(Re)imagining the Vikings


Olav den helliges saga - Olav og Rane i viking - Halfdan Egedius (1877-1899) Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Olav den helliges saga – Olav og Rane i viking – Halfdan Egedius (1877-1899)
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Vikings! Burly ruffians in horned helmets? Or expert craftsmen and traders? Over the next week, Tom Spray will be curating a series on #imaginingvikings via Twitter and on this blog, looking at how our popular conception of the Vikings may be at odds with the historical reality. 

My name is Tom Spray and my PhD thesis examines nationalism in the Icelandic sagas. I am particularly interested in how the Victorian reception and interpretation of the Viking Age was dictated by Romantic Nationalist interests, and how these issues of nationalism still govern our fascination with Scandinavia and the North. Over the next week I will be putting aside my manuscripts, manning the READ Twitter feed, and going back 200 years to explore the earliest depictions of Vikings in English literature.

What do you think when we hear the word ‘Vikings’ today?
Share your thoughts with me on Twitter or on this blog

What do we think when we hear the word ‘Vikings’ today? Burly ruffians in horned helmets charging up the beachhead at Lindisfarne? Bearded poets quaffing mead from elaborate drinking horns? Dragon-headed longships full of wolfish warriors? From fiery females to heathen hordes, the Vikings have more than their fair share of popular misconceptions and theatrical over-exaggerations.

Today we like to think we have a more reserved view of the period between the years 793 and 1066, which we now call the Viking Age. We know that these early northern Europeans brought trade as well as terror. We know they were expert craftsmen, adept in naval technology and intricate metalwork. We know that in the sagas they created an oral literary tradition to rival the tales of Greece and Rome. Yet ‘Vikings’ has remained a buzzword clearly visible on the covers of colourful historical novels and the adverts for bloody television programmes. Historical detail aside, has the traditional image of the Viking really changed that much over the last two centuries?

Over the next week we are going to consider our modern popular conception of Vikings in a little more detail. Here are some of the questions we’ll explore:

  • How are Vikings imagined in historical fiction, children’s literature, festivals, television programmes, and films?
  • How and why did the Victorians first spark interest in the old North, by translating key texts from Old Norse into English?
  • What are the Victorian texts that influence our modern ideas about Vikings?
  • How do some of the ongoing projects of 21st-century Viking Studies suggest our concepts have changed in the last 15-20 years?

I do hope you’ll join in the conversation over the next week. Join in on Twitter via #imaginingvikings, or reply directly on the blog below. What do you think of Vikings today?

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