As part of our week-long exploration of how Vikings are imagined in literature and beyond we have to discuss the role of the early Victorian translators, historians, and novelists. It was the Victorians who first became interested in questions of Scandinavian ancestry. They translated key texts from Old Norse into English, and wrote influential histories on their northern neighbours.
Today we will count down the top influential Victorian texts about Vikings and find the roots of some of our modern ideas. If you have your own favourite book about the Vikings, share it with us below, or via Twitter.
10. Ultima Thule; or, A Summer in Iceland by Richard Burton
At number ten is the explorer Richard Burton trying very hard not to mention Vikings whatsoever. Not a stranger to the perils of dangerous travel, Burton set out to Iceland in order to write an ethnographic profile of the country and sample the North’s terrifying scenery. This profile broke all the records for insulting instances of racism, including describing the Icelanders as having ‘cod-eyes’ and general accusations of barbarity. Moreover Burton was unimpressed with the ‘terrors’ described by previous travellers, who in his mind clearly had ‘Iceland on the brain’. That said, even Burton could not help but admit the power of the sagas which were associated with the land, nor could he fully dismiss the ever-popular Victorian notion that the ancient inhabitants were in some way linked to his own nation’s past. Strangers on the road are likened to saga characters. His own name gets a Scandinavian-esque make-over. Burton’s text goes on the list for being the most cynical of all Victorian accounts of the north and yet still getting periodically swept off its feet by the British Viking infatuation.
9. Erling the Bold by R. M. Ballantyne
The Victorian period was the birthplace of the classic novel. Viking studies after all had to share the stage with such luminaries as Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. It is not surprising then that Vikings soon found their way into the popular novel as well as the history book. Erling the Bold, A Tale of the Norse Sea Kings is one such classic. Ballantyne was a full supporter of the view that the Vikings or ‘Sea-Rovers’ had supplied the British nation with civil, political, and social liberty. He also provided his own drawings, including a fine dragon-headed ship on the cover (the first novel to do so, starting a trend that is still going strong). Erling the Bold thus gets pride of place on the list for being the original Viking novel.
8. Northern Mythology by Benjamin Thorpe
‘Amid the lofty fjelds of Norway the gigantic Jutul has fixed his home…’ – so began one of the Victorian age’s great texts on the gods of the Vikings. Here were mountain trolls, pagan rituals and elf-folk aplenty. 1866 had seen the first ‘full’ translation of the tales of the Elder Edda – Viking Age poems detailing the heroic and mythological history of the North. Benjamin Thorpe’s version, The Edda of Saemund the Learned, was based on an earlier German translation. Thorpe had already cemented his position of master of Nordic mythology over a decade earlier with Northern Mythology. Thorpe’s work was highly influential, bringing the tales of Odin, Thor and Loki to a number of would-be northernists. William Morris was one of many Victorian writers who first cut their teeth on notions of Vikings and Valhalla while reading Northern Mythology.
7. Eyrbyggja saga [extracts] by Walter Scott
Many of Scott’s immensely popular works – such as the poem ‘Harold the Dauntless’ or his novel The Pirate – helped establish his own notion of a North comprised of multiple peoples, each bringing their own unique qualities to the grand mixing pot that would be Britain. (The poem ‘Rokeby’ presents county Durham as a dramatic stage where the place names and even the spirit of the land had been formed by Viking raiders and their pagan gods.) The combination (and sometimes clash) of cultures found its origin in early extracts of Eyrbyggja saga – the saga of the people of modern-day Snæfellsnes – translated by Scott in the early nineteenth century but published in an appendix to Northern Antiquities (see below). Particularly influential was Scott’s account of two Berserkers clearing a path through a lava field in order to win the hand of their master’s daughter, only to be locked in a steam-room and murdered by the prospective father-in-law. Over the century many a traveller would sail to Iceland and seek out the ‘Berserker’s Way’ of Scott’s translation.
6. Frithiof’s Saga by George Stephens
At number six is the story of Frithiof the Bold. Stephens’ translation was the first Old Norse saga to be rendered in English. It rode the back of a wave of popularity for the Swedish bishop Esaias Tegnér’s poem of the same name. Stephens had no time for ‘Wikings’ – he imagined them to be coarse and violent – but has plenty of affection for this tale of noble action and poetic justice. The tale tells of the handsome and accomplished Frithiof (his name means ‘peace-thief’) who is unjustly outlawed by the royal brothers of his love interest Ingeborg. A magic ship, a fight with sea monsters, the treacherous powers of witchcraft, and the victory of a worthy underdog over inept hereditary tyrants all find their place in this tale. The artwork for the many subsequent translations (the saga had four separate translations in the nineteenth century) displayed the classic horned helmet still seen in various depictions to this day.
5. Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas by Sabine Baring-Gould
Baring-Gould is best known as the writer of hymns such as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ but outside his life as a respectable teacher (he occasionally taught with a pet bat hanging off his academic gown) and theologian he engaged with Old Norse texts and tales of the supernatural. Little wonder then that his 1863 tour guide of Iceland is an excuse for him to visit the sites of his favourite Viking tale, Grettis saga or The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Particularly stirring are his chapters on Grettir’s fight with the undead ne’er-do-well Glámr (mirroring Beowulf’s fight with the monster Grendel) and his battle against a whole host of marauding Vikings. Baring-Gould would later go on to publish a loose translation of the saga aimed at young readers, based on the version he had told to his pupils in the south of England years before. A life-long fan of all things weird, Baring-Gould manages to take fantastical episodes of troll-hunting and fit them convincingly into the landscape of the North.
4. Heimskringla by Samuel Laing
The Icelander Snorri Sturluson wrote his history of the Kings of Norway in the early decades of the thirteenth century, but it was not until Samuel Laing’s 1844 translation that anyone got to read it in English. Laing had an unusually good grasp of what the North entailed, being an Orcadian himself and an experienced travel writer to boot. He had already published books on his tours of Norway and Sweden. Heimskringla was not only an influential history of Viking Age Europe; it was also prefaced by Laing’s own opinions on the racial formation of Britain. Laing argued that the Vikings brought strength and dexterity into the gene-pool. ‘This terrifying few’, he affirms, ‘must have been superior in mental power, energy, and vigour of action, to the daunted, conquered many.’ Laing wrote in his introduction that the topic would be known to few readers; after his Heimskringla they had little excuse.
3. Northern Antiquities by Thomas Percy
He ousted some of the ridiculous mistakes of Viking scholarship and convinced readers that the finest qualities of the British Empire had their origin in genetic traits passed down by ancient Scandinavian invaders
Bishop Percy first published his translation of Paul Henri Mallet’s work back in 1770, with a second edition hitting the shelves in 1809, but it was I. A. Blackwell’s heavily-modified edition of 1847 that truly made this work the comprehensive guide to the old North. Blackwell translated the Prose Edda’s ‘Gylfagynning’ (source of much of our knowledge of Norse mythology) and discussed the relation between the ancient peoples of Scandinavia and Britain. He told readers about the Icelandic sagas, and outlined their tales of heroism and wicked treacheries. He ousted some of the ridiculous mistakes of Viking scholarship and convinced readers that the finest qualities of the British Empire had their origin in genetic traits passed down by ancient Scandinavian invaders. According to Blackwell, the concept of freedom, naval superiority, and even the gentlemanly treatment of women were all gifts that the heathen Vikings brought the monkish Anglo-Saxons.
2. Völsunga Saga by William Morris and Eírikur Magnússon
This volume combined two extremely popular trends in nineteenth-century medievalism. The Völsungs themselves (a legendary short-lived family of warriors from northern Europe) have a long literary legacy in works such as Richard Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Anyone who tells you they have an original idea involving a cursed treasure, a magic re-forged blade, or a fearsome dragon probably owes at least a small part of their genius to Völsunga saga. William Morris and Eírikur Magnússon were themselves a force to be reckoned with. From their first translation in 1869, The Story of Grettir the Strong, the pair translated a huge number of the Old Norse sagas into English, completely opening up the tales of the North for Victorian readers. Between Eiríkur’s anti-Danish nationalist sentiments and Morris’s romantic conception of Iceland, it is hardly surprising that their texts are enveloped in Romantic Nationalist rhetoric.
1. The Story of Burnt Njal by George Webbe Dasent
With episodes of Viking raids, gruesome axe fights, and fire-scorched avengers, Burnt Njal tapped into the fascination with the ‘Barbaric North’ that we still see today in modern depictions of Vikings
Dasent’s translation laid the way for the saga translations to come. Burnt Njal was a translation of Njáls saga – one of the grandest of the Íslendingasögur (also known as ‘Icelandic Family Sagas’). It tells of two friends, Njáll and Gunnarr, caught up in a bitter blood feud that tears apart the society of southern Iceland. With episodes of Viking raids, gruesome axe fights, and fire-scorched avengers, Burnt Njal tapped into the fascination with the ‘Barbaric North’ that we still see today in modern depictions of Vikings. Yet it also went further, presenting Scandinavian society as the birthplace of Christian mercy, heroic honour, and personal independence. An ex-pat philologist with academic allegiance to the brothers Grimm, Dasent styled his translation to demonstrate the similarity between the Old Norse and English languages, and thus underline similarities between the Scandinavian and British races. His style of translation proved popular for well over a century and still has fans today.
Have you read and enjoyed any of the books on this list? If not, what’s your own favourite reimagining of the Vikings? Post your thoughts and comments below or tweet us using the tag: #imaginingvikings.