the four books I’ve written so far are set in the Viking Age, and when I visit schools, children often want to know why. Well, obviously Vikings are great material for exciting and bloodthirsty narratives. If I ask the children themselves to describe what Vikings mean to them, hands shoot up, and they say things like: ‘bloodthirsty’, ‘raiders’, ‘killing people with axes’. And I say, ‘That’s all true, but did you know they were also farmers, sailors, discoverers, poets, and adventurers?’
As a writer I’m fascinated by the paradoxes of the Viking age. Here are these hugely energetic, independent, self-reliant people, bursting out of Scandinavia and sailing all over the world, to Byzantium, to Russia – raiding the British coast, discovering and colonising Iceland and Greenland, crossing to North America. Yet their appetite for adventure is intensely practical; it’s all about things we can understand – obtaining goods, winning land for farms, settling down in a new place to raise families.
The whole period is one of colour, excitement, change. Norway and Iceland didn’t adopt Christianity until around 1000. That’s incredibly late for Europe as a whole, so you get this tension between pagan and Christian ideas, sometimes with members of the same family holding different beliefs – amulets with the cross on one side and Thor’s hammer on the other so that people could hedge their bets. We’re so entirely used to post-Christian Europe that it’s really intriguing to peer into this mirror where things were different. (And this may be the reason why so many people vaguely assume that the Vikings are, er, sort of prehistoric. A couple of years ago, Waterstones in Oxford had their Viking books shelved under ‘Prehistory’…) Christianity, it seems to me, expends a great deal of ingenuity attempting to reconcile the notion of a loving God with the world as we see it. The Vikings accepted that their world was a violent and unfair place. Even the gods were not immune from destruction. The best thing was to earn the respect of gods and men. “Cattle die, kindred die: every man is mortal. One thing never dies: a man's good name.”
And we can share their admiration of those who did their best to live up to that motto, often with grim humour:
“Bury me on that headland I thought so suitable for a home,” says Thorvald Eiriksson (mortally wounded by an arrow, in the Greenland Saga). “I seem to have hit on the truth when I said I would settle there.”
In modern terms, Thorvald richly deserved his fate, having just massacred several Native Americans as they lay asleep. Iceland’s great poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, was just six years old when he deliberately killed a playmate with his axe. Violent, ruthless, canny, yet capable of great sensitivity and author of a heartbreaking poem on the death of his son who drowned at sea, he typifies the Viking Age hero – not a man you would be happy to have for a next-door neighbour. I was thinking of Egil when I wrote the character of Harald Silkenhair for ‘Troll Blood’ – whether it’s a gun, or a sword, how do we stand up to the threat of violence? What is it to be a hero? What is true bravery? These are questions the Vikings were deeply concerned with, and so are we, however different our answers may be.
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