My friend Dale Nelson suggested I read Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die, a book on the Viking Age focusing on its warrior ethos. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading the book. It’s quite long. But I’m finding it immensely congenial, a book that reinforces my prejudices – and who doesn’t enjoy that? Broadly speaking, it’s a sort of a backlash book against the prevailing consensus in Viking studies, the one that says, “The Vikings were really pretty much like everybody else. They just got bad press because their enemies wrote the history books.” I must admit I’ve said the same sort of thing, especially at reenactment events, but I’ve always held secret reservations.
Shippey (a Tolkien biographer and “the Professor’s” successor at Oxford) says phooey to all that. The Vikings, he says, were masters of violence and of psychological warfare. They won by intimidation, and through belief in something like a death cult. Here’s what he says about the political upheavals that wracked Scandinavia in the time of Beowulf:
Using modern terms, the story is one of centralizing power, professionalization of the military, disappearance of local groups and tribal names, and wars – so Hedeager suggests – to control strategic resources including land and access to bog iron.
The last is a modern view, by a modern scholar who characteristically prefers sensible economic motives for war. Our ancient texts, like Beowulf and Hrolf’s saga, suggest just as plausibly that the wars were undertaken for glory, for revenge, to expand power.