Tag Archives: Vikings

Democratic Vikings

I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.

How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.

Spur of the moment Vikings

It’s a strange sensation. I have no homework to do tonight. I submitted my final paper for this semester today, and now I’m done with all that. If I keep a “sufficient to the day” attitude, I have nothing to worry about until my first summer class starts, which happens to be before the end of the month.

But. Today I’m free. I’m 2/3 done with my graduate classes, and I can do anything I want this evening. I can loaf. Or I can tell you about my weekend.

In my youth (you’ll probably be surprised to learn) I had a reputation as a guy who had no problem dropping everything and driving off to a distant town with friends, on a moment’s notice. Saturday was like that, sort of. I think it was Thursday I got a call from Ragnar, who said that we had a Viking gig nobody had planned on, scheduled for Saturday. The hosts thought they’d confirmed with us, and they were planning on us, and had advertised us. We didn’t know about it.

I said sure, I’d go. Rather to my own surprise, I’d worked far enough ahead on my final class work that I was kind of coasting through the last couple weeks. I could take Saturday off without repercussions.

So Saturday morning I rose early, loaded Miss Ingebretsen, my PT Cruiser, with almost my full Viking load, and set out for Litchfield, Minnesota.

Litchfield is located in the west central part of the state, near Hutchinson. The local Sons of Norway lodge, in association with the congregation of historic Ness Church, Acton Township, were holding a Scandinavian festival. Continue reading Spur of the moment Vikings

‘Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen,’ by Kirsten Wolf

[Personal note: I apologize for my continued absence from this blog. I thought I’d be doing more blogging while I had a few weeks of winter break, but I scheduled myself a number of projects, and they’ve taken more time than I expected. And now I’m just a week away from classes again. lw]

I approached Kirsten Wolf’s book, Viking Age: Everyday Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen, with anticipation. For years a book with a similar job description, Jacqueline Simpson’s Everyday Life in the Viking Age, has been a standard for Viking buffs and reenactors. It’s well-researched, readable, and useful. But it’s old now, and we’ve learned a lot since Simpson wrote. We need a new book in that vein.

This book is not it.

That’s not to say it’s worthless. I’ll admit I learned some things reading it. But I’m not as sure of those things as I’d like to be, because the book contains too many “facts” that are just plain wrong.

The author states twice that the Battle of Svold took place in Norway (it took place in the Baltic). She states that Olaf Tryggvason was the great-grandson of Harald Fairhair (historians aren’t sure nowadays). She says that Olaf Tryggvason made the Greenlanders accept Christianity (no historian believes that anymore).

Most of the gross mistakes seem to be associated with King Olaf Tryggvason’s career. Perhaps the author’s reading has been deficient in that area. Prof. Wolf teaches Old Norse literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I hesitate to criticize a professor in a university system in which I am a student, but she seems weak on material outside her specialty. I suspect the book was a rush job, probably done under deadline.

A special weakness of this volume is the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated, but most of those illustrations are worse than useless, except to fill up pages. The publishers opted for copyright-free pictures whenever possible, which means we are treated to a feast of 19th Century engravings, with horned and winged helmets and classical poses. In a book which fails to even mention the Cardinal Truth — “No horned helmets!” — this is inexcusable. Newcomers to the field will come away with a bundle of misconceptions.

Jacqueline Simpson’s book was illustrated with simple and useful line drawings that depicted actual archaeological finds. But hiring artists to do that sort of thing costs money, which the publishers of Wolf’s book were apparently unwilling to spend.

Not recommended.

No, the Vikings weren’t gender-neutral

Had to post about this, before there’s further confusion.

This article from Tor. com has been making the rounds.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia decided to revamp the way they studied Viking remains. Previously, researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords and shields. (Female remains were identified by their oval brooches, and not much else.) By studying osteological signs of gender within the bones themselves, researchers discovered that approximately half of the remains were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons

It didn’t take long for a rebuttal to come from what looks like a somewhat more credible source, Stuff You Missed in History.

But, this paper essentially uses the presence of six female migrants and seven male as evidence that women and children most likely accompanied the Norse armies with the intent of settling the land once it was conquered, rather than migrating in a second wave once the fighting was over. It is, sadly, not at all about female Viking warriors, and not some Earth-shattering evidence that Norse armies were evenly split among women and men.

They’ll still have to prove to me that there were any female Viking warriors at all, but the point is made. The Tor article drew unwarranted and exaggerated conclusions from a study that examined a mere 13 graves.

Hey, Tor Books rejected my novel Wolf Time (soon to be re-released in e-book form) with disparaging comments, about 30 years ago. That should tell you all you need to know about them.

Not my usual Halloween

If I’d known what I was getting into when I agreed to be one of the Vikings present last night at the American Swedish Institute’s annual “Loki’s Bash” Halloween party, I might not have done it. It was only after agreeing that I learned that one of the event’s sponsors was a local paranormal society, and that divination would be performed as part of the festivities.

But I’d given my word, so I set off. As it turns out, it wasn’t so bad. No doubt I was surrounded by people who would have considered me a Nazi if I’d shared any of my views, but that’s a less and less infrequent experience for me. And I don’t think anything went on, in terms of the occult, that didn’t also happen at the Science Fiction cons I attended. In any case, all of that was out of my sight.

What I did see was an endless parade of (mostly) young adults (total attendance, I’m told, was 1,600) adorned in costumes of varying degrees of quality, cleverness, and good taste. A fair number were dressed as they imagined Vikings would be, in keeping with the event theme. Many were identifiable characters from movies and TV shows. Many others, no doubt, were identifiable characters from movies and TV shows I’ve never heard of. Others were puzzles. Some were meant to be puzzles.

Take for instance, my favorite. There was a young woman there dressed in a black dress with white collar and cuffs. She wore a gray wig plaited in two pigtails. And she had an eyepatch and two toy ravens perched on her shoulders.

I finally had to ask. “Schoolgirl Odin?” I asked.

“No,” she laughed. “I knew it was too complicated. I’m Wednesday Addams. But Wednesday is Odin’s day.”

Makes perfect sense when you think about it.

I got home after midnight, and to bed after 1:00 a.m. My alarm clock picked this morning, of all mornings, to lose its bearings and set off its alarm about forty minutes early.

I blame witches.

Viking Warfare, by I. P. Stephenson

A few years back, an author named Paddy Griffith wrote a book called The Viking Art of War, which has since been cordially disliked by Viking reenactors all over the world. Griffith held an essentially low opinion of Viking tactics and strategies, and (as I recall) of Viking intelligence in general.

Now I. P. Stephenson has written a new book on the subject, Viking Warfare. Paddy Griffith ought to welcome its appearance, since it will provide a new target for the hate. Reenactors will hate this book just as much, but for different reasons.

Stephenson’s first sin (in my view) is to utterly reject the Icelandic sagas as a source of historical information. If he has read Prof. Torgrim Titlestad’s defense of saga reliabiliity, he dismisses it out of hand. The sagas were written centuries after the events, he says, for the purpose of glamorizing the authors’ ancestors. For that reason they cannot be trusted at any point.

But he nevertheless maintains that we have enough information to provide material for a book. Unfortunately, he fails to demonstrate that contention. He analyzes the history of Viking activities, their battle strategies, and their equipment, and all the way through he ends almost every discussion with the equivalent of, “But we don’t really know for sure.” If you enjoy seeing an author admit his ignorance over and over, this is the book for you.

He also makes a number of summary judgments which I, as a reenactor myself, find doubtful. Shield walls were only loose formations, he tells us, not solid lines of overlapped shields. The “swine” formation was a simple column, not a wedge. Leather helmets are purely fictional. Scramasaxes were seldom carried. Hundreds of reenactors around the world, me among them, will disagree on several of these points, not on the basis of academic research, but through experience on the field.

It’s only at the very end, where he examines the Battle of Maldon, that Stephenson breaks out and actually makes an interesting contribution to the historical discussion. He does his best to rehabilitate Byrhtnoth Byhrthelmsson, the English commander at the poetically immortalized battle, whose leadership was condemned by no less a scholar than J. R. R. Tolkien. Stephenson argues – persuasively – that if you consider the battle from the perspective of Byhrtnoth’s primary objective – to prevent the Vikings’ escape – everything he did makes good sense. He just had the bad luck to get killed.

Scholarly types will want to read Viking Warfare just for its unconventional arguments, but I don’t think it has much useful to offer the average reader.

The Vikings: A History, by Robert Ferguson

But, while all of these [various morally relative assessments of the Viking Age] are entirely valid perspectives, the pendulum may have swung too far: as one modern historian puts it, the revisionist view has come close to giving us an image of the Vikings as a group of ‘long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit.’ Among the aims of this book is to restore the violence to the Viking Age, and to try to show why our understanding is incomplete without it.

I’ve already referred to Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History twice on this blog, here and here, having found it an informative and instructive book. If I’d been disappointed or offended, I’d have more to say. As it is, I’ll offer a short review of quite a good general history of the Viking Age.

Why a new history of the Vikings? Because we keep learning stuff. You’ve got to run to keep pace with our knowledge of the early middle ages nowadays. People like me, especially, who take it upon ourselves to lecture on the subject, need to take the initiative to keep our reading up. I thought what I learned about the Oseberg ship, linked above, was worth the price in itself.

Author Ferguson makes the considerable contribution of including something I’ve written about here before, and which was perhaps introduced in English-language history books by my friend Prof. Torgrim Titlestad, in a work that didn’t get the attention it should have – the new (actually old) theory that the Viking raids were initially sparked by Charlemagne’s brutalities against the Saxons. Having shared that useful idea, Ferguson does little more with it, which I think is appropriate. It seems to me that, even if the original spark was religious, the Viking raids continued for plain reasons of profit. There are no images of peace-loving, put-upon Viking victims here, and that suits me just fine.

Ferguson spends what seems to me adequate time, within the limits of a single (if long) volume, following the activities of the Norse through all their major fields of activity around the world, and through the three centuries of that activity. I caught one or two small errors of fact, ones I knew to be fact, but that’s inevitable in a work of this scope.

Highly recommended for all who are interested in the subject, and especially for curious newcomers.

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.

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

When I post, people read. For a second or so.

I promised you (subject to editorial approval) an American Spectator Online article by me, on the social and political aspects of the Vikings TV series on the History Channel. Here it is.

Phil and I have both noticed a spike in visits to this blog lately. An examination of our Sitemeter stats shows that every day we get clicks from people searching online for “countries with a cross on the flag,” or words to that effect. This brings them to my post, Flagging Enthusiasm. Those readers generally stay about two seconds before going off to search elsewhere. Apparently there is interest — in widely spread locations around the world — for information on flags with crosses on them. I’m at a loss to explain it. Any ideas?

In further news, my e-book Hailstone Mountain should be coming out very soon now. Just Kindle at first, I’m afraid.

Epic stuff

I just had to share this video. It’s something a few of us have been searching for for some time. The theme song from the old 1950s/60s TV series, Tales of The Vikings.

A cheesy series? From all I can remember, yes (note the comment that says only three episodes may still exist. So we may never know for sure).

But let it be set down for the historical record—if anyone wonders what it was that first sparked author Lars Walker’s interest in Vikings, it was this series. I actually only caught it in re-runs, but it caught me good and hard in return. I realized, in a blaze of enlightenment, that nothing in this world was so cool and romantic as Vikings, and that Vikings were my birthright.

While we’re on the subject of rousing entertainment, I finally made it to the theater to see The Avengers this weekend. My reaction: Holy moly.

I didn’t love it as much as, say, The Lord of the Rings movies. But I don’t think I’ve ever had such a pure entertainment experience in a theater. It was way, way longer than I think any movie should be, but I didn’t care. I hit the light button on my watch at one point, and realized I’d been in my seat for a full two hours. I couldn’t believe it had been that long.

Highly recommended.

It occurs to me that the whole comic book thing, and the ancillary stuff (like movies; comic books don’t actually sell that big anymore) is almost a form of myth. Having cut ourselves loose from our cultural tethers, we’re reverting to simpler, more elemental kinds of literature. Instead of epic poems, we have epic movies.

This is not a good thing.

Unless I get a movie deal for my books, of course.

Spoils of the weekend

It was one of the most exhausting weekends I’ve had in a long time, involving considerable interaction with other human beings, always a workout for me. But nevertheless it wasn’t a bad weekend. Two things that happened, in particular, pleased me inordinately.

First of all, I got this link from my friend and sparring partner, Ragnar. They’re going to do The Long Ships as a movie again. In fact, they’re going to do two movies and a TV miniseries. They’re going to do it in Sweden, and if the Swedes are to be believed (always, ahem, a gamble), they’re going to do it right this time. Continue reading Spoils of the weekend

Meadowland, by Thomas Holt

Meadowland

The Thomas Holt who wrote Meadowland is the same person as the Tom Holt whose humorous mythical books, like Who’s Afraid of Beowulf and Expecting Someone Taller, I’ve praised before in this space.

The same wit is in evidence in Meadowland, his 2005 novel about the Viking discovery of America, but all in all it’s a very different kind of book.

The narrator is John Stetathus, a eunuch and accountant in the service of the emperor of Constantinople in the year 1036. He is commanded to accompany a shipment of gold through Greece to Sicily, along with three members of the emperor’s personal army, the famous Varangian Guard, made up mostly of Norsemen. One of the guards is a large and rather dull young man called Harald Sigurdson, whom Viking buffs will immediately recognize as the future King Harald Hardrada of Norway. The other two are Kari and Eyvind, a pair of elderly Icelanders. Continue reading Meadowland, by Thomas Holt

My theory, what it is. And whose it is.

Harald Finehair

King Harald Finehair (standing) from a a saga manuscript.

Fair warning—we shall trudge a good distance into the deep Viking grass in this post. I’m going to propose a new paradigm for thinking about the Vikings, which will surely change Scandinavian studies forever. So if you come to this blog in spite of my Viking stuff, you’ll probably want to skip what follows.

I’ve written about some of these ideas before, but my surviving brain cells recently sparked across a couple gaps, and came up with Walker’s New Theory of Viking Norway.

It all starts with the origins of the Viking Age. The most common explanation for the sudden violence, quoted to this day in most books on the Vikings, is Overpopulation. The theory is that the Norse had so many babies that Scandinavia ran out of food and arable land. So hungry younger sons had to sail abroad to make their fortunes by the sword.

The problem with this theory is that there is not a scrap of evidence, either in archeology, the sagas, or outside accounts, for any food shortage at that time. This was in fact during the Medieval Warm Period, and life seems to have actually been pretty good. The popularity of the theory seems to arise solely from the fact that it harmonizes with Marxist ideology. Continue reading My theory, what it is. And whose it is.

The International Viking Seminar

I don’t generally do long posts while out of town, especially on weekends. But I think the best way to deliver my report on the International Vinland Seminar today is to write up a summary while my memory’s fresh.

We met at North Park University in Chicago, a school with Swedish roots that I wasn’t familiar with. It reminds me a little of my alma mater, Augsburg College in Minneapolis, in that it’s set (I suspect the admissions brochures say “nestled”) in an urban neighborhood. Nice place, though.

We met in a lecture hall called Hamming Hall, and I got permission to set up my book table. I was in the back of the room, but it gave me a good view, so I just stayed there through the entire event, selling my books during breaks. Continue reading The International Viking Seminar