Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A review of Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings

The man, the myth... Tom Shippey
As a Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Tom Shippey understands the current trends shaping historical research, far more than I. For example, I did not know that historians have been re-interpreting the record to paint Vikings as well, less Viking-y. Less savage, more tame. Less raid-y, more farmer-y and trade-y. Many of the corny old myths surrounding Vikings—horned helmets and drinking wine from skulls of their enemies and the like—have rightfully been reframed as romantic sentiment rather than historical reality, but I didn’t realize the extent to which this re-evaluation of the Viking character was working overtime in the halls of academia.

Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (2018, Reaktion Books) is Shippey’s semi-bombastic rebuttal to the revisionists and whitewashers. It’s not that Vikings weren’t also great traders, or slowly shifted from raiders and slave-takers to land-owners and eventually settlers, but Saga literature and even the archeological record paints a picture of savagery and warrior ethos that can’t be so easily explained away.

“Academics have laboured to create a comfort-zone in which Vikings can be massaged into respectability,” Shippey writes. “But the Vikings and the Viking mindset deserve respect and understanding in their own terms—while no one benefits from staying inside their comfort zone, not even academics. This book accordingly offers a guiding hand into a somewhat, but in the end not-so-very, alien world. Disturbing though it may be.”

Shippey lays out these uncomfortable facts in entertaining style in Laughing Shall I Die. This book takes a close look at the old Norse poems and sagas, and uses them to create a psychological portrait of the Viking mindset. But it also goes a step further: It interprets the findings from archeology and recent excavations to lend these literary interpretations tangible and physical reinforcement. For example, Shippey describes the discovery of two recent Viking Age mass graves in England, one on the grounds of St. John’s College, Oxford, the other on the Dorset Ridgeway. Both were organized mass executions, the latter the single largest context of multiple decapitations from the period. Fearsome stuff.

In Old Norse, the term vikingr means pirate, or marauder. “It wasn’t an ethnic label, it was a job description,” Shippey writes. “If people weren’t raiding or looting (and land-grabbing, and collecting protection money) then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians.” Many modern studies embrace the Scandinavian aspect and shy away from murder and plunder, “retreating to the scholarly comfort-zones of exploration, trade, urban development and distanced narrative history. All of which is admittedly part of the story. Just not the only part,” he adds. So too were shield-walls and slave-taking and trading, even human sacrifice.

(This might be a good time to boast that I met Shippey at a sci-fi and fantasy convention in Boston 10 years ago. Recap here).

I can’t say that this book is of the same extraordinarily high quality of his Road to Middle-Earth or Tolkien: Author of the Century. Those books set a standard in Tolkien criticism that has yet to be surpassed, at least in my estimation. Shippey knows Tolkien, and I learned more about the art of philology and Tolkien’s use of that discipline to build Middle-Earth from reading Shippey’s works than I would in a semester of study.

Shippey also knows Vikings, but this book was not full of the stunning revelations I learned in The Road to Middle-Earth. Still, it was an entertaining read, and full of some startling details about this incredible culture of sea-borne raiders that wreaked havoc across England, Scotland, Ireland, and into Eastern Europe and parts further. Vikings didn’t always win and occasionally suffered terrible defeats, including at the likes of Clontarf and the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, the latter of which saw the death of the great King Harald Hardrada and essentially ended the Viking age. But what made them so unique was their fearlessness, fueled by a culture which valued stoicism, inflexible honor codes, and a belief in the myth of Valhalla, in which they would die on the battlefield but be reborn into a violent and eternal afterlife in the Halls of Odin, until Ragnarok and the ending of the world. Something akin to a “death cult” in Shippey’s words.

Laughing Shall I Die is also a very accessible, readable book and a great way to experience the stories of the likes of Hrolf Kraki and Egil Skallagrimsson, Signy the Volsung and Gudrun the Nibelung, Ivar the Boneless, Ragnar Lodbrog, Skarphedin Njalsson, and others. In other words, mainlined “Northern Thing” for those that enjoy such things.


Paul R. McNamee said...

The title brings to mind the Saga of the Jomsvikings. A bunch of them are executed and they indulge in gallows humor while awaiting their deaths. (John Maddox Roberts clued me into that one.)

Brian Murphy said...

Paul, Shippey gives that story/sequence great treatment in Laughing Shall I Die. One by one, the 10 captives are executed, each giving some type of brief stoic remark typical of the laconic Saga style. The last dude asks for someone to hold his hair back as he is beheaded to avoid it getting blood-soaked, and a captor complies. But the Viking jerks his head back so the sword cuts off the hands of the helper.

Impressed with his pluck, Eirik, son of the Jarl, sets the man free.