‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver

The Vikings: A New History

Another history of the Vikings. This one, by Neil Oliver, a Scottish archaeologist and TV presenter, is more subjective than, say, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, which I reviewed recently. I don’t rate The Vikings: A New History as highly as Winroth’s book purely as a scholarly work, but I expect it might be just the gateway book for some readers.

The Vikings: A New History takes a generally chronological approach, which is a useful thing. Books on the Vikings, even histories, tend to separate various geographical spheres of interest into watertight sections. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s also a need for a work that displays the sweep of Viking activity overall, decade by decade. So author Oliver has done a service in that regard.

The execution is a little idiosyncratic. The book begins (apart from personal reminiscences by the author, telling how he came to be interested in the Vikings) with quite a long survey of Scandinavian history beginning in the Ice Age. In compensation, perhaps, it seemed to me the later stages of Viking history got treated in a somewhat perfunctory manner. As if the author was running out of pages and needed to compress.

It’s a very subjective book. Author Oliver is not reticent about telling his own experiences in detail – spending a night alone in a reconstructed iron age hall, riding along briefly on a longship at sea, choking down a sinus-clearing bite of Icelandic hákarl (fermented basking shark meat). Scholarly historians might balk at this approach, but in general I think it will make the book more approachable for modern readers. It may have gone too far, though. I might have asked for less personal essay, more facts.

There were a few consistent editorial mistakes, suggesting to me the unsupervised use of spell check – the Norwegian county of Hordaland is consistently “Horoaland” here, and a “long phort” becomes a long port again and again. I believe there were other minor errors of fact. On the other hand, I was pleased that author Oliver was willing to give the Icelandic sagas some limited credence as source material, something Winroth refuses to do.

I think The Vikings: A New History may be a good introductory book for many readers, especially for young ones.

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