When being in thing was the in-thing

Tom Shippey

  • Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock
    Penguin, 448 pp, £9.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 14 029115 6

‘Viking Age Iceland’ makes as much sense as ‘Victorian America’. The Viking Age began, as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was concerned, in 789, when the port-reeve of Dorchester saw three strange ships in Portland harbour and rode down to collect harbour-dues, as he had presumably done many times before. But on this occasion he discovered, fatally for himself, that the rules had been rewritten: raiding had replaced trading. Four years later the famous monastery of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne, exposed and undefended, was destroyed without warning by seaborne raiders, the Pearl Harbor of the Dark Ages. Charlemagne’s English minister Alcuin wrote to the survivors in consternation, to say there had never been such a disaster in Britain before, and that no one would have thought such an attack possible. The Viking victory was longer-lasting than the Japanese one. The Viking Age lasted for more than a quarter of a millennium, ending, again as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was concerned, when Harald harðræði, the giant King of Norway, was killed by his namesake Harold Godwinsson at Stamford Bridge, on 25 September 1066, just 19 days before the Battle of Hastings.

In between Lindisfarne and Stamford Bridge, somewhere round the year 870, Iceland was discovered and settled by Scandinavians – according a later account by the Swede Gardar Svavarsson, who was blown badly off course while trying to sail to the Hebrides. What Gardar found was an island of some forty thousand square miles, completely unpopulated except for a small settlement of Irish monks, who disappeared promptly and without trace. In the following sixty years this bonanza of free land was taken up by settlers, mostly from Norway, as recorded in the Landnámabók, the ‘book of land-takings’. The island has remained settled ever since, its inhabitants – now by some calculations the richest group of people on earth, as well as one of the most genetically distinct – still speaking a language little changed in its written form from Old Norse, and preserving a unique literary heritage of poems and prose works which go back to the Middle Ages, and possibly beyond, into the Viking Age itself.

Nevertheless, though Vikings are good box-office, Icelanders and Vikings are not the same thing. In the ‘sagas of Icelanders’ it is common enough for a young man making his fortune to go away for a few years, in fact to ‘go viking’ (fara í víkingu), as if there were a verb ‘to vike’. The story is usually pretty much the same. The young man goes to Norway, is received with flattering attention by the King, establishes his independence by one daring deed or another, sets up disturbing rumours about his close relations with Norwegian queens or princesses, goes raiding for a bit (vaguely described), and then returns home with the marks of status he has acquired, to show off to the neighbours and resume the real business of life, which is tussling for status in his own highly parochial society. The ‘Viking’ expeditions look very like an Icelandic version of that cultural bravado which is the other half of cultural cringe: one may doubt whether the kings of Norway really took as much notice of Icelandic wanderers as the sagas say they do. Nor are the sagas, for the most part, very concerned about these foreign exploits. The Viking Age had little impact on them.

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