Tag Archives: Vikings

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

Eat like a Viking, regurgitate, repeat

In case you’re wondering how I’m doing on the Virtual Book Tour I’ve been working on for my publisher, I think I can say it’s been going well. I’ve finished one blog post and several interviews for various literature-related blogs. And yes, I’ll let you know where to look for them, once they appear (assuming I find out myself).

I’m nearly finished with the first batch of interviews. I understand more are coming. Today the publicist asked me how I felt about writing a food-related post for a blog that talks to authors about their favorite recipes.

Now on the surface that doesn’t make much sense, me being a certified microwave-dependent bachelor (though I do make a mean scratch chocolate chip cookie when the fit is on me). But the idea of writing about Viking food, and relating it to West Oversea (buy it here) is intriguing. I’ve decided to do it, and I’ve made arrangements to borrow a recipe from a reenactor friend.

(And yes, in case you wondered, I will give her credit for it.)

I feel confident I can produce a post unlike any this particular blog has seen before. A hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners exposé of genuine Viking cuisine, featuring such delights as rotten shark (a delicacy in Iceland which reportedly made that Chef Gordon Ramsey throw up), and sheep’s head (also popular in Iceland. The eyeballs, I’m told, are especially relished). Many is the joke that’s been made about lutefisk over the years, but the Norwegians’ beloved lutefisk is just a pale, ghostly remnant of the true Nightmare On Elm Street mealtime horrors of the Scandinavian past.

Because we’re talking about a marginal economy, where taste places a far distant second to survival.

People sometimes ask me whether I wish I had been born in the Viking Age.

My answer is no, for three reasons.

One, I was a sickly child who would in all probability have been exposed on a hillside for the wolves at birth.

Two, the plumbing was awful.

Three, the food was inedible to the modern palate.

I’ve written a time travel book (still unpublished at this date) in which a father and daughter get the opportunity to go back to Viking Age Norway and stay there. She points out that if they did, they’d never get to eat chocolate again.

I call that an excellent point.

Njal’s Saga

I just finished reading Njal’s Saga again today (actually Magnusson’s and Pálsson’s translation, not the new one pictured above). It would be pointless to review such a classic, but I thought I’d jot down a few reader’s impressions, fancying myself (as I do) a fairly knowledgeable reader.



Njal’s Saga
is often named as the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas. It’s not my favorite; I prefer the more action-oriented sagas like Egil’s and Grettir’s. That’s not to say Njal’s Saga lacks action. There’s plenty. The body count piles up like kills in a Stallone movie. But Njal’s is perhaps the most reflective saga, the saga that worries most about its soul.

The central character, of course, is the title character, Njal Thorgeirsson. He’s not the hero; there are actually two heroes, Gunnar and Kari, both mighty warriors of whom Schwarzenegger is not worthy. Njal, by contrast, is a man of peace. He’s famed for his wisdom and shrewdness, not for his martial skills. He can’t even grow a beard, a fact that makes him the target of some contempt. In spite of his efforts, his family gets caught in a cycle of killing and revenge that leads to his death (and his family’s) by burning, in his own house. Continue reading Njal’s Saga

Njal come back now, ya hear?

I’ve seen the artifact pictured above, in an exhibition. It’s one of the main reasons we believe the Vikings wore “nasal” helmets like the one I wear, even though none of that sort from the period has ever been found in Scandinavia.

I’d seen it pictured in books many times before I saw the real thing. Its size surprised me. It’s only about as big as a man’s thumb, an object somebody probably carved for fun out of a piece of antler, for no reason other than to pass the time.

A friend who reads this blog recently complimented me, in a personal note, on my “erudition” in Viking studies. I suppose I know a fair bit, when graded on the curve (I describe myself as a knowledgeable amateur), but I keep getting surprised by things.

Grim of Grim’s Hall has been moderating a reading of Njal’s Saga this summer, over at his blog. I drop in my two cents now and then, but I’m constrained slightly by the fact that a lot of things that confuse ordinary readers actually confuse me just as much. Especially when it comes to Norse law. Continue reading Njal come back now, ya hear?

Tivoli report, 2010

Tivoli Fest in Elk Horn, Iowa this year was good. Exhausting, as always, for an old man like me, but good. I have no complaints.

I didn’t take any pictures. I took my camera, but did nothing with it. There are plenty of pictures, taken by others, on Facebook, but I myself didn’t see much that was different from last year, so the pictures in my report from a year ago ought to serve adequately.

Our first activity was a “Viking wedding.” A couple already married legally (or soon to be married; I didn’t ask) were given a heathen ceremony next to the replica Viking House. I attended out of politeness, and wished them well, and was relieved to learn that the celebration wasn’t going to be so authentic as to require three solid days of drunken feasting.

One of the most important questions in planning any event is “What will I forget to bring this year?” The answer for 2010: my sleeping bag. Once again I was using a borrowed club Viking tent, and I had an inflatable mattress to sleep on. I always keep a waterproof tarp in my car, so I tried using that for warmth. By the middle of the night I found it inadequate, and so I put on the shirt I’d worn the day before. Shortly before I got up, I had the thought, “You idiot. You brought two cloaks. What do you think a cloak is for?”

Saturday was well organized. We had group battles (seven men per side) scheduled for 12:30, 3:00 and 6:00. Lots of fun. I think I was left standing once, but only because I’d been (theoretically) badly wounded in the right arm, and so fell back, out of the fight.

We had the same Scottish cook as last year, and the food was good, plentiful and (relatively) authentic. Once again there was a haggis—a “beef haggis” (somebody said such things are acceptable in a pinch), and I thought it better than last year’s. The evening was given over to conversation, ranging from the scholarly to the scatological. I had the great pleasure of having a conversation with an Englishman (who bought one of my books). His opinions weren’t at all the sort that I expect from Englishmen nowadays, but maybe that explains why he lives in Iowa now. He’d studied history and archaeology, and been a Saxon reenactor, in his homeland, and I like to think I was able to talk to him on something approaching an equal level. He did disappoint me, however, by informing me that my proper Anglo-Saxon pronunciation of the name of the Venerable Bede (Bae-deh) was pretty much a waste of time, because everybody pronounces it “Bead” over there, just like over here (on the rare occasions anyone ever talks about him at all over here).

Afterwards, another delightful fireworks display, marred only by the fact that a couple fires started in the launching area. This engendered considerable mirth among us Vikings, and several guys speculated about the fate of “One-eyed Bob and his crew of four-fingered pyrotechnicians” who (they were certain) were in charge of everything. The volunteer fire department came in to douse the fires, but in fact left one of them smoldering, and it flared up again. But then I went to bed, and apparently no disaster followed.

Sunday we were incited, by bloody-minded festival organizers, to stand along the edges of the street and harass bicyclists participating in the official festival bike ride. There were no casualties. Later I went up to the fire department to enjoy the all-you-can-eat aebelskiver breakfast (an aebelskiver is a sort of Danish pancake, fried in balls rather than flat. Wonderful eating). I did not taunt the firemen on their shoddy performance the night before.

We didn’t do any big battles on Sunday, but the Skjaldborg guys from Omaha gave my group some training in areas in live steel combat where we’d picked up bad habits. It all made sense, and I was grateful for the correction. They also showed us how to fight with an axe, and one of them presented us with our first club fighting (blunt) axe. If anybody from Skjaldborg reads this, much thanks.

Tivoli wouldn’t be Tivoli without rain, but the rain that came on Sunday afternoon was pretty light, so we didn’t have to take wet tents home. I drove down and back with a young member of our group, a new fellow, and having company (especially a C.S. Lewis fan) made the journey a whole lot shorter.

But no less exhausting.

Still, the dream I had Saturday night, of encountering a skidding, out-of-control semi-trailer truck on the highway, did not come true. I am not a prophet, and all things considered, I’m glad of that.

The headless norsemen

I’m low on ideas tonight, so I’ll just pass on the most recent big discovery in Viking studies.

Last summer, a collection of skeletons were excavated at Weymouth, in Dorsetshire in England. They had clearly died violently, and were judged to be victims of a mass execution. The bones were determined to be about a thousand years old

At the time of the news I suggested, on the Viking discussion board I frequent, that the bones were probably those of Vikings. My reason was that we know of only one attempt at genocide in England during the period in question, and that was King Æthelred the Unrede’s massacre of Danes in England, on St. Brice’s Day in 1002. (You’ll know about this if you’ve read West Oversea. You have read it, haven’t you? If not, click on the yellow cover in the carousel to the right. I’ll wait.)

I am so rarely right that I feel I need to preen a little here. According to National Geographic:

Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle.

I think some Viking enthusiasts are a little embarrassed by this news, as it casts the Norse as victims. This in spite of the fact that many recent books have in fact openly portrayed the Norse as victims (of those nasty Christians).

I, on the other hand, have tried to dispute that victimization meme in my own writing.

But of course anyone can be a victim under certain circumstances. Hell hath no fury like a bunch of villagers who get the upper hand on a raiding party.

And the St. Brice’s Day Massacre is an undisputed historical fact.

More as the story develops.

Or not.

It’s all food to me

Loren Eaton, at I Saw Lightning Fall, has a great piece today on the importance of reading widely. I concur. I don’t actually do it much, mind you, but I concur.

Speaking of what we wordsmiths like to call omnivorosity, I ate haggis for the first time in my life this past weekend, down in Elk Horn.

Sort of.

If you saw the pictures I posted last night, you may have noticed that there were wedge-shaped tents at the left side of the picture, and circular, pavilion-type tents on the right side.

The tents on the left were proper Viking tents, patterned after specimens found by archaeologists in ship burials.

The pavilions to the right were anachronistic, later medieval things which didn’t properly belong in a Viking camp. They belonged to Renaissance Faire people, whom good Viking reenactors generally look upon with disdain.

But we didn’t disdain these RF people, because they were our source of food.

Cook tent

Continue reading It’s all food to me

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges