Tag Archives: Vikings

‘Vikings’ unearthed

I think I’ve written about the old TV show, Tales of the Vikings, here before. It formed the spark that first roused my interest in the Vikings. Judging by the clip below, which recently appeared on YouTube, it was about as cheesy as I figured.

According to the link, there are six extant episodes available on CD now from this site. I had been given to understand that all episodes had been lost forever. So this is good news. Except that I’m reluctant to order from an unknown site.

I probably will, though.

Minot Post-Mortem

I am back from Norsk Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota. The nation rejoices.

I have a couple mediocre pictures to share, taken with my Kindle, but Photo Bucket is moving very slowly tonight, so I’ll have to upload them later.

As you know, it’s been two years since I did Høstfest. Things tend to change when you neglect them for 24 months, and there were many changes for the Vikings.

One major change was that they moved us to a different building. That move had benefits and drawbacks, as I see it. The main benefit was increased space. We now share that space with other Viking groups and individuals, but that’s a benefit too (though it might be hard on our pride). There were several vendors, and several craftspeople showing off their skills. So it’s a much more educational event than it used to be. Also the music played in the building (Nordic and Sami) was more evocative than the Country and Western we generally had in our old venue.

The drawback was a certain separation from the mainstream of the festival. People had to pass through two temporary covered walkways to reach us, and there were a lot of people (or so we heard) who gave up on finding us, or never realized we were there at all.

Still, business wasn’t bad, and was quite good on Saturday, the final day. My own book sales were a little disappointing, though. I think I about broke even on the trip.

My most memorable moment came after I realized I had misplaced my cell phone. I went to the lost and found area the following morning and described it to the ladies there. After that they went all Jack Webb on me: “Do you have any idea where you might have lost it, sir?”

I said it might have been in the hallways somewhere. Then one of them went into a closet and came back with my phone. A note had been taped to it saying, “Porta-Potty.”

Then they broke up in laughter. “You’re just having fun with me, aren’t you?” I said. “I’m your morning’s entertainment.” They admitted that it was true. Theirs was a weary job, and they needed to wring from it whatever amusement they could.

I pointed to my security identification badge, which gave my name and (as was the case for all the Vikings) the designation, “Entertainer.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” I said. “Entertainment.”

‘The Viking Spirit,’ by Daniel McCoy

The Viking Spirit

For that matter, these two poles [of friendly and hostile magic] were often two sides of the same coin; to help one person often meant to harm another. This was especially the case for the Vikings, who believed in an “economy of fortune:” there was a fixed amount of luck in the world, and when one person’s luck changed for the better, someone else’s luck must have changed for the worse.

A Facebook friend asked me about this book, and I was embarrassed to say I’d never heard of it. So I acquired The Viking Spirit, by Daniel McCoy, and read it. I was impressed.

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths has long been a standard introduction to the subject, and it remains valuable, but I think The Viking Spirit might supersede it. The book is divided into two sections – first an overview of the sources, scholarly views of those sources, and the nature of the Norse world view. The second section provides short synopses of the myths that have been preserved to us. The author attempts to strip them down to something like their “original” essences, while making it clear that much has been lost, that it’s possible to have more than one “original” version, and that our critical editing is necessarily a matter of guesswork.

My chief fear when I started the book was that it would be full of New Agey spiritual fluff, but nothing could be further from the case. Author McCoy is very hard-headed about his scholarship. He makes some fresh contributions that will be surprising even to old Viking buffs – for instance his view that the Norsemen did not see history as a cyclical phenomenon, but as linear. That contradicts a lot of 20th Century scholarship, but he makes a good case.

I caught McCoy in a few small errors, I thought, especially in his descriptions of Viking life. But I’d be hesitant to challenge him, because he clearly knows his stuff (and I’ve been known to be wrong).

If you’re interested in Norse mythology, I highly recommend The Viking Spirit. Not for young kids, if you want to shield them from some of the earthier facts of life.

Unleash the Dragon!

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Jack_IOM from Douglas, Isle of Man.

I wrote the other day about the problem the replica Viking Ship, the Dragon Harald Fairhair, has gotten into in the great lakes. They’re stuck in Bay City, Michigan, having discovered they’re required to take on a pilot, something that will cost north of $400,000.

The Sons of Norway Foundation has started campaign to raise money for these fees. The donation site is here. You don’t have to be a Sons of Norway member.

Personally, I think it would be more prudent to burn a few buildings and demand Danegeld. But that’s just me.

Coast Guard stops Vikings: Irish take note

Dragon Harald Fairhair
Photo credit: Peder Jacobsson.

All summer I’ve been looking forward to the annual Tall Ships Festival in Duluth. Among the featured ships was to be the Dragon Harald Fairhair, largest Viking ship replica in the world. Built in Haugesund, old ancestral region of the Walkers. I had been talking to the festival people about having my Viking group participate.

At the moment the voyage is stalled. The U.S. Coast Guard has forbidden the dragon ship from proceeding without a professional pilot, something estimated to cost around $400,000. They had understood that their short length made them exempt, but that, apparently was Canadian rules. It seems to be another case of people misunderstanding government regulations, inexplicable in view of their simplicity and rationality (sarcasm off).

Anyway, there’s a petition to get the requirement waived at change.org. I don’t know if it will do any good or not.

Memoirs of a Viking amnesiac

Well, that was dumb. I just erased all the photos I took at the Midwest Viking Festival this weekend. I’ve been having increasing trouble getting the reader for the smart card in my camera to communicate with my computers, and in the course of grappling with it I managed to erase the card.

There’s another picture I do have, of me sitting under my awning at the festival. But it was taken by a stranger who was kind enough to e-mail it to me, and I don’t feel right publishing her work in this space without her permission. I could e-mail her and ask, but I won’t be doing that tonight. I’m running behind in my chores. Maybe I’ll have it for you later.

Anyway, I made the four hour trip to Moorhead for the festival at the Hjemkomst Interpretive Center. It was not without challenges. Moorhead has invested heavily in road repairs this summer, and has blocked two of its I-94 overpasses, while also blocking off several of the main streets. The festival put us up in a motel south of the highway, and the venue is some blocks north of the highway. I don’t think I traveled between the two points a single time without getting lost.

Alzheimer’s seemed to be the theme word for the weekend, for me. I discovered that I’d forgotten my Viking belt and pouch at home. And the first day I left my belt knife and scramasax in the motel, and believe me I wasn’t about to drive back to get them. I muddled through, however, with a spare belt of my own, and a pouch I bought from a vendor. Continue reading Memoirs of a Viking amnesiac

Gone a-Viking, again

Midwest Viking Festival

I refuse to say I’ll be “out of pocket” for the rest of the week. I dislike that turn of speech; it makes no sense to me. “Out of pocket” is a term having to do with spending money.

Anyway, I’ll be away for the next few days. I’ll be participating in the Midwest Viking Festival at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota. The Hjemkomst Center is a museum devoted to preserving a replica Viking ship which was built beginning in the 1970s and sailed to Norway in the early ‘80s. Its chief builder was a regular guy named Bob Asp, who sadly died before the launch. There’s also a lovely replica stave church.

I’ve been to the Hjemkomst Center before, but this will be my first time at this particular event. It will probably be the largest Viking event I’ve ever attended. There’ll be a few friends and acquaintances there, so I won’t be wholly on my own in a sea of strangers, though. I’ll have some books to sell. Drop in if you’re in the neighborhood.

I just finished loading my car, and was amazed at how easy it was without hip pain. It’s like growing ten years younger all of a sudden. It occurs to me that I must be kind of tough. I’ve been playing hurt for more than two years.

‘Fin Gall,’ by James L. Nelson

Well, I actually finished this book, which is more than I can say for a lot of Viking novels I’ve started reading. And there was evidence of some research in it – it’s certainly way more historically accurate than the History Channel series, which we hates, we does.

But I’m not greatly impressed with James L. Nelson’s Fin Gall: A Novel of Viking Age Ireland.

The date is given as 852 AD. Our hero is a Norwegian named Thorgrim Night Wolf. Thorolf is reputed to be a shape-shifter, a werewolf, but the descriptions make it difficult to figure out exactly what happens when he goes out on his nocturnal excursions. Sometimes he only dreams of roaming as a wolf, but he still comes back with useful real-world information. Thorolf is the son-in-law of Jarl Ornolf the Restless, and the father of a son named Harald. They sail to Ireland for booty, and then happen onto a treasure, the Crown of the Three Kingdoms, which was being sent to one of the Irish kings. The crown is to give him symbolic dominion over the other Irish petty kings, so that they can fight the Danes, who have recently driven the Norwegians out of the Viking town of Dubh-lin.

Thereafter the characters and the plot wander about the Irish countryside, getting captured and escaping, losing the crown and a couple hostages to one another like basketball players bobbling a ball. There are some clever moments, especially in the use of ships (author Nelson is an experienced sailor on square sailed vessels), but I personally found it all a little contrived.

As I said, there’s some evidence of historical research here, but the errors are many. Two of the characters are named Snorri and Magnus, names not invented until the 10th and 11th Centuries. The author thinks Viking houses had windows (windows were extremely rare). He thinks Viking ships kept the warriors’ shields up on the rails while at sea (they didn’t). He thinks Norwegians knew nothing of burning peat (they did). In one regard author Nelson praises the Irish Christians for virtues even I, an openly sectarian author, wouldn’t claim – he thinks they weren’t superstitious. The subsequent history of Ireland makes it very clear that whatever good Christianity did for that country, it didn’t eradicate superstition.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect an author who hasn’t spent a lifetime in obsessive study of the Vikings, as I have, to know all these things. I expect, after all, that there are even greater compulsives out there who find as many errors in my own novels.

Nelson does do a good job in dramatizing the great irony of Viking Age Ireland – that the Irish hated each other just as much as the Scandinavians, and were as brutal – or more brutal – with each other than the Vikings were with them.

So my final judgment is fairly neutral. The writing is OK (though the author needs to learn where to use “like” and “as”). There are a couple mildly explicit sex scenes, and of course there’s lots of fighting and blood and guts. You could do worse for a Viking novel, but you could also do better. I’m not personally impressed enough to buy the second book in the series.

Norse horse


Icelandic horses at the beginning of summer. Photo credit: Guillame Calas. Creative Commons license.

Fair warning: There won’t be a post on Friday. I have faith in you; somehow you’ll endure.

I’ll be playing Viking at an odd venue on Friday and through the weekend, the Minnesota Horse Expo at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. The Viking Age Club & Society has been asked to provide context for the Icelandic horse exhibit this year. There will even be fight shows in the arena, though sadly the fighters will be old guys (not me; I’m still not up to that), as our young Vikings aren’t available. In real life, the Vikings would have probably had the stallions themselves fight, using goads on them. It was the Vikings’ favorite sport.

Things I’ve learned about Icelandic horses, mostly through internet research:

• It’s illegal to import any horse into Iceland, even an Icelandic horse. Once an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it must stay away forever. They’re afraid of bringing in exotic diseases or parasites.

• Icelandic horses have two extra gaits, which other horses can’t do (and only some Icelandics can do). One is called the tölt, a “four-beat lateral ambling gait” said to be “comfortable and ground-covering.” The other is the skeið, the “flying pace,” “fast and smooth” according to Wikipedia, a “two-beat lateral gait.” (Skeið was also the name of a kind of Viking ship; Erling Skjalgsson owned one of those.)

• Breeders of Icelandic horses consider them the purest of the northern breeds.

Author and artist William Morris (1834-1896) made a tour of Iceland with friends in 1871, producing a journal which I consulted (through a kind loan by Dale Nelson) in my research for West Oversea. He grew very fond of the horse he rode on that tour, and planned to bring it home with him. However it went lame before embarkation, so he took another horse instead. It lived to a good old age and grew very fat on his estate in England.

I shall tell you more about Icelandic horses next week.

‘Styrbiorn the Strong,’ by E. R. Eddison

Styrbiorn the Strong

The hood of her cloak was fallen backward, baring the flame-like splendour of her hair above the smooth brow and stately and lovely face of her. There was in her face, as she gazed south with haughty lip and level chin, so much beauty as the Gods might throw up hands and strive no more to better it were they to frame the world anew; and so much gentleness and womanish pity and softness as a man shall find in the rain-cold rock of the sea.

I’d heard of E. R. Eddison’s novel Styrbiorn the Strong for years, but never actually saw a copy. And I was a little reluctant to read it because I’m not a big fan of the author’s most famous work, The Worm Ouroboros. Although that book has its virtues (Lewis and Tolkien both admired it), I disliked its amorality, along with its ending, which in my view rendered the whole tale pointless.

But Styrbiorn (I prefer to spell it Styrbjorn, but this is a review) himself gets an interesting scene in The Long Ships, which I reviewed a few inches down. And that whetted my curiosity. So I got the Kindle version.

Having finished it, I find myself floundering to make a judgment on it. There are elements I dislike – that same amorality, some Nietzchean concept that the truly great are above mere kindness to their “inferiors.” And I generally don’t care for affected antique diction. But Eddison was a master of affected antique diction, and when he’s got the wind in his sails he soars to the level of real poetry, and can carry you along with him. This book is very effective and even moving, in its way.

Styrbiorn the Strong is a character whose own saga has not survived, but he gets mentions in various sagas and historical sources. Some scholars nevertheless dispute whether he ever existed in the real world. As portrayed by Eddison, he’s a character beyond realism, the mightiest of warriors, almost a demigod. The son of a joint king of Sweden, his loving uncle promises, in all sincerity, to give Styrbiorn his father’s half of the domain as soon as he reaches 16 years. Styrbiorn, with the madness of a man doomed before birth, manages to throw these prospects away through impetuosity and passion.

Another saga character whose existence has been questioned is Sigrid the Haughty, who also plays a major role in the book. She appears (to me) to be inspired by Gudrun Osvifsdatter of Laxdaela Saga, who famously says in her old age that, of all the men she knew in her life, “I treated him worst whom I loved best.” Eddison pictures Sigrid as a kind of Gudrun on stilts, a woman apparently void of tender feelings, motivated wholly by pride and vengeance. I almost said that she’s at fault for Styrbiorn’s tragedy, but that’s not fair. He brings his defeat and death on himself.

Styrbiorn the Strong is not an easy book, but it’s highly effective of its kind (which it’s pretty much the only one of) and difficult to forget. Recommended, if you’re up for this sort of thing.