They didn’t wear horned helmets. Nor did they drink from the skulls of their enemies or burn their dead in ships (at least not very often). In Beyond the Northlands, I wanted to dispel some of these well-worn Viking stereotypes, but I also wanted to get past the old historical debate of “raiders versus traders”.
Certainly there was plenty of raiding and trading going on, but the real Norse story is far more complex than this. It’s played out on a global stage that stretches from the fringes of North America in the west to the Russian steppes in the east, from the Arctic wastes of the north to the mighty empires of the south. And while much of what we know about the Norse comes from horrified foreign chroniclers, I wanted to explore how the world was experienced, remembered, and imagined by the Norse themselves, through the stories passed down the generations. There’s plenty of room in these tales for fantastical and outlandish characters: far-travelling heroes, man-eating trolls, poison-spewing dragons, bawdy pagan gods.
Other stories play out more like family dramas or tense political thrillers, with scheming kings, plucky heroes and feuds that escalate into bloody tragedies. So it’s fitting that the Norse legacy has proved fertile ground for writers in many genres, the inspiration for tales of sex, violence and adventure expressed in everything from rollicking historical novels to modern retellings of myths to comic books.
1. The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
Greenland was settled in around 985 by Erik the Red, who had been outlawed from Iceland for murder. The colony survived for several hundred years, but how and why it came to an end is still up for debate. This meticulously researched saga imagines life in Norse Greenland during the final decades of the settlement. I had spent several years researching this part of Norse history before I discovered this novel, including two summers exploring Norse ruins in Greenland. But reading The Greenlanders was a revelation: for the first time, I felt I understood what it might have been like to live through this society’s slow decline towards oblivion.
2. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga edited by William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth Ward
My copy of this book could be described as “well-loved”: the spine is broken, the pages are coming away from the binding, and there are dog-eared Post-it notes on almost every page. The articles are organised into several parts: Viking Homelands, Viking Raiders, Vikings in the North Atlantic, Viking America, Norse Greenland, and Viking Legacy. Packed full of colour photographs and illustrations, this book is like going to the world’s best Viking museum exhibition but without the sore feet.
3. Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan
Magnus Chase is a bolshy, homeless orphan living on the streets of Boston. He also happens to be the son of the pagan god Frey, and destined for an afterlife in Hotel Valhalla. Readers don’t have to know their Norse mythology to enjoy this first in a series of young adult novels. But those with a little more knowledge can sit back and enjoy Riordan’s sharp retelling of old tales for a new generation: my favourite detail is the sea god Njord reimagined as a hipster obsessed with microbreweries.
4. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Continuing the theme of Norse myths reimagined for the modern era, American Gods is a classic in the genre. Immigrants to America have brought their gods and guardian spirits with them, but as beliefs fade, so does the power of the old gods. New deities have risen to take their place, and the scene is set for a modern-day Ragnarok – the final battle in Norse mythology, where the gods must fall. Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology, is out this month.
5. Echoes of Valhalla: The Afterlife of the Eddas and Sagas by Jón Karl Helgason
Hot off the press, this is a highly entertaining study of how the Old Norse sagas and myths have been reinvented and adapted in comic books, plays, music and films. Highlights include a discussion of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song and the development of the subgenre Viking metal (strains of which can sometimes be heard coming from my office door when I’m in need of inspiration).
6. Ohthere’s Voyages edited by Janet Bately and Anton Englert
The title isn’t exactly catchy, but I’ve chosen this book because it’s a series of essays focusing on my favourite Norsemen. Ohthere was an Arctic explorer and trader who visited the court of King Alfred in Anglo-Saxon England at the end of the ninth century. He told the king that he lived “furthest north of all the Northmen”, and described his dealings with the people who lived even further north: the ancestors of today’s Sámi. I’ve always been drawn to Ohthere because his is the only authentic Norse voice from the ninth century, even if it is mediated through a different language (Old English). It’s also a window on to a much less familiar part of Norse history: that of trading and tribute-taking in the Arctic.
7. The Long Ships by Frans G Bengtsson translated by Michael Meyer
This is historical fiction at its finest: a classic Viking adventure story written more than 70 years ago. No mere swashbuckling romp, this a psychologically complex, unexpectedly funny work starring Orm Tostesson: stoic hero, tender lover, incurable hypochondriac. The action is set in the decades leading up to the year 1000, and spans a broad geographical area including Muslim Spain, Kievan Rus, Viking-ravaged England and Denmark on the cusp of conversion to Christianity.
8. Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould
Better known for the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers and The Book of Were-Wolves, Baring-Gould, like many educated Victorians, harboured a passion for the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas. In 1862, at the age of 28, he journeyed across Iceland on horseback, “to examine the scenes famous in saga”. His travelogue is interspersed with typically Victorian, melodramatic retellings of the sagas. But the account is most memorable for the comical, often unflattering sketches of his travel companions, including the portly Mr Briggs, who takes “a great and comfortable” bed around Iceland with him so he doesn’t have to rough it.
9. Viking Raiders by Anne Civardi and James Graham-Campbell
Despite the title, this wittily illustrated book introduces children to the Norse as more than just Viking raiders: they are also farmers, hunters, traders, explorers and settlers. This book is aimed at youngsters, but its historical accuracy makes it a wonderfully entertaining teaching aid even for academics. This is hardly surprising, given that one of the authors is James Graham-Campbell, emeritus professor of medieval archaeology at UCL.
10. Valhalla series by Peter Madsen
The Norse gods have enjoyed many reincarnations in graphic form, ever since the Mighty Thor comics of the 1960s. This is my favourite – although Asterix and the Normans was a close second. The stories closely follow the original medieval sources and are every bit as dark and viscerally funny, from Thor cross-dressing as a bride to rescue his hammer to the monstrous Fenris wolf breaking its bonds to herald Ragnarok. But there’s also a place for contemporary issues such as gender equality: in Valhalla, not all heroes are big blokes with beards.