Throughout this week Tom Spray has been #imaginingvikings as a guest curator on Twitter. For his final blog post of the week he asks how we imagine Vikings in the twenty-first century, and how much we have changed our perceptions since the Victorian period…
‘Vikings’: the word as we know it is a creation emerging from initial translations of the Old Norse sagas into English. These early translations took a largely incomprehensible body of literature and presented it to an eager public. From George Stephen’s tale of Frithiof the Bold in 1839 to William Morris’ extensive collection of translated sagas, the Victorian period saw the dramatic rise of the Old Norse saga translation. The literary adoption of everything ‘Viking’ was catalogued and examined in detail back in 2000 by Andrew Wawn in his comprehensive book The Vikings and the Victorians – a work which demonstrates the sheer success of this emergent theme. The Victorians, it seems, were quite simply obsessed with Vikings.
Unfortunately this same period was also one of rampant nationalist ideologies both in politics and academia. From England to Denmark, Germany to Norway, the concepts of Germanic philology, ethnic-nationalism, social Darwinism, and the inequality of races were supported by many of the period’s writers and academics. This inevitably shaped the way in which the Viking Age and northern ancestry came to be conceived. Northern nations clambered to claim ancient texts as their own, longing to have a literary tradition to rival the classics of Greece and Rome. Claiming sagas was a literary arms-race, one that Victorian northernists did not intend to lose. Vikings became part of numerous national identities and from there made their way into the leaflets of numerous travel guides and national literary canons.
The early saga translations were born out of nationalist appropriation and philological debate. But how much of this worked its way into the texts themselves, and how much is this still the case with our fascination with the North today? While modern academia strives to separate Viking-fact from Viking-fiction, most scholars (and publishers) are still aware of the effect that putting the word ‘Vikings’ on a book cover can have. And while words such as ‘race’ have been sidelined in favour of more tactful options such as ‘heritage’, clearly the Vikings still get a certain amount of attention for ethnic-nationalist reasons – a phenomenon which can also be traced back to the Victorian era, even if its terrifying climax was the world-wide conflict of the twentieth century.
Our image of the stereotypical Viking – formed via nineteenth-century Romantic Nationalism, maintained through nationalist tendencies, and vividly brought to us via books, films and television – is now a social creation, a fine specimen of (Neo)Medievalism. While in the early eighteen-hundreds writers were despairing at the lack of knowledge that the English-speaking public had of the North, their modern-day counterparts are more likely to complain of the opposite. Nowadays the average reader has too much of a preconceived idea of what a Viking is. Authors may have a hard job sifting through their readers’ accumulated notions passed down from translators such as George Webbe Dasent, poets like William Morris, and writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien.
For the 21st-century reader, imagining Vikings is all too easy (and all too difficult) to do.