Viking Fever – Vikings in Fantastika

By Kevan Manwaring

Ink: when Viking Fever goes viral

The Northman (2022) – Director: Robert Eggers; Writer: Sjón/Eggers.

Vikings are very much in vogue again, with a slew of releases in recent years reaching fever pitch in 2021-2022, many of which draw laterally, rather than literally, upon Viking culture: MCU’s Loki and Thor: Love and Thunder; Vikings: Valhalla; The Last Kingdom; The Northman; The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power... Readers and viewers are perhaps more adept at perceiving the loose historicity of such retellings than scholars credit them; and are drawn to the new tales largely because of the storytelling, the characters, and the aesthetic. For some, such texts are a ‘gateway drug’ to the hit of history, the fix of the source material, the Gothic allure of the archive. 

Yet for many, it is perhaps something more visceral. Martin Amis said novels come from the ‘base of the spine’, but maybe the appeal of narrative flights of fancy do also. 

It is perhaps not surprising that tales of warriors and their warrior gods are in favour in such tumultuous times (it could be argued we live in a new Viking Age, where the mask of civility has been forsaken and the strong take what they wish from the weak, or at least try), but Viking culture and Norse mythology has had an especial appeal to writers of Fantasy for a long time. Mike Ashley defines ‘Nordic Fantasy’ as ‘That body of FANTASY which draws its heart from the MYTHOLOGY of the Scandinavian and Teutonic races and incorporates the stories retold in the SAGAS.’ (1999: 691) 

In this article (from an author and academic who has written two Viking-inspired novels of his own), I explore this phenomenon. What is Viking Fever? When and how did it go viral? And is this latest ‘wave’ just a variant of a long-running cultural mutation that originates in the birth of Scandinavian and English literature, and perhaps even in the very foundations of storytelling?

If we take a wider view of the phenomenon before zooming into specifics, Viking fever could be said to be a symptom of a more common condition: a love of the North, or at least its ‘idea’ (as Emeritus Professor of the University of Aberdeen, Peter Davidson articulates). For CS Lewis, ‘Northerness’ was a cause for joy, triggered as a youth by reading the line in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s dirge in Tegner’s Drapa

‘I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful 

Is dead, is dead—’

And this filled Lewis with an intense longing (or sehnsucht, as he later phrased it):

‘I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.’ (Surprised By Joy, 1955).

Lewis, who would go on to imagine his own Fimbulwinter in a land of ‘Always winter, but never Christmas’ (as Mr. Tumnus puts it), Narnia, was not alone. Ever since Strabo first described Ultima Thule with its ‘savage’ inhabitants and strange endless nights, and early geographies described ‘Hyperborea’, the Land beyond the North Wind, have writers been enamoured by the dream of the north. Peter Davidson, in his survey of this phenomenon, suggests, ‘Everyone carries their own idea of north within them.’ (2016: 11). In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez masterfully charts the first formulations of a northernmost land, ‘Arktikós’, (2014: 15-41), showing how it was not just scientific curiosity that drove centuries of explorers to attempt the perilous charting of the far north: ‘We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place.’ 

This fascination crystallized in the range of Norse myths, legends, and sagas – a cannon not confined to one culture or one ur-text, as Heather O’Donoghue, Vigfusson Rausing Reader in Ancient Icelandic Literature and Antiquities at the University of Oxford warns, ‘Norse mythology as it has come down to us cannot be confined to a single society or a single time,’ (2007: 8). The extant manuscripts are the result of a complex process of translation, mistranslation, damage, redaction, reconstruction, and redrafting. As Anthony Doerr dramatizes in his love letter to libraries and archives, Cloud Cuckoo Land (2021), it is a minor miracle that we have any ancient manuscripts at all – made of clay tablet, papyrus, vellum, parchment, or paper they are such fragile boats to sail down the river of time.  

Novelist Jane Smiley, who prefaces an authoritative translation of the Icelandic Sagas (2000), wrote of the influence of the Eddas on her own development as a writer: 

‘…nothing drew me in like the Icelandic sagas. Their simultaneous strangeness and familiarity was a potent and never-ending source of pleasure to me, and further, it was clear that the saga writers knew perfectly well how to tell a good story, and that their techniques for setting the scene, describing character, following out a conflict and finding meaning in apparently meaningless action were highly sophisticated. There was, in fact, plenty for an inspiring novelist to learn from the saga writers.’ (2000: xiii)

Smiley went on to prove that in her speculative history, The Greenlanders (1988). Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods (2001) and Norse Mythology (2017) would no doubt agree, who said:

‘That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own, and on some dark and icy winter’s evening, or on a summer night when the sun will not set, tell your friends what happened when Thor’s hammer was stolen, or how Odin obtained the mead of poetry for the gods…’

This playful, proactive approach honours the plasticity and robustness of the ‘originals’ (if such a thing exists – more often than not there is no ‘master copy’, only numerous fragments and patchworks) is something O’Donoghue echoes: ‘In the twenty-first century, then, there are many ways of coming to Old Norse myth, and even more ways of using it.’ (2007: 164) 

Mjölnir is waiting for any bold writer to pick it up.  

To show the impact of Viking culture and Norse mythology upon my own imaginarium as a writer of Fantasy I will briefly reflect upon this here. One could use many other Fantasy writers as examples, but I know the specific pathology of my own Viking fever intimately. My first ‘apprentice’ novel, The Ghost Tree (unpublished, 1994), deployed very consciously a contemporized version of the image of the Allfather, Odin, hanging upon the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I used runes (specifically the Elder Futhark) as my magical system, and I drew upon the legend of Wayland/Volund, the magical blacksmith. Although the novel was about my old hometown, Northampton, and its psychogeography, this didn’t seem like an incongruous imposition: I grew up close to close to a hillfort called Hunsbury Hill, or Danes Camp (being within Mercia, Northampton was slap bang within the Danelaw). The impact upon my young imagination of this place I dramatized in a short story, ‘The Glass Fort’, included in Northamptonshire Folk Tales (2013). Another key site was the Saxon church of St Peter’s, close to Northampton train station (formerly Castle Station, as it was built on the site of Northampton Castle). Although the current structure dates from 1170, it was built upon the site of a former Saxon church dating from 500-650AD, when the town was known as ‘Hamtun’. Corbel stones depict mysterious grotesque images and within the church there is the magnificent Ragener Stone, which has distinctively Norse imagery upon it – as in many of the Viking crosses typically found in the north of England. This became a key part of my story. I linked it with the legend of a Saxon seer, Aelgifu, a ‘cripple’ who was miraculously cured after a prophetic dream revealed the site of an ancient king marked by the said stone (‘Aelgifu of Northampton’ crops up in Vikings: Valhalla, but is very different from how I imagined her!).  The final key influence on my burgeoning Viking fever was knowing the Fantasy novelist and runemaster, Bernard King, whose Starkadder duology (1985; 1986) explicitly plunder Norse mythology. Through Bernard, I got to meet the seer Freya Aswyn, author of Leaves of Yggdrasil (1988) – the best book on Norse runes I have come across so far. 

Fast forward to 2010, and I found myself stuck in Northern Italy as a result of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. The resulting travel infrastructure meltdown (European airspace closed down, train and ferry websites crashing, traffic jams, and panicking hordes at terminals and stations) inspired my second full-bloodied foray into Viking culture, my novel, Thunder Road (2016) – a Viking/Biker culture mashup, which imagines the impact of the eruption of the supervolcano, Katla. For that I drew upon my experience of being a biker and visits to key Viking sites in the north of England, the Isle of Man, and, later, Iceland. A contemporary reimagining of Ragnarok, the novel combines Viking eschatology with the Climate Crisis (with a generous dose of rock ‘n’ roll). 

My long-term interest in Viking culture and Norse mythology has also manifested in my practice as a professional storyteller (2000-2020). I’ve told some of the classic Norse myths and legends, and a live version of the Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf in a roundhouse on the Somerset Levels in the middle of a storm (as well as my cyberpunk version, Bio*Wolf). Experiencing these stories viscerally as a performer, and observing their impact on live audiences has shown me the vitality, relevance, and robustness of the material. 

I am sure my experiences are not unique. No doubt Fantasy writers with Viking fever would have their own anecdotes to share. But for now, let us turn to the roots of this World Tree. 

The Eyrarland Thor Statue, National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

 Iron: a brief raid into the origins of Vikings in popular culture

It could be argued that Vikings and Fantasy have been bedfellows from the very outset. Viking culture is very performative. They fictionalised, or self-mythologised themselves with epithets such as ‘Forkbeard’, ‘Boneless’, ‘Bloodaxe’; the inventive linguistic refractions of kennings, (‘Whale’s Road’ for sea; ‘Widowmaker’ for sword, etc, which Kevin Crossley-Holland calls ‘mini-riddles’); and the art of bragging refined in the meadhalls over innumerable tankards and horns (e.g. Beowulf is full of boasting). It is no coincidence that the very word ‘bragging’ derives from the Norse god of eloquence, Bragi, and that inspired poets and storytellers are said to have drunk from the skaldic mead stolen by Odin from the giants (and that those who misuse the power of language are said to have drunk Odin’s urine, literally talking piss). 

The remarkable hoard of myths, legends, poems, and sagas that developed (in a fortuitous act of diasporic translocation, many of these were taken with the early settlers to Iceland, where they were preserved until eventually written down by the Christianised, literate culture) arose out of a need to find meaning, motivation, and escape. Short, violent lives looked to the hereafter for compensation – by acts of bravery and honour investing in a posthumous ‘pension fund’ in the meadhalls of Valhalla. Peoples that were dislocated due to internal and external pressures (tribal conflict; a punitive regime or unpopular king; war; resource scarcity; the allure of riches and land elsewhere) developed a cosmology stretched over nine worlds: the ultimate consoling fiction of a diaspora scattered across the North Atlantic, Europe, and the Far East. Enduring extreme climatic events (e.g. such as the nuclear winter of the Middle Ages which caused extreme hardship in Iceland) and foul weather in inhospitable places, it is a small wonder that the Norse developed a pantheon of surly weather gods. 

Myths are ways of narrativizing the unknowable and unpredictable – the great mysteries apparently beyond human agency and comprehension: birth, death, famine, drought, flood, periglacials, volcanic eruption, plague. And when the daily grind of life was grim what better way to escape than through a tale of larger-than-life heroes, fallible gods, comical monsters, reversals of fortune, travel, and adventure? To go ‘viking’ is to go raiding, in the hope of winning glory and gold. And yet the word originates from ‘a small bay’ – ‘vik’ – as in Reykjavík. A Viking is literally someone who lives in an inlet, or fjord (or, more widely, someone who ‘lived in the Viking Age’, according to Professor Neil Price, 2022). They are better understood if we take viking as a verb (viking), rather than a noun (Viking). Many in fact were settlers and farmers. And yet all were able to go a-viking in their imaginations. 

A storyteller’s tongue is the fastest longship. It can carry listeners far and wide – in the flash of an arresting image, the dazzle of cunning wordplay. Further than Bifrost, swifter than Ratatosk, more beguiling than Brisingamen, the skald’s tale enthrals us still, although these days in a plethora of modes: graphic novel, computer game, audio drama, Netflix or Amazon series, etc, etc. Indeed, one could argue that the multimodality and restless inventiveness of so-called ‘Convergence Culture’, a concept associated with ‘transmedia storytelling’ – (Jenkins, 2007, for both) seems like the natural home for the modern Viking. 

Fantasy – in the form of mythological and supernatural fantastical elements – has been part of Viking culture as manifest in literature created from within their sphere of influence from the earliest surviving examples. It is there in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, the 3182-line poem written down sometime between the 700-1000 CE in West Saxon dialect. Its protagonist, the titular Beowulf (bee-wolf = a kenning for ‘bear’, suggesting a possible berserker, a ‘bear-shirter’, someone who takes on the ferocity of a bear in battle; something Tolkien gave a knowing nod to in the character of Beorn) is, in effect, the first Witcher – a musclebound Geatlander rocking up on the Danish coast to deal with King Heorot’s monster problem: initially the green-eyed crepuscular fen-lurker, Grendel; then his even deadlier lake-dwelling mother; and then finally half a decade later, in a disastrous comeback tour, a dragon. 

With its riddles, dragon-hoard, mighty deeds, and evocation of a pre-Norman Britain Beowulf provided the gold standard for medievalist Fantasy from Tolkien (who was a philologist with an especial interest – some might say obsession – in Old English as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature) and all who followed him. The impact of Beowulf upon the English imagination, especially amongst Fantasy writers, cannot be underestimated – and in its many adaptations it has had an even wider reach (e.g. the 2007 computer-animated film, directed by Roger Zemeckis and written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery). On a personal level I have read many versions, but always remember being enthralled by Seamus Heaney reading out his translation on BBC Radio 4 over the winter of 2000 – an experience made even more resonant by the fact I was listening to it on my narrowboat while locked in by a frozen canal. A poem bursting at the seams with linguistic creativity, elsewhere I have used the narrative of Beowulf as an extended metaphor for the creative process itself (2014) – for the perilous endeavour of writing long-form fiction in particular. 

The ambience of the Fantastic can be found in The Exeter Book – ‘Codex Exoniensis’, the remarkable rare collection of Anglo-Saxon MSS held at the Cathedral Library, Exeter – perhaps because so many Fantasy narratives have plundered its rich wordhoard of riddles, tropes, and bleak, macho aesthetic, either directly or indirectly; along with The Prose Edda (the main source of Norse myths), Icelandic Sagas, and extant poetry. The other primary source is the Northern English 14th Century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, brilliantly re-imagined by David Lowery in the 2021 film, The Green Knight – demonstrating how these primary texts are still generating new Fantasy. 

The ‘myth kitty’, as Philip Larkin disparagingly called it, mocking the tendency of his fellow Modernists to shamelessly raid it, has been dipped into for centuries – it is a copyright-free cauldron of ideas. A mythical frame provided a safe space for reflecting upon contemporary concerns, albeit through a glass darkly – the bottomless abyss of myth provided a scrying mirror for playwrights and poets like Spenser (The Faerie Queene), Drayton (Poly-Olbion), Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest, etc) and his contemporaries. For Romantic poets like James Macpherson (author of the infamous literary hoax: the Ossian poems) such material bestowed a faux-historicity; and the ‘found manuscript’ became a popular device in Gothic literature (Baker, 2014: 54-88).

Viking fever really took hold in the late Victorian age – painters, composers, poets, playwrights, sculptors, costume designers, even architects all milked the Ymir-like cash cow. From Wagner to Grieg, Walter Scott to William Morris, H. Rider Haggard to Rudyard Kipling, it was boomtime for all points North. Norse mythology provided a safe forum for respectable society to explore unseemly passions, transgressive behaviour, and a ‘purer’, more authentic, more noble way of life – one stripped of the stifling etiquette and mores of the age. Yet in terms of full-bloodied Fantasy, the most impressive iterations appeared towards the end of the 19th Century in the work of George Macdonald (1824-1905), Fiona Macleod (AKA William Sharp, 1855-1905), and Andrew Lang (1844-1912). This was part of the fin-de-siècle Scottish Revival, as articulated by Michael Shaw (2021). The Finnish national epic of the Kalevala, compiled by linguist Elias Lönnrot (1835) prompted a swathe of similar projects, such as Lady Charlotte Guest’s The Mabinogion (1838). Suddenly, the cauldron of myths, legends, and folklore was there to be categorised, bowdlerised, formalised, and plundered.

A late outlier of this was the Orcadian poet, dramatist and novelist, George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), who drew upon the strong Norse influence in his island, as well as local folklore and legends of selkies.  

In the 1930s the call of the North was felt strongly by writers such as WH Auden and Louise MacNeice, who travelled to Iceland and wrote of their experiences in Letters from Iceland (1937); and perhaps most famously and influentially, the group of Oxford friends who met weekly in a pub to share their work-in-progress, The Inklings: of which JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield were the core (Carpenter, 1981). We have already mentioned the grip ‘The Norse Thing’ had on CS Lewis, and, of course, Tolkien evoked the world of, if not the Vikings, then the Anglo-Saxon world of Beowulf especially in his depiction of the Rohan, although his opus is permeated with the tropes, names, and ambience of Norse mythology, as has been delved into extensively elsewhere (Shippey, 1992). Near contemporaries, Lord Dunsany and Sylvia Townsend Warner were also evoking the fickleness and fallibility of the Aesir in their own invented pantheons and legendariums. On the other side of the pond, writers such as Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber were similarly plundering the Glittaheid of Norse myths, legends, and sagas to furnish their own fictional meadhalls, and the likes of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt ably picked up the broadsword in their wake.  

And this brings us to modern Fantasy writers. Norse myth still proved a popular ‘kitty’ for New Wave wordsmiths like Michael Moorcock; Harry Harrison; M John Harrison; George RR Martin, John Gardner, and Parke Godwin, but they often adopted idiosyncratic and iconoclastic approaches to the material. The hoar-frosted tropes of yore could not just be mindlessly regurgitated – unless you were John Norman, author of the morally dubious and misogynistic Gor books; or the likes of Tom Holt taking a deliberately comic approach. Generation X wordsmiths such as Neil Gaiman have taken a postmodern approach to Norse mythology – as epitomised by American Gods (2001) and spin-off stories. 

During the second half of the twentieth century, a significant wave of women writers seized upon Norse (and Celtic) mythology too: Rosemary Sutcliffe, Morgan Llewellyn, Moyra Caldecott, Diane Wynne Jones, Diana Paxson, and Susan Cooper – some with an attempt at realism, others with a magical, symbolist, or revisionist approach. This was a necessary and revitalising trend, a pushback against the decades of male writers who had claimed Vikings for their own. The gendered biases of publishing and marketing perpetuated this for generations – with ‘boys own’ stories about daring Norse-flavoured adventurers, and toys, games, and television all reinforcing such stereotypes. Fortunately, women writers showed they could do it as well as, indeed often better, than their male counterparts – more or less making Historical Fantasy their own. More contemporary writers will no doubt continue to evolve the form away from any such hoary gendered notions. 

The sui generis work of Alan Garner deserves its own category (and essay) but suffice to say his Weirdstone series drew directly upon Norse mythology, and this has pervaded his later work too, albeit in toponymical allusions, as in Thursbitch (2004), or in terms of the cosmology which irrupts into the lives of his characters in and around his axis mundi, Alderley Edge. In the Booker Prize-shortlisted Treacle Walker (2021) the young protagonist’s chimney serves as a domestic Yggdrasil, or Shaman’s Ladder – a perilous portal of testing. Since the Nineties a new trend of Grimdark fantasy has emerged – pioneered by George R.R. Martin, with his brutally iconoclastic (and as yet unfinished) epic series, The Song of Ice and Fire (1996-) – with the likes of David Gemmell, John Gwynne, Joe Abercrombie, Tim Severin and Giles Kristian upping the blood-letting: blasting out any sentimentality, feyness, or tired genre tropes and assumptions in a perhaps much-needed Spring clean. Perhaps antithetical to this strain of ‘Realist Fantasy’, in a concurrent tradition Fantasy writers like Guy Gavriel Kay, Robert Holdstock, RJ Barker, Margaret Elphinstone and Zoe Gilbert have continued the more magical tradition of imaginative fiction – the immanence of enchantment still lingers in the air in their work. Meanwhile, even ‘literary’ novelists and academics like Joanne Harris (2007; 2011; 2018) and Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) and Janina Ramirez (2018) have sought inspiration from the skaldic cauldron with varying levels of success. 

But now let us flip the perspective to the other side of the page or screen. 

Lagertha played by Katheryn Winnick, from Vikings (2013-2020)

Leather: the allure of the analogue  

A novel is always a co-creative act between writer and reader as reader-response theory suggests, but in a very tangible way ‘Viking fever’ manifests as passionately, if not more so, in the fan culture that develops around its artefacts. Indeed, so engaged, creative, and pro-active is fandom Alvin Toffler proposed another term for its members: ‘prosumers’ (2022 [1980]) Whether its cosplayers at a convention; re-enactors at a Renaissance fayre; LARPers; players of TTRPG; or simply fans sharing their responses to the latest graphic novel, movie, computer game, or Viking metal album, the creative engagement with Viking culture and its iterations is full-bloodied.

As an example, picture the scene: it is the Peel Viking festival on the Isle of Man. A Viking village has been pitched on the beach and is bustling with an international cross-section of Viking re-enactors – from Great Britain and Ireland, Scandinavian countries, Eastern Europe, Canada, and Iceland.  A recreation of a Viking raid, complete with longships, is scheduled in the weekend programme, along with a fully-fledged Viking burial involving the burning of one of the ships. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans, and the heavy rain made not only the funeral no longer viable, but curtailed the final battle. Viking re-enactors, it turns out, do not like to get their chainmail wet. Later, I saw two bedraggled Slavik Vikings searching the streets of Peel for an off license: ‘Wodka!’ they moaned, ‘we need wodka!’ 

In footage from 2016 shared on social media, a Viking re-enactor is seen taking out a nosey drone with a well-aimed spear, which had broken the no-fly zone over the Viking village. 

What is the appeal? 

Re-enactors of Viking culture (or LARPers; roleplaying gamers; cosplayers) enjoy a sense of tribe, of belonging, and a rejection of the digital for the analogue (even if this is done ironically, as many will still have their smartphones on them and see no division between the two – so-called ‘digital dualism’ – but a continuum. Nevertheless, for a while participants can enjoy being in an embodied, pre-digital age. It seems re-enactors find comfort in having a clearly defined role within the society. Viking culture is a meritocracy (at least as depicted in recent narratives), and anyone can rise through the ranks via their own abilities (e.g. a particular craft; skill; or prowess in battle). There is possibly more social mobility, gender equality, diversity, and tolerance than is experienced outside of fandom: it provides a safe space to be yourself amongst friends, to self-define, and to play to your strengths rather than be perceived as being the wimpy ‘weakest link’. Fans are the ultimate ‘fen-lurkers’; so many Grendels gatecrashing the hero-feast – like Grendel the ultimate geek, ogling enviously the buff Beowulf, and wanting a piece of what he has (as Gardner brilliantly imagines in his 1989 reimaging of the epic poem from the monster’s perspective). 

Fortunately, the Geek shall inherit the Earth (or at least Middle Earth), as Anthony Lioi eloquently argues (2016). It is an unlikely alliance – the bespectacled ‘nerd’ and the brawny Viking – but perhaps not. Isn’t the appeal of most superheroes the power fantasies of those tired of having sand kicked in their face by life? Certainly, this was how it was sold to early fans in the crude classified ads of American comic books (Charles Atlas being just an Atom Age Viking). Narratives of powerful men and women have long held an attraction to the powerless: Viking culture offers the ultimate fantasy for the disenfranchised. I am not claiming this is its only appeal, but an element of it. In a brutal age – and I argue we are living in a Neo-Viking Age – it is understandable to imagine being more brutal, more resilient, and more able to seize one’s destiny. And as Uhtred, son of Uhtred, reminds us in The Last Kingdom: as ‘Destiny is all!’.

Alexander Dreymon as Utred son of Utred, The Last Kingdom (2015-2022)

Horn: meanwhile, back in the meadhall 

Meduseld in Edoras, seat of the Rohan. The Two Towers (2002). Director: Peter Jackson.

 Although it is anathema of Fantasy, or any kind of fiction for that matter, to be ‘policed’, I think an intelligent, critical approach to any culture is essential and conscionable these days. The key elements that I would argue are critical for a modern dramatization of Viking culture (whether it’s set in the past, present, future, or a parallel reality) are: diversity (for DNA research shows Viking culture was diverse); equality (for Viking culture provided opportunities for women to progress, any property, and wield power); an awareness of religious in/tolerance (for Viking culture seemed to flourish best when it was syncretist); a critical attitude to violence and its consequences (for Viking culture was never just about raiding and skirmishes). A healthy understanding that Viking culture was not homogenous, and more a transnational cultural meme that mutated as it crossed Europe, was exposed to other cultures, and adapted to the changing times, is the best approach – certainly the more historically accurate than some crude caricature. Of course, one can take a neomedievalist approach, and pick ‘n’ mix Viking elements with whatever takes your fancy, but one should always do so with an awareness that the further from the source(s) you go, the more you risk diluting it. As with the skaldic mead, it can so easily become something else. 

Vikings: Valhalla (2022-), The Last Kingdom (2015-2022), The Northman (2022), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), and other Viking culture ‘spin-offs’ are very much the depiction of Viking culture we deserve – reflective of the times we live in: the major fault-lines and suture-zones (Alt-right vs Left/liberal values; gender in/equality; the endgame of late capitalism). ‘More, give me more, give me more …’ sang the original Vikings theme song by Fever Ray. As with Beowulf, Michael Hirst’s drama showed the ultimate futility of endless acquisition, of the clamouring for glory, and the fragility of the flesh. As with its brethren, such texts intermingle real history with fictional elements, creating or conflating characters, shifting dates around of key events for dramatic impact. They have a loose historicity to them and are generally Medievalist in their approach – presenting a selective, crafted version of Viking history (as was popular in Victorian England). The ‘Viking’ is just as much a cultural construct as the ‘Celt’ (as the 2015 British Museum exhibition, Celts: art and identity, illustrated): Vikingness is just as fictionalised and manufactured as ‘Celticity’ (Bowman, 2015), and so is the perfect bedfellow for Fantasy. 

Viking culture is proving a rich treasure-hoard for all to plunder – in fashion, jewellery, film, music, gaming, comics, cosplay, theme parks, and tattoos: there is plasticity and plurality to it that probably was not very much in evidence in its foundations. Like a Rorschach ink-blot test, we project onto Vikings whatever we wish to see – our desires and fears, dreams and terrors. By partaking of Viking culture, we can all, for a little while, feel like comrades on a wave-lashed longship – certainly, Fantasy writers are perhaps the most rapacious raiders of the imagination. If there is an illuminated manuscript in some remote monastery, we shall plunder it for our purposes. Any lore, magical bling, idyllic backwater, or plot device is unsafe when writers go a-Viking. 

Ingólfur Arnarson, founder of Iceland. Reykjavik, 2022. Photo by Kevan Manwaring

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Dr Kevan Manwaring is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Arts University Bournemouth. A BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers 2022 finalist, his research focuses on Fantasy, ecology, and emergent forms. He is the author of the interactive novel Hyperion: tower of the winds, The Windsmith Elegy (The Long Woman, Windsmith, The Well Under the Sea, The Burning Path, This Fearful Tempest), Lost Islands, Desiring Dragons, and editor of Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales of stranger climes (The British Library) as well as collections of folk tales for The History Press (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales). His audio dramas include ‘Black Box’ and ‘Sunkenkirk’. His first television appearance was performing live as a storyteller on BBC Breakfast TV (Roman Baths Special, 2000). Most recently, he participated in a panel discussion on Free Thinking (BBC Radio 3) about Vikings. A member of the Climate Fiction Writers League, he blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic. https://thebardicacademic.wordpress.com/

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