Slaying, pillaging, burning, ravishing, and thus gratifying a laudable taste for adventure

Tom Shippey

  • Northern Antiquity: The Post-Medieval Reception of Edda and Saga edited by Andrew Wawn
    Hisarlik, 342 pp, £35.00, October 1994, ISBN 1 874312 18 4
  • Heritage and Prophecy: Grundtvig and the English-Speaking World edited by A.M. Allchin
    Canterbury, 330 pp, £25.00, January 1994, ISBN 1 85311 085 X

The ‘Viking’ is one of the strongest images in contemporary popular culture. As Régis Boyer remarks in his essay in Northern Antiquity on the French reception of Old Norse literature, Vikings look out, under their now traditional horned helmets, from every herring tin in the supermarket, while a great part of the population of Normandy marks itself off from the Parisian riff-raff by putting little longship stickers on their cars. The longships are called drakkars – for reasons no one seems to know, any more than they know where the wildly impractical horned helmet idea comes from – a word which has only some resemblance to genuine Old Norse dreki, ‘dragon’ or ‘dragon-ship’. Meanwhile, the aftershave Drakkar Noir trades on an aura of ... masculinity? menace? rape-and-pillage? and vague suggestions of a similar kind are exploited by manufacturers of everything from ‘the golden loaf of the Vikings’ to ‘le petit Viking’ baby clothes. Boyer notes the existence of ‘Le Club Scandinave Viking’ for body-builders, but not the (alas) late Jon-Pál Sigmarsson, the virtually albino Icelandic winner of the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ competition, who used to beat his chest, turn engagingly puce, and roar ‘I am a Viking’ before destroying Geoff Capes, Grizzly Brown and all comers at the who-can-turn-over-most-cars-in-sixty-seconds contest. It may be only at the level of Raquel Welch, the leather bikini and One Million Years BC, but Old Norse literature and mythology has made its mark on European and American culture to an extent far greater than any other medieval corpus. Its stories are probably more familiar now than classical myths and images, and catching up with Biblical ones.

All this was achieved from a standing start. The essays in Northern Antiquity regrettably don’t quite add up to an ‘histoire événementielle’, an account that will tell you in exactly what order poems and sagas were unleashed on the educated reading public, but a good deal can be made out from individual contributions, and more by looking up a few familiar words in the OED. For centuries, English people had not the faintest idea of this side of their own historic past, all lost in a jumble of King Arthur and Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth. The author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, strongly Scandinavian though his vocabulary is, had only the ‘Brutus legend’ to guide him to his own history; four centuries later, Dr Johnson was little better informed. Some antiquarians may have noted that the names of the days of the week bore witness to a pagan history (though an Anglo-Saxon, not a Scandinavian one). But neither Vikings nor sagas existed in learned or popular consciousness, and while the Icelanders on their remote island remained firmly in touch with the language and literature of their ancestors, there were by 1800 only some 47,000 of them in an island almost as big as Britain, with a clear chance of their entire nation dying out unnoticed. The Codex Regius of Eddic poetry, greatest memorial of Northern literature, lay unknown to the rest of the world in an Icelandic farmhouse for some four hundred years till Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson acquired it in 1643. Then the news began, slowly, to leak out.

The OED records ‘Viking’ as a word first used in 1807, and it had been well established by Longfellow, Bulwer-Lytton and others by mid-century. ‘Saga’ appeared a century earlier in Hickes’s pioneering Thesaurus of the Northern languages, but again did not pick up popularity till after Walter Scott. ‘Valkyries’ were introduced to English by Gray in 1768, closely followed by Percy’s translation of the Swiss professor Paul-Henri Mallet’s Monuments de la mythologie et de la poésie des Celtes et particulièrement des anciens Scandinaves. But ‘berserkers’ did not appear till 1822, though by 1879 Edmund Gosse could call someone ‘a dangerous old literary bersark to the last’. The unstable quality of that last affectionate reference is evident very early on in the ‘reception history’ of Edda and saga, perhaps especially in England though more ominously elsewhere. Andrew Wawn prefaces his collection with a 19th-century sketch of the great translator Sir George Webbe Dasent:

Of Herculean height and strength ... he resembled a Viking of old, and such I conceive he at times supposed himself to be ... He was two gentlemen at once ... In dull fact, he was an excellent citizen ... but in the dream, the fancy ... he was a Berserker, a Norse pirate, ploughing the seas in his dragon-beaked barque, making his trusty falchion ring on the casques of his enemies, slaying, pillaging, burning, ravishing, and thus gratifying a laudable taste for adventure.

Dasent, an ‘affectionate husband’, the commentator notes, would of course have shrunk with horror at the reality of ‘ravishing’ anybody, and probably, though less certainly, of killing anybody. But Njáls saga, or more properly the vague images built on the basis of sagas and skaldic poems (where actual rape-and-pillage is almost non-existent), gave him a basis for dangerous fantasy.

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