Tag Archives: Vikings

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.

‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

The Long Ships

Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death, so that this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden, and one that would be long remembered.

Sometime last week it occurred to me that, although I’ve been praising the book to people most of my life, it’s actually been decades since I read Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. My old copy, printed in the 1960s, with a cover that doesn’t even appear on Amazon, is pretty much going to pieces, but it’s not terribly expensive to get a Kindle copy.

I’m happy to report that the book is as good as I remembered. Better. I still nominate it for the best Viking novel ever written – though a lot of Viking novels have been written in the last few years, and I haven’t read most of them. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine how anybody could do it better than this. (Pay no attention to the 1964 movie starring Richard Widmark. It’s a travesty.)

The Long Ships (Swedish title, Röde Orm), is the story of Red Orm Tostesson, younger son of a chieftain in Scania, which is part of Sweden today but was Danish back in the Viking Age. Early in the story he’s kidnapped by a Viking crew, who take him away into the Baltic and then south to Spain. There they, more or less by happenstance, “rescue” a Jewish slave from another Viking crew. He directs them to a rich city they can plunder, which eventually leads to their enslavement by the Moors, slavery in a galley, and then military service under the caliph of Cordoba. Further adventures bring them back to Denmark, into the favor of King Harald Bluetooth (the guy your wireless device was named after), and then home again. Followed by participation in Thorkel the Tall’s invasion of England, and an epic voyage into Russia in search of a hoard of gold. Continue reading ‘The Long Ships,’ by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson

A Rosee outlook for Vikings in America

Viking house at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, photo by Lars Walker
My photo of a reconstructed Viking house at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

It’s been some time since I did my public duty by updating our erudite audience on the latest news from the world of Viking studies.

This story has been making the rounds lately, and to be honest it’s got my ears standing up. Archaeologists have used satellite imagery to identify a site in southwest Newfoundland that looks very much like a Viking Age Norse settlement.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” says Parcak. “Typically in archaeology, you only ever get to write a footnote in the history books, but what we seem to have at Point Rosee may be the beginning of an entirely new chapter.

“This new site could unravel more secrets about the Vikings, whether they were the first Europeans to ‘occupy’ briefly in North America, and reveal that the Vikings dared to explore much further into the New World than we ever thought.”

It’s too early to know for sure yet, of course. When the Ingstad group excavated the one known Viking site in North America, L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, it took quite a lot of digging before they found something indisputably Norse – a ring-headed bronze pin, used for fastening a cloak. There’s a difference between finding a sod building, however much it might resemble the houses in Greenland, and finding something that couldn’t possibly have been left by Native Americans or English or Portuguese fishermen. That’s what they’ll be looking for now.

A lot of us have been waiting for something like this for some time. Prof. Helge Ingstad, having discovered his Vinland site in the 1960s, planted his metaphorical flag there and declared, “This is Vinland. This is all of Vinland there ever was. There’s no point for looking for any more traces of the Norse on this continent.” Everyone respects Ingstad immensely, and almost nobody agrees with that contention anymore. Ingstad thought that many of the saga descriptions, especially those speaking of grapes, were just folklore accretions to the story, because grapes have never grown at that latitude. Nowadays we take those descriptions more seriously – especially since butternuts were found in the excavations. Butternuts have also never grown at that latitude, but they do grow where grapes grow. This new site, further south along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, leads in the direction most scholars have been thinking of.

So this is exciting. We’ll be watching for more news.

‘The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok’

As you know, I’m not exactly a fan of the “History” Channel’s Vikings series. However, this book, which seems to have been produced in order to capitalize on the show’s popularity, was actually worth the money to me.

The Legend of Ragnar Lodbrok is a compendium of sagas, poems, and ancient annals, providing pretty much all we know of Ragnar’s legend out of the middle ages. The stories have very little credibility as historical sources – other than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is sparse on details, and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, which is a hopeless mess assembled with little historical or critical sense.

But it’s not often that I run into material on the Viking Age that I’ve never read before, and most of this was new to me. The saga story of Ragnar “Hairy Breeches” was written down long after the original events, and these sagas contradict one another in details and are generally unreliable. But they also contain many agreements, and the kernel of a true story seems to be here.

Only one section, the poem Krákumál, shows evidence of bad OCR reading, including a number of misprints. The rest of the book is well edited, and the scholarly notes are of high quality.

Worth reading, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

No Bull

It may come as a surprise to many, but most Norwegians were never particularly proud of their Norse ancestry. The little knowledge they had of the Viking Age and our common ethnic and cultural heritage was usually horribly outdated. Until recently, in popular culture the Vikings were almost always portrayed as dumb, brutal rapists and villains. Also, Norse mythology was a subject of parody and not to be taken as anything more than naive stories told by our stupid ancestors. Those of us who thought differently, those of us who had already connected with our Norse ancestry, were ridiculed.

Aside from its praise for the awful History Channel “Vikings” TV series, I was pleased but not especially surprised by this article “How the Americans Taught Us Norwegians to Love Our Viking Heritage.”
One thing I learned in my translation work for Prof. Torgrim Titlestad (they tell me our book’s coming out this spring at last. We’ll see. Watch for it in any case; it’ll be called The Viking Heritage), is that for several decades now the Norwegian school system has taught almost nothing about the Viking Age. The main reason was a higher critical view of the Icelandic sagas, our main source of information about Norwegian politics in that time. The same kind of destructive skepticism that scholars have applied to the Bible, they also applied to the sagas. Since the sagas were written a century or more after the events described (much longer than is the case for the gospels), they argued that no information of value could be derived from them.

Scholarly views are changing, though. Sociological studies have shown that substantial useful information can be preserved by oral (non-literate or semi-literate) cultures for much longer than is the case in cultures which rely on books for their records.

Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen, the writer, is a novelist, screenwriter and blogger living in Norway. A brief perusal of his site indicates that he’s not crazy, which is generally a good thing.

Viking stuff on a winter night

Andrew Lawler, at National Geographic, writes what I consider a very fine article about slavery in the Viking Age. For years I’ve been arguing against the current fashion for portraying the Vikings as peaceable but misunderstood businessmen. That’s both historically obtuse and insulting to a culture that took pride in its prowess with arms. I’m particularly annoyed by the trope that says, “Well, you know, most of them weren’t warriors but peaceable tradesmen.” I suppose you could say that, if you consider the slave trade a peaceable occupation.

“This was a slave economy,” said Neil Price, an archaeologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University who spoke at a recent meeting that brought together archaeologists who study slavery and colonization. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”

Of course the Vikings were hardly alone in trading and keeping slaves. Other cultures that did much the same thing were… pretty much everybody.

I just get annoyed by the “peaceable tradesmen” line.

In other Viking news, there’s new Russian film that looks very intriguing:

This is an epic about Vladimir the Great, who made the Russians Christian. Like all great historical epics it’s probably stuffed with baloney, but it sure looks good. I can find some fault with the costumes, but this trailer just sings. It could be the good Viking movie we’ve waited for so long. Hope it comes out soon with English subtitles.

Blasphemy, Prayer, and Vikings

  1. Why you never question Allah: Islam’s trouble with blasphemy. This points out the shallowness of Islamic teaching. Their god supposedly knows everything, but if you don’t keep your nice face on, he’ll hammer you. Of course, it appears he will hammer you for just about anything, which is a theological perspective not unique to Islam.
  2. In the United Kingdom, an video intended to play among the trailers in front of the new Star Wars movie encourages viewers to seek the Lord in prayer using The Lord’s Prayer specifically. It has been pulled from the schedule because it could offend someone, which Andrew Wilson says is precisely what it should be doing. There is, after all, only one true God.
  3. St Helen’s Church in Eston, Middlesbrough, has suffered vandalism for years. It’s now being rebuilt, brick by brick, forty miles north in County Durham.
  4. Twenty-five things we’ve forgotten about vikings.
    (Last two links via Medieval News)