Victorian Vikings and the Alluring World of Saga Tourism (Public lecture, 2nd September)

Njal saga, by Andreas Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Njal saga, by Andreas Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The third lecture in our Late Summer Lectures series will examine how writers from Walter Scott to George R.R. Martin have been inspired by the history and literature of Iceland. Join Thomas Spray on 2nd February at 17.00, for a tour of the mysterious north from the nineteenth-century to now.

In 1856 Lord Dufferin set out to Iceland in an attempt to find the elusive “True North.” His self-chosen expedition title: Navigator, Artist, and ‘Sagaman’.  In the mid-1800s such ventures were not unheard of. Many seafarers were drawn to Iceland by scientific interests: clearly shown by the title of Charles Forbes’ 1860 account of ‘Volcanoes, Geysers, and Glaciers.’ Yet Dufferin’s approach was indicative of an increasing interest in Iceland as a destination for literary enthusiasts seeking Viking roots. In a supreme act of historic irony, nineteenth-century Iceland was raided (even pillaged) by Victorian gentlemen.

This engagement was undoubtedly linked with the translation of saga literature. Walter Scott’s ‘Eyrbyggja saga’ extracts and George Dasent’s Njáls saga translation encouraged waves of literary pilgrims, artists, and writers to pick up their pens and set sail for Iceland. William Morris (1871; 1873), Sabine Baring-Gould (1862), Richard Burton (1872), and W. G. Collingwood (1897) were just a handful of well-known names. Back in Britain, general interest in northern antiquity supported and inspired research into the leading theories of Romantic Nationalism and comparative philology. The top scholars of the day suggested that the Scandinavians had given the British Empire many of its finest inherited qualities, paving the path for imperial greatness. Iceland was ancestral ground, an important study in the construction of racial identity.

This paper will demonstrate how the early saga tourists of Iceland laid the way for a host of book-bearing travellers, exploring the figure of the travelling English ‘Sagaman’. It will consider how Anglo-Scandinavian tourism was bolstered by interest in the Icelandic Sagas and look forward to the cultural tourism of today, where Iceland is home to not only the northern realms of George R. R. Martin’s books, but also to a film cast as diverse as Thor, Beowulf, Batman, and Alien.

Thomas Spray recently presented his top-ten Victorian books about Vikings on this blog. If you have a favourite book about Vikings, share it with us over at that post.

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday at 17.30 at Alington House, Durham, from 19th August to 7th October. All are warmly welcome to attend; see the full programme here. You can also download podcasts of lectures from previous series.

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