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.

Nor, of course, was he alone. One of the more touching scenes recorded in Northern Antiquity comes in the essay by Jürg Glauser on ‘The End of the Saga’. Sometime early this century – so Halldór Laxness, the Nobel Prize winner, records – an Icelander took his daughter to a book-shop to buy her a copy of Örvar-Odds saga. But the old bookseller told him he’d do much better with Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, with its hero Umslopogaas, ‘in his own way a great man, and in my opinion no whit inferior to Örvar-Oddur’. But Örvar-Oddur was twelve Danish ells in height, replied the customer: ‘No one is going to tell me that that fellow you mentioned just now could ever have stood up to him!’ In the end he buys the girl Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instead. Any less unsophisticated reader who has come upon any of the Allan Quatermain sequence – which ran to 18 books – is bound, however, to remember the figure of Sir Henry Curtis, Bt. the English Victorian quasi-Viking whom Haggard carefully manoeuvred into situation after situation where he could fulfil the Dasent fantasy and fight, axe in hand and made-in-Birmingham mail-coat belted on, in blameless battle against Zulu, Masai or lost tribes of the interior. Iceland had conquered Haggard before Haggard penetrated to Iceland; and through Haggard the Viking self-image reached generations of Empire-builders.

Meanwhile in France the likes of Gobineau (who claimed Norman blood) were writing ‘Roman, Welsh ... whoever is not born German has been born to be a servant’; Baudelaire was getting away with drivel like ‘homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer’; and in Germany the idea of the Übermensch was finding strong ideological reinforcement. Northern Antiquity does not include an essay on the German reaction to Edda and saga – perhaps still too much of a hot potato – but a lot can be picked out of the essays on English and Scandinavian reactions.

All the way through the 19th century two self-images can be seen to have competed for the educated English mind. The one insisted that Englishmen – and their American cousins – were ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (a term first recorded in modern English in 1610, but not gaining much credence till the mid-19th century, when ‘Anglo-Saxondom’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ began to be appealed to); this meant that they were ‘really’ Germans, indeed ‘Northalbingians’, a term used by Kemble, the first English editor of Beowulf, writing to Jakob Grimm in the 1830s. By contrast a very powerful and organised body of opinion declared that the English at bottom had very little to do with the defeated, monk-ridden, servile losers at Hastings, but had been instead wholly made over by the infusion of Viking and Norman blood. ‘It is to the seafaring instincts of the [Viking] race that England owes that naval supremacy which has long been her glory’: so C.A.V. Conybeare in 1877. From the Vikings, moreover, stemmed the jury system, according to the Orcadian Samuel Laing, prefacing his translation of Heimskringla in 1844, and preceded in substance by the Icelander Thorleifur Repp in a report for the British Government 12 years earlier. The idea had particular appeal for the rich manufacturers of Northern England, increasingly made aware of the Scandinavian element in their own names and place-names, and very ready for a foundation legend which had nothing to do with London and which stressed self-made men above inherited rank. Victorian Viking novels found eager sale, from Baring-Gould’s The Icelander’s Sword of 1862 through W.G. Collingwood’s ‘sagas of the Northmen in Lakeland’, The Bondwomen and Thorstein of the Mere (recently reprinted by Llanerch Press), and on to Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes of 1891. In his long article on ‘The Cult of “Stalwart Frithjof’ in Victorian England”, Wawn points out that Frithjófs saga – a work now ‘washed over by the waves of scholarly neglect’ – even had a bearing on the very doubtful future of the English monarchy, just as unpopular in the 1830s as now, but dragged back to respectability by Queen Victoria, whose chaplain translated the saga and pointed out in his Preface just how like the patriotic, chaste and dignified saga heroine his royal mistress was.

On a literary and popular level, the Anglo-Saxon/Viking debate ended with near-total victory for the Vikings. Viking films and novels are still common currency. By contrast popular images of the Anglo-Saxons amount almost to zero. There has never been a really successful modern recasting of Beowulf apart from John Gardner’s anarchic Grendel of 1971. (Michael Crichton’s disastrous and vainly Scandinavianising Eaters of the Dead has just been hauled back into print on the back of Jurassic Park.) The only Anglo-Saxon novels of any weight are about defeat and the end of the era, like Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake: the Last of the English of 1866 and Bulwer-Lytton’s Harold: Last of the Saxon Kings from 18 years before. King Alfred has a certain dim life in general awareness, but most educated people would be hard put to go past him, Harold and maybe Ethelred the Unready in a list of Anglo-Saxon rulers. Along with this, one might say – and like so much unfinished business and unsorted confusion it has come back to trouble current politics – the Englishness of England never got itself established on a level of popular history or popular image. Scotland and Wales have their icons, legends and identities; the most powerful image in England is a separatist Northern one, created last century, which marks off the re-recognised ‘Danelaw’ from Oxbridge and the capital. ‘Wessex’ now means only the pastoral landscapes of Thomas Hardy, and ‘Mercia’ the nostalgic childhood of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns.

Did, or does, any of this matter? The classic example of a scholar who was convinced it was a matter of the greatest national relevance, and who persuaded his countrymen and women to think so, was the Dane, Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). Grundtvig came to scholarly prominence when, alone among the first seven reviewers of Grímur Thorkelin’s pioneering edition of Beowulf – characteristically, no English scholar had done more than look at it – he proved able to correct Thorkelin’s transcript of the poem without ever having seen the original. Grundtvig continued to work on Beowulf for the rest of his long life, convinced that it was a fable of the deepest meaning for Denmark in the 19th century. While he accepted that it was an English work (not everyone did, since it did seem to be all about the Danes), he remembered also and took literally the opening remark of the medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus that once upon a time there had been twin brothers, Dan and Angul, and their descendants were now twin nations.

Nevertheless, as the new volume on Heritage and Prophecy makes abundantly clear, Grundtvig’s relationship with the Imperial Britain of his own time was extraordinarily complex, not least because, while the Danes could be persuaded about Beowulf and Norse mythology, in Britain this remained the preserve of Viking fanciers and Rider Haggards. In his own lifetime Grundtvig saw the British fleet bombard Copenhagen, semi-symbolically blowing up the first draft of Thorkelin’s edition while doing so, only to switch for much of the rest of the century to being a potential ally and counter-balance against the German ambitions that were in the end to strip Denmark of a fifth of her territory and more of her population (until 1918). Grundtvig for a time saw England as the home of Old English manuscripts, a mine of neglected poetry. But when he tried to edit and print them, English antiquaries took umbrage and tried (not very successfully) to squeak them out first. ‘The most tasteless people in the whole world!’ cried Grundtvig.

Grundtvig went on to be, in turn, the founder of the ‘Folk High School’ movement, still powerful; a religious reformer; the most influential poet and hymn-writer of his time; and a voluminous commentator on every aspect of Northern medieval tradition. As the Heritage and Prophecy volume shows, within Denmark he seems to combine the status of, if it can be imagined, both the Wesleys, Martin Luther, Jakob Grimm and J.R.R. Tolkien. Would it have made any difference if there had been an English-speaking Grundtvig, or if Grundtvig’s writings had not so often been confined to the limited audience of Danish? If, in fact, the ‘Northern revival’ chronicled by Wawn and his collaborators had reached national status in Britain – as it did in both Denmark and Germany? Obviously these questions are strictly unanswerable. The fascination of 19th and 20th-century Germany with Aryan figures of blood and iron is all too easy to make out – Kaiser Wilhelm himself was devoted to Frithjófs saga, sent a giant statue of the hero as a gift to the inhabitants of Vangsnes in Norway in 1913, and composed a quasi-skaldic ‘Song of Aegir’, performed in London in 1912; but no one can be sure that the course of European history would have been much affected if all saga literature had been lost and the Codex Regius had remained unread in its Icelandic farmhouse, or had been used for kindling, like so much of the Percy Manuscript in Shifnal.

And yet one cannot help reflecting that, at the very least, the philological quarrels of the early 19th century strangely foresaw the military ones of the next century and a half. Very early in the century Jakob Grimm and Rasmus Rask clashed over the classification of the Germanic languages, then just being disclosed by the discovery of texts like Beowulf and the Codex Regius. Rask, a Dane, very much objected to Grimm’s classification of them all as ‘germanisch’, which he saw prophetically as indicating a desire for High German hegemony over Low German, Scandinavian and English. It was Grimm’s terminology, however, which was ultimately accepted. Grundtvig held on to Rask’s term ‘nordisk’ but used ‘Old-Nordisk’ to mean indifferently Old English and Old Norse, furiously seconded in this by George Stephens, professor in Copenhagen (or as he called it, ‘Cheapinghaven’), who insisted not without some reason that much literature preserved in Iceland and in Norse had nevertheless been composed in England, in a unilingual sea empire centred on Yorkshire and the English Midlands. A storm in a tea-cup, no doubt. Nevertheless, it prefigured the issue of Germany’s boundaries. The Schleswig-Holstein question, about which British politicians were so ironic and so unhelpful, was at bottom a linguistic one which might have been allowed to set a fortunate precedent for Europe if Grundtvig’s suggestion of division along linguistic lines had been accepted: though Vagn Wahlin’s careful and thoughtful essay on that traditionally impossible problem, in Heritage and Prophecy, demonstrates why at the time Grundtvig’s proposal stood no chance of being accepted (and has remained unacceptable to this day).

There wasn’t in any case the slightest sign of an English counterpart or respondent to Grundtvig. In 1838, Grundtvig lamented that ‘the praise of Old England which is on the lips of all’ (in England) applied only to the New England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Of anything earlier English politicians remained ignorant. And for all the work of Rask, Grimm or Grundtvig they remained utterly vague even about their own language. S.A.J. Bradley quotes Grundtvig’s 1861 edition of Beowulf, with its half-despairing prefatory poem wishing that Danes and Englishmen might return even now to their mythological twin-brother status, and that the English might:

Bryde af den Grændels-Haand
I det Puddervælske,
Som uddrev med Anglers Aand
Hjene-Ordet ‘elke’.

Professor Bradley translates: ‘Wrest off that Grendel’s hand in the double Dutch which drove out, along with the spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, the heart-word, “to love”.’ But in the first place Grundtvig says nothing of ‘Anglo-Saxons’, with its Germanising connotations, preferring plain ‘English’; and in the second place he means I think to indicate by ‘Puddervælske’ the Danish awareness of English as a language irretrievably contaminated by non-Germanic (i.e. non-‘Nordisk’) elements, by French and Latin. Grundtvig, indeed, saw England and the English in a light which would have been quite impossible without the rediscovery of pre-Norman-Conquest Old English during his own lifetime. He saw it as a tragedy, and it may indeed have been one, that the English themselves were unable to come to terms with their own rediscovered history, or to fashion a new understanding of national identity in competition with the fierce sense of ‘die neue Deutschheit’ breeding east of the North Sea and south of the Dannevirke.

Grundtvig, it should be said, great poet, scholar, educationalist and churchman that he was, does not come over as any the less quirky than his English reputation in either of these books. In Northern Antiquity, Flemming Lundgreen-Nielsen presents his passionate advocacy of Norse mythology as ‘An Experiment that Failed’: there was something imperceptive in Grundtvig’s complete inability to understand why the Danes preferred a statue of a private soldier as a war memorial to one of the god Thor. (Not to mention Grundtvig’s own suggestion, a statue of ‘Uffe the Meek’, a Figure not much more relevant if Anglicised as ‘Offa’.) By 1800, Lundgreen-Nielsen argues, Europe was hungry for a new literary mythology – Indian, Celtic, Norse, all were tried – but not even Grundtvig could get the Asa-deities past the level of horned helmets and herring tins. Yet he did create a historically and linguistically rooted national identity which has survived war, defeat and occupation, in a country smaller than Scotland. One cannot help noting also how the problems of Danes and Germans within the European Community have at last mellowed into insignifcance, leaving unchallenged Grundtvig’s early statement of the Danish ideal as ‘when few have too much, and fewer too little’; while at the same time the problems of English and British, Scots and Irish, language and nationality and the ‘West Lothian’question, have only come round again the worse for being ignored, or being regarded as beneath educated consideration.

Where does English fit as a language? Are the English really Vikings, only without the horned helmets? Should they have some sense of themselves as separate from ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’? And is knowledge of their early history and literature only so much bunk, as Henry Ford would have it? Just possibly, a new popular history of England, and a new self-image with it, would have been feasible, and cost-effective, in the light of the rediscovery of Northern antiquity almost two hundred years ago. But the matter was left to cranks, scholars and separatists, or to the whims of popular image-makers, never reaching a national audience in the way that Grundtvig did. ‘The reception of Edda and saga’ brought a new mythology and a new literary sensation to the European world; its major impact, though, was on nationalistic structures, and that, for good or ill, mostly outside ‘the English-speaking world’.