1. Horned Helmet by Henry Treece – This is the first Viking story I read, and a book I’ve re-read many times since. It’s the story of Beorn, an Icelandic boy who falls in with Starkad, a tough Viking warrior. It has everything you could want from a Viking story – hard men, journeys across cold seas, violence, clipped dialogue and fantastic illustrations by one of the greatest artists ever to have worked in children’s books, the great Charles Keeping. If you don’t finish this book convinced that the Vikings are the coolest thing ever, there really is no hope for you.
2. Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff – I discovered the work of Rosemary Sutcliff not long after I read Horned Helmet, and soon started to work my way through everything with her name on it. She’s probably best remembered for her Roman Britain novels (especially Eagle of the Ninth), but Blood Feud is one of her best. Saxon boy Jestyn is sold in the Dublin slave market to Viking adventurer Thormod and finds himself pitched into a feud between his new master and two brothers. Vengeance is a great Viking theme, and this short book packs a powerful punch.
3. The Uhtred novels by Bernard Cornwell – I’d never read anything by Bernard Cornwell, not even the famous (and televised) Sharpe books, until I came across The Last Kingdom, the first book about Uhtred, a ninth-century Saxon brought up by Vikings who reluctantly fights them for Alfred the Great. There are now another five novels about Uhtred, and they build up into a great picture of a turbulent time. This is popular historical fiction at its best – Bernard Cornwell has done his research and it shows on every page. Pretty cool battle scenes and Viking kit, too.
4. Bracelet of Bones and Scramasax by Kevin Crossley-Holland – I’m cheating by including two books here, but one is a sequel to the other and I’m hoping there will be a third. This is the story of Solveig, a young Norwegian girl whose father goes off to join Harald Hardrada, the greatest Viking of them all, in the Byzantine Emperor’s regiment of Viking mercenaries, the Varangian Guards. Solveig follows her father down Russian rivers and across the Black Sea and finds out what being a Viking is all about. Great writing from one of our best writers.
5. The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone – Gudrid of Iceland was certainly one tough woman. She grew up in tough times, and travelled all over the North Atlantic during the great age of Viking exploration – from Iceland, to Greenland and eventually to Vinland. Scottish novelist Margaret Elphinstone puts flesh on the bones of the great Icelandic sagas and shows us what it was like to be a Viking woman. But it isn’t all about the history – this is a gripping, well plotted story too, full of memorable characters, great scenes and wonderful descriptions of the North.
6. Feasting the Wolf by Susan Price – I must declare a special interest here – I edited this book! I knew it was going to be a joy to work on from the moment I read the first page and encountered two young farm boys living on Shetland who want to be Viking warriors. Ottar and Ketil are granted their wish before they’re quite ready, and join a crew of Vikings setting out on a raiding voyage. Susan Price writes taut, laconic prose, and knows her stuff where the Vikings are concerned. But it’s the characters who stand out – two boys who grow into Viking men.
7. Noggin the Nog by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin – Most people probably remember Noggin the Nog as a TV series from the late 1950s, but this great Viking character appeared in a series of books too. Noggin is son of Knut, king of the Nogs, and has several friends with proper Viking names such as Thor Nogson and Olaf the Lofty. It’s all set in a mythical ‘North’ and has dragons and Viking ships, and has long been a cult classic - the static pictures are beautiful to look at, the voiceover narration is hypnotically good, and the stories are quirky and funny.
8. Vinland by George Mackay Brown – I’ve long been a fan of Orkney poet, novelist and short story writer George Mackay Brown, and much of his work deals with the Orcadian chapter of Viking history. Vinland is the story of Ranald Sigmundson, an Orkney boy who takes the whale’s road and travels to Norway, Iceland, Ireland and even further in search of adventure, treasure and faith. It reads like a lost saga, is shot through with verse that sounds as if it has only just been freshly translated from Old Norse, and includes one of the best battle scenes I’ve ever read.
9. The Vikings – Not a book, but the greatest Viking movie of all time, the one starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh and Ernest Borgnine. I saw this at a young and very impressionable age and loved every over-tinted Technicolor second of it. Kirk Douglas romps through his role as a Viking adventurer with a heart of steel, spreading mayhem and taking whatever he wants in true (stereotyped) Viking fashion. Best scenes: Kirk leaping from oar to oar as his Viking ship sails up his home fjord and Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar leaping into a pit of snakes. Brilliant.
10. Burnt Njal - Also sometimes known simply as Njal’s Saga, this is my favourite of the original Icelandic tales. Njal is a great character, but there are plenty of others he encounters – Mord Valgardsson, Gunnar Hlidarendi, the wonderfully named Glum Hildisson. It’s a tale of violence and revenge, broken marriages and betrayal, heroism and an acceptance of fate, all set against the backdrop of the north Atlantic world of the Viking age. Wonderfully laconic dialogue, memorable pursuits and plenty of brutal fight scenes. It’s like a dozen great movies rolled into one.