Literature, expanded by modern media to include movies, comic strips,
and cartoons, has contributed incalculably to the popularity of the Vikings.
Beginning with the sagas 800 years ago, the Vikings have been the subject
of countless literary works. The last 10 years has seen an impressive
increase in Viking related novels and juvenile literature. These creative
works keep the Vikings alive by giving them new life in each retelling,
and their image is continually evolving. Some works seek to represent
the latest scientific thinking about the Vikings, while others rely on
well-worn stereotypes for humorous diversion, reinforcing erroneous images.
Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Vikings have been portrayed
in works of literature as indomitable heroes. One of the first influential
works dealing with Vikings to appear in North America was an early 19th
century Romantic period epic poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
entitled "Skeleton in Armor," which weaves a fantastic tale of a Viking
who voyages to North America and dies of grief after the death of his
bride. That poem was inspired by two archeological finds: the 'Viking
Tower' in Newport, Rhode Island, and a skeleton (later found to be Native
American) with metal trade goods, mistaken as a Viking in armor. Another
romantic book, Fridjofs Saga, was inspired by an Icelandic saga of the
same name, and whimsically sets the story to music and poetry. Here the
Vikings are portrayed as great lovers and courtiers, which fit the romantic
ideals of the time. A later Swedish novel, The Long Ships, written in
the 1950's, has since been republished and translated numerous times.
It portrayed the Vikings as idealized masculine warriors, marauding and
trading near and far. In 1954 the MGM Movie, The Vikings, brought the
image of the Viking warrior to a broad American public for the first time,
creating the popular stereotype of today, which by all counts, is alive
Novels of the past two decades have moved beyond the warrior stereotype
and have helped redefine the Vikings as a more complex, socially diverse
culture. For instance, Peter Schledermann's recently published novel, Raven's Saga, based on the author's archeological finds in northern Canada,
explores the interactions between the Greenland Norse and the native Dorset
and Thule culture Inuit of the 13th century, and highlights the political turmoil
between Greenland, Norway, and the Catholic Church. The soon-to-be-released
novel entitled "Bibrau's Saga" by Judith Lindbergh,
focuses on the life of an Irish slave girl who participates in Erik the
Red's settlement of Greenland. Recognizing the multi-cultural nature of
the Viking world is certainly of greater interest to us in our "global
village" than it was to isolated, nationalistic Scandinavians of the 19th
century. Interestingly, both of these newer novels combine archeological,
historical, and saga literature into a single story. These two novels
also share another thing in common: they treat the Vikings as earnest,
Many other literary forms have taken the Vikings as the stuff of humor,
such as the 1989 film, "Erik the Viking", which presents the Vikings as
humorous (or ridiculous) figures. Likewise, the comic strip "Hagar the
Horrible", portrays the Vikings as simple-minded oafs. Finally, the Warner
Brother's cartoon, "What's Opera Doc?" characterized Elmer Fudd as a horned-helmeted
warrior who was outsmarted at every turn by the ever-elusive Bugs Bunny.
Commercials have also utilized horned-helmets as humorous Viking elements.
What is it about the Vikings that makes them so well-suited today as comic
fodder? Perhaps because today's less heroic-minded society likes to ridicule
simplistic stereotypes of the past.
The future popularity of the Vikings, and their image, rests on the shoulders
of the young. While many children's books and comic books like The Mighty
Thor reinforce the image of the heroic Viking warrior, other works aimed
at children have taken a more educational turn, utilizing new historical
and archeological finds. Most notable in this regard is the series of
books created by the York Archeological Trust, which focuses mostly on
Vikings as traders and craftsman. Presenting the Vikings as bright, adventurous,
but also fallible people resonates today far better than presenting the
Vikings as super-mortal heroes.
These creative works have utilized Viking source materials in two ways,
either relying on existing popular knowledge or by incorporating new research
into their works. The increasing success of the latter gives hope that
the popular image of the Vikings will eventually become more historically
accurate and realistically complex.