‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

Laughing Shall I Die

And what this means for us is that if you come across headlines – as these days you very often do – which say something like ‘Vikings! Not just raiders and looters any more!’ then the headlines are wrong. If people weren’t raiding and looting (and land-grabbing, and collecting protection money), then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians.

The trouble with reading a book that really excites you is that you end up highlighting passage after passage. Then it’s hard to pick one out to put at the head of a review. I finally chose one from near the beginning, but there were many others.

I’ve posted an excerpt previously, because I did find Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, by Tom Shippey an intriguing and exciting book in my favorite historical field. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one more intriguing. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. In some ways Shippey’s thesis supports “my” work (Viking Legacy, which I translated), in some ways it contradicts it. I have praised Anders Winroth in a previous review (though disagreeing with him at many points). Shippey essentially discards Winroth as one who misses the whole point.

The point being that the word “Viking” is routinely misused in our day. “Viking” means a seaborne warrior – a pirate. If you write about early Medieval Scandinavians in all walks of life and re-label them Vikings, you’re confusing the matter.

To put it bluntly (again), most scholarly books with ‘Viking’ in the title turn out not to be about Vikings, because Vikings aren’t popular among scholars. This book is different: it really is about Vikings.

Vikings, Shippey says, were violent. They excelled at violence and intimidated their enemies, not only through their advanced ships, but through a “death cult” ethic, one which glorified courage and trivialized death. The proper way to face it was with a quip, a laugh, a pithy exit line. Not, he says, because of faith in Valhalla, but simply because courage was the value above all others, the thing other warriors esteemed.

Shippey cites the sagas (Prof. Titlestad will like this part) as evidence of this ethic. He discusses the earliest “legendary” sagas, back to the Volsunga Saga and Beowulf, tracing the stories forward in history to the very end of Heimskringla. Readers already familiar with the sagas will probably enjoy this book most, but I think those unfamiliar with them will be motivated to pick them up.

The books on the Viking Age I’ve appreciated most have been those that taught me new things. Not only facts I didn’t know before (there are several here), but connections I hadn’t expected between facts I did now. Shippey offers many. For instance, he cites a theory (true or not) that Olaf the White, Viking king of Dublin, was the same person as Olaf Geirstad-elf, ancestor of Saint Olaf. I love this kind of stuff.

Anyway, I highly recommend Laughing Shall I Die, if you’re at all interested in Vikings and sagas. It’s one you shouldn’t miss.

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