Tag Archives: Norse mythology

‘The Viking Spirit,’ by Daniel McCoy

The Viking Spirit

For that matter, these two poles [of friendly and hostile magic] were often two sides of the same coin; to help one person often meant to harm another. This was especially the case for the Vikings, who believed in an “economy of fortune:” there was a fixed amount of luck in the world, and when one person’s luck changed for the better, someone else’s luck must have changed for the worse.

A Facebook friend asked me about this book, and I was embarrassed to say I’d never heard of it. So I acquired The Viking Spirit, by Daniel McCoy, and read it. I was impressed.

Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths has long been a standard introduction to the subject, and it remains valuable, but I think The Viking Spirit might supersede it. The book is divided into two sections – first an overview of the sources, scholarly views of those sources, and the nature of the Norse world view. The second section provides short synopses of the myths that have been preserved to us. The author attempts to strip them down to something like their “original” essences, while making it clear that much has been lost, that it’s possible to have more than one “original” version, and that our critical editing is necessarily a matter of guesswork.

My chief fear when I started the book was that it would be full of New Agey spiritual fluff, but nothing could be further from the case. Author McCoy is very hard-headed about his scholarship. He makes some fresh contributions that will be surprising even to old Viking buffs – for instance his view that the Norsemen did not see history as a cyclical phenomenon, but as linear. That contradicts a lot of 20th Century scholarship, but he makes a good case.

I caught McCoy in a few small errors, I thought, especially in his descriptions of Viking life. But I’d be hesitant to challenge him, because he clearly knows his stuff (and I’ve been known to be wrong).

If you’re interested in Norse mythology, I highly recommend The Viking Spirit. Not for young kids, if you want to shield them from some of the earthier facts of life.

‘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.

Movie review: Thor

I think it’s generally agreed that I’m the conservative blogsphere’s go-to guy for all matters Norse, so I felt a sort of civic duty to see the movie Thor this weekend, and to let you know what I thought of it.

Briefly put, it’s pretty good. Considered on its own terms, as a fantasy/comic book/special effects actioner, it succeeds extremely well. It doesn’t scale the heights of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but I’d rank it somewhere near the top. Kenneth Branagh’s direction elevates the script (not a bad one at all), and the cast is uniformly excellent. Chris Hemsworth, in the title role, will doubtless break many female hearts, and he ought to become a big star if there’s any justice in Midgard.

Thor is the son and heir of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the high god of Asgard. Asgard, in this version (more or less based on the Marvel comic books) is explained in S.M.D. (Standard Movie Doubletalk) as one of nine dimensions, or alternate universes, or something. The “gods” are able to travel to the other “worlds” by means of the bridge of Bifrost, explained as a sort of organized wormhole (Bifrost, the rainbow in Norse mythology, is pronounced “Bye-frost” in the movie, although the proper pronunciation is “beef-roast”). Long ago the gods prevented their great enemies, the Jotuns or Frost Giants (who in the movie do not resemble in any way the big, bearded oafs of the myths), from conquering Midgard (Earth). Because of their memories of this war, humans came to regard them as divine beings.

As the story begins, Thor is about to be officially named Odin’s heir in a great ceremony in Asgard. In the midst of this, Jotun spies make an incursion into Asgard. Thor, enraged, leads a punitive expedition into Jotunheim, killing a number of the frost giants. Odin, who loves peace, appears to rescue Thor and his friends when they’re about to be overwhelmed by numbers. He berates Thor for his impetuousness and banishes him to earth (he lands in New Mexico), also sending his mighty weapon, the hammer Mjolnir, down with him. Continue reading Movie review: Thor