It’s a new day and a new opportunity to learn about some great Norse Sagas. All of these were big influences on The Saga of Egil the Scarred and helped me formulate some of my ideas about the mindset of Vikings and the feel of the Viking Age. I have to extend that caveat about these sagas not being exactly historically accurate (my stories certainly aren’t, either), but they are great reads nonetheless and I do hope you check them out, whether you’re a fan of books about swords, someone who wants to put images of battleaxes and trolls in your mind during blistering Heavy Metal songs, or just someone who wants to read about an interesting time and place in history. Fill your drinking horn with mead and let the Saga-O-Rama begin!
King Harald’s Saga
While Vikings can sometimes be characterized as a fun-loving bunch, enjoying their exploring, murdering, and robbing as they cruise freely around Europe and the world, there is also a deep sort of sadness in the Norse culture. Maybe it comes from living in frozen Scandinavia or maybe it’s just a hallmark of a violent age, but the Norse seem very interested in dying and defeat. Even their Gods, bold warriors like Thor and Tyr, have Ragnorak – and their dooms – waiting for them. Thanks to Odin’s gift of prophecy, they know exactly what’s going to happen and how they’re all going to die. That’s more than a little depressing and it ties into Viking History as well, particularly the real life Ragnorak that was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which is largely credited for ending the Viking Age. That battle is recounted in the saga of King Harald Hardrada, a king of Norway who met his end there. King Harald had a very interesting career before that, traveling around the world, hanging out with the Kievan Rus, and serving in the Varangian Guard, and that’s all ably recounted in his saga – but Stamford Bridge is the part that makes it all worth reading. Basically, there was a three-way battle for control of England between the native Saxons, King Harald’s Norse, and William the Conqueror’s Normans. Given that we’re not all wearing horned helmets, you can probably guess who won. King Harald’s men showed up and the Saxons ambushed them while they were changing into their armor, leading to their defeat. King Harald takes an arrow to the throat right away and dies. One nameless Berserker does go onto the bridge and personally hold off the entire Saxon army for a while – the sort of feat that sounds too amazing to be true, but actually happened – and the Saxons get crushed by the Normans a little later. The Normans are actually descendants of the Norse themselves (Northman=Norman), so the Vikings do sort of win, after all – but they still lose, and King Harald’s Saga is a fine way to read about it.
The Prose Edda
One thing that makes the Viking culture so amazing is their mythology. You’ve got cool gods with names and gimmicks (Odin has one eye and ravens, Thor’s got a hammer and rides a chariot pulled by giant goats), fantastic monsters like Frost Giants and trolls, and an awesome ending that puts the Book of Revelations to shame. The Four Horsemen are nothing compared to a giant wolf with a mouth so big that it reaches from the earth to the roof of the sky. Norse mythology is also weird. There’s cross-dressing, Odin plucking out his eye, the dead sailing to Ragnorak on a ship made from the fingernails of dead men, and plenty of evocative imagery. It’s no wonder that Wagner, Tolkien, and Marvel Comics went to the Norse well over and over again. The Prose Edda is the primary source for all those stories. It’s got the creation myth, a great mix of tales about the Gods, and ends, naturally, with Ragnorak. Neat little poems find their way inside too, so this written copy of oral tradition is certainly mandatory reading for anyone interested in Norse myth.
The Vinland Saga
Another cool element of the Viking milieu is just how well-traveled they were. Vikings could hang out in Scandinavia and Northern Europe or they could swing over to modern-day Spain, visit the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East, go to Byzantium, or – at least in one case – head to North America. The story of the Viking settlement in North America or Vinland is an interesting tale of culture clash, hundreds of years before Columbus. Lief Erikson, a famed Viking explorer, goes from Iceland to North America – christened Vinland because of the many vines – and tries to make a colony. At first, everything in Vinland is great, but the Norse soon realize that it has its own residents. The Native Americans, who are called Skraelings, are sort of mythical monsters in the Vinland Saga. They have bizarre catapult weapons and some are one-legged pogo-stick monsters. Peace breaks down and soon the Norse find themselves trapped between the freezing cold and the threat of Skraeling attack. Soon, they start fighting amongst each other. In this chaos, the character of Freydis Eriskdottir rises to prominence. The Viking treatment of women is interesting and Freydis is a good example. She has a great deal of agency and is a warrior and hero, but also becomes power-hungry and paranoid. I would say that she is what would today be called an anti-hero, even though the saga’s writers treat her as more of a villain. Her cold, callous way of dealing with division in the frozen, doomed settlement of Vinland is chilling – ‘give me an axe’ she says and takes care of the problem herself. For her character alone, the Vinland Saga is worth tracking down.
Well, that’s all the sagas I’ve read. I’ll be talking more about medieval fantasy fiction soon, including Game of Thrones, so be sure to watch this spot and prepare for more.
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