A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
‘In the centuries that followed the sacking of Lindisfarne, Norse ships of oak and iron transported these northern voyagers to all corners of the medieval word and beyond, where they not only raided but also traded with locals, explored and colonized new lands, and embarked on pilgrimages and crusades. They expanded westwards across the North Atlantic, settling Greenland for several centuries and attempting to settle the fringes of the North American continent. North beyond the Arctic Circle they traded and allied themselves with nomadic tribes, collecting tribute from them and marrying their women. In the east, they navigated the great waterways of Russia, trading furs, slaves, and amber all the way down to the shores of the Caspian Sea and beyond to Baghdad. In the balmy south, they embarked on pilgrimages and crusades to Rome and Jerusalem, and became members of the emperor’s elite bodyguard in far-away Constantinople. Some of these enterprises were predominantly Icelandic affairs, others Norwegian, Swedish or Danish. But they were all – in their different ways – part of the same medieval Norse diaspora; a remarkable, diverse, far-travelling culture that made its mark on many of the great civilizations of the age.’ Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough. Beyond the Northlands. Chapter 1.
‘Vikings’ is one of those words which nearly everyone more or less understands without necessarily knowing precisely what it means. If pushed most of us could probably come up with a vague geographical location for them like Scandinavia, and might even know enough to be able to tell people that they didn’t really wear horned helmets (blame Wagner and the Bayreuth costume designer Carl Doepler). Beyond that, unless they happen to be your specialist field, the Vikings are shrouded in mist and ice and legend.
This, it turns out is not entirely our fault – nor is it peculiar to this century: we’ve always been confused about the Vikings/Northmen/Danes ever since they descended unexpectedly on the Isle of Portland in about AD 789 (four or five years before they attacked Lindisfarne) and dispatched a – probably rather startled – royal official who had ridden out to see who they were and what they wanted.
In fact, the word ‘Viking’ first appears in the English language in the 8th century as wicingsceaðan (that ‘ð’ had the sound of a voiced ‘th’ as in ‘this’), which meant something like ‘piracy’. As ‘sceaðan’ meant theft or crime, wicing meant something like ‘pirate’ or ‘raider – but no nationality was attached to it. It was another few decades before Bishop Wulfstan of York specifically connected the word wicing with the Scandinavian raiders from the North – but even then, it was restricted only to the marauders. Scandinavians were not Vikings all the time unless – as Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, with her tongue not a million miles from her cheek says – ‘they were men whose parents had named them ‘Viking’.
All of this is explained in an unexpectedly lively preamble to the main thrust of Beyond the Northlands, which is to examine the world of the Northmen as viewed through the prism of the Sagas. While I suspect that Barraclough’s entertaining style may be frowned upon by the more po-faced of her academic colleagues (I mean, you don’t expect to find yourself honking inelegantly over the Vinland Sagas) in wearing her learning lightly, she keeps you on board for the journey.
From Ultima Thule to Jerusalem, and the Russian Steppes to Newfoundland, she picks her way through the Sagas, sifting the facts from the wild and colourful fabrications to produce a portrait of a complex people – or more precisely a collection of people – who simply cannot be pigeonholed. Aggressive and acquisitive, raiders and farmers, they they were both shrewd businessmen and explorers so courageous that we molly-coddled and risk-averse modern Europeans can’t even begin to understand it: in the first big expedition from Iceland to Greenland, in AD 985, only fourteen of the original twenty-five ships made landfall.
Over the years, the colourful mythology contained in the old Norse texts has inspired – and been appropriated and manipulated by – many people, including Sir Walter Scott, Sir Edward Elgar, Richard Wagner and, most notoriously, Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler – who combined fallacious racial theory with Norse mysticism to create Hyperborea – the place beyond the North, and the original ‘home’ of the Aryan race.
An entirely happier marriage of Norse studies and a fertile imagination found JRR Tolkien brazenly borrowing tranches of material from the Sagas and reworking them into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In the Saga of Hervor and Heidrek we find not only a kick-bottom shield-maiden riding into battle, dwarves called Durin and Dvalinn and a forest called Mirkwood, but also an enchanted sword found in a haunted barrow and magical chainmail that can be pierced by no weapon …
Here in the UK and – to a lesser extent – the US as well, the Vikings are all around us. Their revolutionary longships, which took them nearly half way around the world, still influence boat design to this day. Their language, Old Norse, colours our everyday lives – from the days of the week (I wrote most of this review on Tyr’s Day, for publication on Woden’s Day) to surnames, place names and everyday object like eggs, knives, cakes and windows – which is hardly surprising, since they were with us for over two centuries.
But where are they now? What happened to the pirates and the ‘slaughter wolves’ who so terrorized the British Isles and a substantial chunk of the northern hemisphere? How could such successful, larger-than-life and vivid characters simply disappear from history?
The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. They are with us still. Anyone of British descent is quite likely to have some Viking blood coursing through their veins, because as anyone who knows anything about the history of our tiny archipelago can tell you, we are – and always have been – a proudly mongrel race.
The Vikings, in the end, simply settled down here and were absorbed into our culture – adding their strength, imagination and courage to our ever-burgeoning gene pool.
And that may be the greatest gift of all.
Oxford University Press. 2016. ISBN: 9780198701248. 352pp.