Last year I wrote that I like to read books in coherent clumps. When I pick a book to read, I generally find myself seeking more like it, branching out step by step until I’ve completed what essentially becomes a miniature syllabus. I’ve decided to show off some of these syllabi. Some are more coherent than others, some built chronologically, others by theme, but all of them held together by a central set of questions.
The starting question for today’s syllabus is pretty simple – I wanted to know all about Vikings and their tales. I’ve had a mild interest in Norse mythology and history in the past, but I’ve never given it any serious, dedicated study. My interest has always been in terms of something – Norse influence on Irish culture (major), Norse influence on Tolkien, Norse influence on language, on navigation, on colonialism, on storytelling, on pretty much everything under the sun (seriously, the North men went everywhere and touched everything) – but after my trip to L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland, I was ready to tackle it head on, particularly in terms of Vinland, and in terms of the Vikings as storytellers.
I waded in slowly, picking up a piece of historical fiction, but have since branched out into the major foundational texts behind Norse storytelling, some history, and an endless array of sagas. While this list will be terribly obvious for anyone with even the smallest interest in Norse history, I hope it will be helpful for anyone who is just getting started.
Your Starting Point in Modern Fiction:
1) Eiriksdottir, by Joan Clark – I purchased this at The Norseman, a restaurant in L’Anse Aux Meadows, and it’s so well written. I had heard a little bit of Freydis’ tale during Sagas and Shadows (a storytelling hour in the longhouse), but the book can stand alone to introduce you to the tale. I admit that I enjoyed knowing the tale beforehand, as the details of it all are quite mysterious. Clark’s version is a dark and gritty speculation about those details.
2) The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology, by Snorri Sturluson – This is basically a manual to Norse mythology; it tells you a little bit about the stories and sagas, but it mainly gives you the content and tools you need to tell them yourself. My favorite takeaway device: the kenning.
3) Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington – This text gives you Icelandic verse and heroic poems, just as they are. The verses themselves lay out the world view of the Vikings, drawing heavily on references you learn about in the Prose Edda.
While there are many sagas to choose from, I’d say that these three will give you the most payoff for your reading. Of course, you could just dive in and read them all, but this is just an introduction.
4) The Vinland Sagas – Because these tell of Eirik the Red and Leif Eirikson, they tie directly to the tale of Freydis Eiriksdottir, and so are an absolute must if you’re starting out with Joan Clark’s book.
5) King Harald’s Saga – Harald Fairhair is roughly the epitome of Vikings. He’s a bit less of a rogue than Eirik the Red (who was more of an outlaw), so he gives you a better insight into the workings of Norse society.
6) The Saga of the Volsungs – This is the saga you want to read to get an understanding of the Germanic ring cycle that inspired Wagner. Because it has the most obvious connections to more modern stories, it really demonstrates the legacy of Viking storytelling.
7) LibriVox’s recording of Jennie Hall’s Viking Tales, a children’s version of King Harald’s Saga – Viking tales are better heard than read, and are meant to be not just recited, but retold. This is a great example, and it is free online.
8) BBC In Our Time‘s Podcast on the Icelandic Sagas – This is effectively your course lecture on the rich Norse tradition of storytelling, featuring the incomparable Melvyn Bragg with academic speakers on Medieval literature, Scandinavian history, and Icelandic manuscripts.
Bonus Background Reading:
If you’re not quite satisfied at this point, I recommend the following three non-fiction works to keep you going:
9) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, by H.R. Ellis Davidson – For an in-depth look at the tradition of myth-making and storytelling of the Vikings, this is an accessible bit of scholarship.
10) The Vikings and Their Age, by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald – This is a great historical textbook for getting to know the non-mythological components of the sagas, which helps to make sense of their complicated “sort of true” foundations.
11) Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, edited by Shannon Lewis-Simpson – This is a wonderful collection of papers all focused on the history of the Viking voyages and settlements West of Europe, with a special focus, of course, on what led the Vikings to L’Anse aux Meadows (and why there’s good reason to think it’s part of the Vinland Sagas).
TL;DR: If this is all just a bit too much, and you’d like a contemporary and comprehensive introduction to Norse lore, The Norse Myths, by Kevin Crossley-Holland is great way to cover some of the material more quickly.