Tag Archives: Vikings

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

Mother of Kings by Poul Anderson

I approached the late Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings with some trepidation. I wanted to read it because a) it’s a Viking historical fantasy, and b) I’m thinking out a book of my own in which one of the main characters in this one plays a part. But in a book about Gunnhild, wife of Norway’s King Eirik Bloodax and mother of King Harald Greyfell (and his brothers—they ruled jointly) I imagined I’d be dealing with a Marion Zimmer Bradley-esque feminist fantasy, all about what oppressors men are, how smothering Christianity is, and how real freedom is found in the worship of some Mother-goddess or other. I expected visceral, existential feminine rage.

Having read the book, I almost wish it had been like that. It would at least have had some fire to it.

Gunnhild is a character of mystery in Viking history and lore. Historians believe she was probably a Danish princess, conventionally married to Eirik Bloodax, son and heir of Harald Fairhair, who is remembered as the uniter of Norway. (Anderson seems unaware—or doesn’t care—that historians today doubt that Harald was really more than a regional overlord in the west, who may have begun the process of unification. For the purposes of this story he treats the account found in Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla, the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, as literally true. I’ll admit I do the same thing in The Year Of the Warrior, but I claim in my own defense that the theory was new back then, and I hadn’t heard of it).

In the sagas and legends, though, Gunnhild is a very different character—the daughter of a Finnish (“Lapp” or Sami) wizard, a witch of fearsome power, terrible in her hatreds, lascivious in her morals, and bloody in her vengeances.

Anderson splits the difference. He imagines her as the daughter of a Norse chieftain, a girl who chooses to learn magic at the feet of two Finn wizards, whom she manages to kill off at the same time that she magically summons Eirik to sail in and sweep her off her feet. This is a promising beginning from the dramatic point of view, but sadly Anderson doesn’t sustain it. Once married to her prince, Gunnhild becomes a fairly conventional wife and queen, devoted to her husband and children. She assists them all through their lives by the use of her magical powers, but is thwarted more often than not. Her successes, when they happen, aren’t terribly impressive or lasting.

The result is that it’s hard to root for Gunnhild. She’s not good enough to sympathize with much, and not powerful or evil enough to be very entertaining. She becomes an almost passive center around which the drama of 10th Century Norwegian politics plays itself out. This is a great drama, but in this work it lacks (it seems to me) the rich hues and symphonic music of real epic. Anderson does some moments of pathos well, particularly concerning the deaths of Kings Haakon the Good and Harald Greyfell, but overall I found it pretty dry.

This is a problem I’ve always had with Anderson, and with Science Fiction writers as a group (no doubt there are exceptions). Science Fiction writers by and large (and that’s what Anderson primarily was), it seems to me, have a hard time handling human emotions, dreams and aspirations. They’re more oriented toward machines and machine-like people.

I always comment on books’ theological implications and treatments of Christianity in these reviews. Mother Of Kings provides unusual problems. Anderson is neither friendly nor hostile to Christianity, so it could be worse. Historically Eirik Bloodax ruled Norway as a heathen, but converted, along with his family, to Christianity when he fled to England and became King of York. Some of his sons seem to have been genuinely zealous in their missionary work (a point that’s largely ignored in Heimskringla). Gunnhild is portrayed here (quite reasonably) as a nominal Christian, uncertain as to what religion (Norse heathendom, Christianity or Finnish pantheism) offers the most useful magic for her exploitation. Clearly she’s a heathen at heart, but her deepest inclinations seem to be pantheistic. This can’t exactly be viewed as an argument for pantheism, though, because Gunnhild isn’t admirable enough to provide one.

Perhaps I’d have found the whole thing more exciting if I hadn’t already known the basic story. But I doubt it. I can’t really recommend Mother Of Kings very highly.

Increase Your Food Knowledge (and Vikings)

Sara Dickerman reviews a book for the epicurean in you, The Food Snob’s Dictionary. She writes, “[Q]uite funny throughout, the Food Snob’s handbook doesn’t so much seek to define individual terms . . . as define how such terms can be used to score points against other snobs or food-loving novices.”

Perhaps this book could explain why Snickers appeal to both vikings and pilgrims or how a bite of food can spare the monarachy.

Perhaps they just needed a little Greensleeves.

Coming: A good day to die

My local conservative talk radio station just changed their promo spot for the Michael Savage Show. Best I can figure out, the excerpt they’re using is one where Savage himself isn’t speaking, but a substitute host is.

That strikes me as brilliant marketing. What better come-on could there be for the Savage show than the promise that maybe Savage won’t be on tonight?

Sunday was a pretty good day. I went out to Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis to be part of the Viking Age Club & Society’s encampment for the annual Swedish Day celebration.

The weather started out rainy, but about the time we began setting up it cleared beautifully, and the temperatures were mild by summer standards. I sold a few books, and there were pretty blonde girls to look at. Can’t do much better than that.

I think it’s good for me to do the Viking thing. It gets me out into the fresh air for one thing, something I probably wouldn’t do at all if left to my own devices. It forces me to relate to my fellow humans, something I tend to neglect likewise. And it forces me to lift heavy objects (one of the tough parts of being a Viking is that everything’s made out of steel or wood, and the better your kit the heavier the load you have to carry around). By the way, I successfully pitched the new awning shade I made, following these directions. It’s not historically authentic, but I’ve accumulated too many sunburns portraying subarctic Europeans.

But the big news is that soon I’ll be fighting with a sword.

Eric and Ragnar did all the fighting this time, but we had some further practice, and I got more comfortable with the moves. I was waiting for them to tell me that I was ready to join in, but while we were striking camp I found out they’d been waiting for me to declare myself ready. Apparently my apprenticeship is over, and I’m ready to fight (translation: be killed) at our next event.

Can’t wait.