Friday 15 January 2010

"The Fury of the Norsemen" - The Appeal of the Vikings - by Katherine Langrish

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.

Visit Katherine's website and her new blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles


Elen C said...

Great post. I love the idea that writers should think about bravery. I have never consciously done so, but now I think of it I see it is a theme in my work.

When I taught in a museum, I was always interested in the idea of progress. If you asked a regular adult (rather than a historian) put these 'ages' in the correct order: Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, Roman, they would almost always think the right answer was 'Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Norman.' People hate the thought that there isn't linear progress.

Katherine Langrish said...

How interesting! I'd never have thought people would get the Romans after the Anglo Saxons. But yes, I'm sure you're right: people like to think of civilization progressing in a smooth uphill line.

But how much of that is due to preconceptions of what 'civilised' actually means. I'd rather be a Viking woman than a Roman woman, any day!

Elen C said...

If I had the Tardis for a day or two, you would definitely find me circa 100AD wandering down the Via Appia. Olive oil and white bread for me, thanks!

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes, but Roman women had few if any civil and legal rights. Viking women could inherit and own property, and were much more equal with men. (As the large number of very strong women in the Icelandic sagas may suggest!)

Elen C said...

As Harry Hill might say 'there's only one way to decide; FIGHT!'

Enter stage left: Russell Crow as Maximus
Enter stage right: Ray Winston as Beowulf...

Meg Harper said...

You're so right about how Christians expend a lot of energy on juggling God loves us with the awfulness of the world we see - constantly troubles me as there is no answer and I get fed up with my fellow Christians doing theological gymnastics about it! But I guess I stick with it partly because at least we're motivate to try to do something about it! Did the Vikings do charity at all? I know virtually nothing about them -just horrible history stuff like they used pee to bleach their hair!

Katherine Langrish said...

Meg, I doubt if the Vikings did charity in the modern sense! They believed in fair dealing and neighbourliness, but often fell short! (See Njal's Saga... etc, etc.) Of course, I'm not suggesting we should all begin worshipping Odin. Just that even a religion/culture as unlike ours as the Vikings' does have elements we can respect and even learn from!

Elen, I'd love to see that contest!