With the publication of his new book Discourse in Old Norse Literature from our Studies in Old Norse Literature series, Eric Shane Bryan considers ‘the Viking problem’ and how his book is valuable because it is not a book about Vikings.
Vikings have recently suffered from a rather serious identity crisis. On the one hand, pop-cultural phenomena like the historical fantasy show Vikings, Bernard Cornwell novels, and numerous websites and creative anachronisms represent a rise in the popular estimation of Vikings. Nor is this growing interest relegated to pop-culture: university programs (a quick internet search produces programs in “Viking Studies,” “Vikings and Medieval Norse Studies,” and “Viking and Old Norse Studies,” all from well-established universities) and scholarly publications employ the word “Viking” in their titles. On the other hand, far-right, white-supremacist groups regularly misappropriate ancient Norse symbols and stories often assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be connected with the Vikings. This identity crisis has prompted scholars and teachers of medieval Scandinavian studies to reflect seriously upon how to counteract such misappropriations while preserving an interest in medieval Scandinavian studies (see here for an even-handed discussion of these concerns), asking questions like Does academia bear some responsibility for romanticizing and glorifying the Vikings, thereby inadvertently encouraging such misappropriations? and How ought we respond to such misappropriations?
It is my hope that Discourse in Old Norse Literature will in some small way offer another perspective from which to consider the Viking problem, though not because it is a book about Vikings. This book may in fact be of value specifically because it is not a book about Vikings; it is a book about people (very few of whom are Vikings) and how they talk with one another in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Readers of this book will, I hope, come away feeling as though they have had a series of conversations with some of the great voices of the medieval Scandinavia world: kings and queens, heroes and villains, missionaries, farmers, and others from different walks of life.
The Vikings represent one of those voices because they are a part of cultural and linguistic history, but they rarely come off in a positive light in Old Norse literature. Most of the positive “Viking” characteristics romanticized today—honor, heroism, a sense of adventure, a distain for authority—have their origins not in the bands of raider/explorer/slave-traders referred to as Vikings but in other Scandinavian cultural phenomena. What we are left with after separating out all those noble qualities are groups of bad people doing bad things in boats.
Scholars and teachers are not often confused about this point, and anyone who teaches a course on the “Viking Age” or “Viking Literature” will take time on the very first day of class to point out that the Vikings were in fact a small, if influential percentage of the medieval Scandinavian population. A book like Discourse in Old Norse Literature will, I hope, help separate out the good from the bad by revealing how verbal exchanges were used in the literature often associated with the Vikings. One of the qualities that tends to be attributed to the Vikings is how they talk. Heroic yet aggressive verbal dueling conjures images of nineteenth-century romanticized Vikings facing off with one another before a fight, but these verbal exchanges are not unique to Vikings. Discourse in Old Norse Literature demonstrates that this type of heroic speech is ubiquitous in Old Norse sagas, employed for the purposes of establishing one’s self-worth. As the medieval world experiences several major societal changes—from paganism to Christianity, from orality to literacy, and from local chieftaincies to nation states—these tactics of verbal sparring wane and other types of self-validation take over.
Upon final analysis, I suggest here that we would be wrong to scrub the word Viking from our histories (as I have heard some scholars suggest we do), because doing so would omit a significant and very real part, for better or worse, of the medieval world. We can however put Vikings in their place. The Vikings were not good people, but many of the cultural characteristics and qualities now associated with them were good and should at least be acknowledged for their historical and cultural value. Discourse in Old Norse Literature is not a book about the Vikings, but it will, I hope, help broaden the medieval Scandinavian world by placing readers into conversations with voices of the past.
This guest post was written by Eric Shane Bryan, Associate Professor of English at Missouri University of Science and Technology.