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Still waters

Vikings feast at Ravensborg, Knox City, Mo.

I’ve already savaged the History Channel Vikings TV series in this space, but I have something new to say about it today. I think I may have found the source of one of its (many) errors.

Watching the two episodes I endured, I got the impression that the script writers had blocked out their story first of all, based on their preconceptions of what Viking life was like, and then went hunting through history books for authentic details to sprinkle around, sometimes without any understanding of context.

One of the many moments I disliked in the series was when, on the eve of a voyage, the Vikings brought out a ceremonial bowl of water and passed it around, splashing it on their faces and blowing their noses into it, as a sort of corporate team building exercise.

I knew where this idea came from – the 921 AD account of Norsemen in Russia by the Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan (whose account formed the basis for Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, on which the movie The Thirteenth Warrior was based). Ibn Fadlan describes, with palpable disgust, how the Viking company washed up this way in the morning. There’s no suggestion of any greater purpose; it’s just the northerners’ culturally inferior standard of hygiene.

I’m still reading Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History (almost half way through; enjoying it), and I found there the following passage:

With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group identity and strengthened its internal loyalty.

It would appear that Ferguson’s book was one of the sources the TV writers skimmed, and they grabbed up this bit of speculation as just the kind of gross-out detail they were looking for. But Ferguson doesn’t footnote the sentence. It’s just a guess.

My own guess, based on a conversation with author Michael Z. Williamson, who’s a Middle East war veteran and has some familiarity with Islamic customs, is that what offended Ibn Fadlan was simply the fact that the Norsemen washed in still water in a bowl. Under Islamic law, true washing always requires running water. Still water is unclean. Even if the thralls refilled the bowl for each man, it would still be a pollution in Ibn Fadlan’s eyes.

He was also, in the opinion of most historians, not beyond exaggerating from time to time.

There is no analogy for Aunt Ordella

A little personal news tonight, because I know how you worry. Today, in the course of my application to graduate school, I went to Bethel University in St. Paul and took the Miller Analogies Test. The MAT is a multiple choice test in which you fill in the missing element from an analogy – as in, “Bureaucrat is to Integrity as Jack the Ripper is to ________.” (Correct answer: Feminism) It’s a deceptively hard test. I hope all the other test takers felt as confusticated as I did, because if they didn’t I’m a whole lot dumber than I think I am.

How did I do? I don’t know. I was supposed to go away with a preliminary score, but the laptop they gave me to use had some kind of power issue, and shut itself down in the course of the test – twice. The second time we couldn’t access the test again. I was very nearly done at that point; in fact I’d finished the test itself and was just reviewing my answers. But I don’t know – and neither does the proctor – whether my score actually registered at the other end or not. If it didn’t, I’ll have all the weary work to do again, one hopes at no further cost.

Last Saturday I drove down to Kenyon, my home town, for the funeral of my great-aunt Ordella, who passed away at the age of 103. She was the last surviving child of my great-grandfather, the only remaining pillar of her generation. I think I’m safe in saying that Aunt Ordella was a character. It’s not uncommon for people to lose their inhibitions as they age, but I don’t think Ordella ever had any inhibitions (I’m speaking of social interaction; I know of no sexual scandal in her life). Apparently all the chutzpah in the Walker family got funneled into her. I know nobody in my branch got any of it.

I don’t know what we’ll do without her. It was a beautiful day for a grave-side service in any case.

I wandered the town cemetery for a few minutes. It’s a fairly old cemetery over on the shady east end, where they buried the people with English names who settled back before the Norwegians flooded in. I looked in particular for those bronze “Grand Army of the Republic” stars, indicating Union Army veterans. Found one fellow who served in the First Minnesota “H.A.,” which a little research informs me means Heavy Artillery.

This weekend: Whiz-Bang Days in Robbinsdale! And I’ll be at Norway Day in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, on Sunday.

Avoiding Message Movies

Writer Bill Kauffman and director Ron Maxwell both hate heavy-handed message movies, so they worked together to give us a Civil War story that doesn’t paint in primary colors. Christian Toto writes, “Copperhead… examines an aspect of history Kauffman says is often ignored—the side of the argument told by those who lost the war.

“‘We tend to sweep the losers down the memory hole as though there was only one side in any debate,’ he says. ‘The guys who lost … we paint Snidely Whiplash mustaches upon them.'”

Dwarfish things

The word “dwarves,” was (more or less) invented by J. R. R. Tolkien. The “proper” spelling is “dwarfs,” but the Professor had his own secret purposes.

Someone posted the following video on Facebook, and it interested me enough to share it here. Armorer Tony Swatton creates a replica of Gimli’s axe from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but does it in a traditional Damascus style. The results are impressive.

This particular axe (John Rhys-Davies actually carries three) is a stylized version of a Viking bearded axe (“bearded” refers to the extended lower horn of the cutting edge). The technique used here, however, is not the sort of damascening the Norse did. Viking pattern welding involved twisting together bundles of rods with differing carbon content, so that strength and flexibility would be maximized (or so they hoped).

I inserted a dwarf into Hailstone Mountain, in a scene I like quite a lot. My dwarves (dwarfs?) are a little different from Tolkien’s, though.

Call me a man of the world

This was the weekend of the annual Festival of Nations at the River Centre in St. Paul. And so I was there, but with an abbreviated schedule. I’ve noticed in the past that I’ve always come down sick shortly after this worldly debauch, and I’ve started to suspect that it’s not good for me to spend four long days in a basement. I’ll see if this works better.

Business-wise, it was pretty good. On Saturday I sold a whole lot of books. Sunday was slower, but OK. Things were probably slowed some by the fact that there was a hockey game in the same facility that day, and parking prices got hiked.

I often ponder during those long, long days whether “multicultural” events like this actually do anything to promote their advertised purposes. Certainly I encountered nice people of many colors and tongues, and a wide variety of costumes. But to be honest, most of the costumes made me grateful I’d come as a Viking. They tended to inflate my low, reflexive feelings of cultural superiority. Continue reading Call me a man of the world

Hostfest 2012, Report 2

And it’s the second day of Norsk Høstfest in Minot. Gradually our members are straggling into town. The great delight this year is that we have a number of young members who’ve never been here before. No longer is the Viking camp a geriatric retreat. We have youth! Pretty girls! People to fight and carry stuff from here to there, so us oldsters can take a nap!

Heard the New Christy Minstrels yesterday. Of the 1960s group, only founder Randy Sparks is there. Otherwise it’s a group of professional entertainers, most of them pretty old (he says one of them auditioned for him in 1960, and finally got the gig a couple years ago). Nice to hear “Green, Green” again, anyway.

Won a few fights, lost a few fights. I got a sword swipe in the face yesterday, but took no serious damage.

Looking to Norway

The eyes of the world were on Norway today. Not one but two international stories focused on that small country, something that doesn’t happen very often.

It isn’t every blogger who’s up to the job of tying the sentencing of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik together with the opening of a mysterious, 100-year-old package, but I am prepared to take on that challenge.

First of all, there’s the sentencing of the semi-human terrorist, Breivik. Early reporting made it sound as if his 21-year sentence, absurd enough in the eyes of most Americans (and plenty of Norwegians, to judge by my own contacts), might actually end up being only ten years. That doesn’t appear likely. He’ll be evaluated in a sort of parole protocol after ten years, but unless he alters the cut of his jib drastically he’s not likely to be released at that time. He has, after all, made himself hated particularly by his country’s bleeding heart class, and the law-and-order people don’t love him any better. When the 21-year sentence is finished, the authorities have the power to recycle the sentence as many times as it takes, for the rest of his life. Continue reading Looking to Norway

Is It Really Plagiarism?

Here’s a lightly political topic on which I’d like your comments. William Bigelow accused President Obama of stealing his latest tagline, “We’re all in this together,” from Britain’s Labour Party leader. Read the short post and tell me if you think this should be consider plagiarism. The last example given, where Mr. Obama copies words from Deval Patrick, looks like plagiarism to me, but the tagline? I don’t know. This seems fair game to me, though it’s naturally opening yourself up for a shot like Bigelow’s post. I mean, if the new socialist president of France talks about wanting a country where “we’re all in this together,” I’d hope that connection would still harm any U.S. national politician, notwithstanding Dennis Kucinich.

Concerning Norway and World War II

Gunnar Sønsteby. Photo credit: Arnephoto.

I was planning to post something about Occupied Norway today anyway (you’ll find it below), but it happens that one of Norway’s last living Resistance heroes died today. He was named Gunnar Sønsteby, and he was the most decorated man in Norwegian history. If you followed my advice and watched the movie, “Max Manus,” Sønsteby was one of the characters portrayed in it. But he could have carried a movie all on his own.

OK, here’s a strange story.

A while back, I posted a piece I called Survival Story. It concerned a strange character I discovered in a Norwegian-language book I read about my ancestral community, Kvalavåg, in Norway. During World War II, one of the German occupation officers who served there was a Jew named Konrad Grünbaum, who ended up in the Wehrmacht due to a clerical error.

One of the commenters on that post was an actual descendent of Grünbaum’s. He contacted me through Facebook and asked if I had any further information. I didn’t, but promised to check with my relatives over there.

And they came through, past all hope. As it happened, an article on Grünbaum had been published in the Haugesunds Avis newspaper back in 1986. The article was illustrated by a photo of part of Kvalavåg which Grünbaum took during the war. Because of that, my relatives kept a couple copies, and they were happy to send one to me. I have forwarded it to my correspondent, and it’s on its way to him by mail.

My translation of the article can be read below:


By Ida Nydstrøm (July 23, 1986)

Konrad Grünbaum, a Jew by birth, is now 70 years old and a retired city council member in Fürth. He lived in that city before the war as well. He was a metal worker in a factory, and an active member of the SAJ: The Socialist Labor Youth. Continue reading Concerning Norway and World War II

Can We Still Get an Education in College?

Jonah Lehrer writes:

If nothing is learned, why are students and parents so desperate to get into the best schools? Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and author of the forthcoming book “The Case Against Education,” argues that colleges are more about certifying their students than actually teaching them useful skills. Their primary function is to provide “signals” of intelligence and competency, which is why they put students through a variety of mostly arbitrary and useless academic hoops. “Good students tend to be smart, hardworking and conformist—three crucial traits for almost any job,” writes Dr. Caplan. “When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker.”

This is discouraging and challenging. I will likely not have the money to send my children to my alma mater or another suitable school, and I have begun to fear that it would a waste of money to do so. I loved my college experience, but I don’t know that I can offer a similar one to my children.

I am not blind…

…to the irony of the fact that I’ve auditioned for a reality TV show almost exactly a year after posting this piece ridiculing the whole phenomenon. I’m not sure my lapse rises to the level of hypocrisy, but it’s uncomfortable. Still, doing a reality show isn’t actually an immoral act, and one expects an author to play the buffoon a bit, if it will sell some books. At least in our time.

I was all ready to write a scathing post about kids working on farms, when word came out that the Labor Department has quickly withdrawn its proposal to outlaw agricultural chores for children under 16.

But I am not one to be deterred by mere real world events.

I’m not going to rhapsodize about my childhood among the chickens and cows. If you’ve followed this blog, you’ve guessed that it wasn’t Little House on the Prairie for me. If I grew up to be a slacker and a layabout, it’s partly because my farm childhood was an unusual and dysfunctional one.

But I see the value of a proper farm childhood every day. The Bible school I work for is perhaps one of the purest pools of rural youth in our metropolitan area. Most of our students come from our historical center of gravity, northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, with a lot of farm kids from other places as well. We’re not immune to demographics, of course. We have lots of city kids. But if you’re looking for a kid who grew up getting up at 5:00 a.m. to milk the cows, our school is a good place to look.

And people do. Our students generally have little trouble finding part-time jobs to pay their way through school. The word is out in the western suburbs—AFLBS students are better workers than kids from, say, the University of Minnesota.

This is one thing that worries me about the future. Agriculture is changing, and in many ways the changes are good. Food is cheaper, which helps the poor, for one thing. But efficiency means bigger farms, which means fewer farm families.

Throughout the history of the republic, we’ve had an inexhaustible supply of farm kids who were sick to death of Ma and Pa and the cows and the pigs, and dreamed of a better life in the city. They’ve carried their farm-bred work ethic into the cities and helped to make American industry the envy of the world. When they went to war, they were objects of marvel to Europeans and South Sea Islanders. When they went into politics, they tended to be moderately honest, at least at first.

We’re losing that supply of farm kids. All the kids are city kids nowadays, even if they grew up in small towns.

It troubles me.

But then everything troubles me.