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Archeology Video

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.

The Vikings
The Vikings
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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 and well!


"Bibrau's Saga" Excerpt read by Judith Lindbergh

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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, worthy subjects.

Dolls and Trolls
Dolls and Trolls
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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.