Saturday, January 28, 2006

Victorians and Vikings? Huh?

In an attempt to liven things up a bit, I've decided to try a new genre of blog post. While deep down I just really want to write posts like Dr. Fabulous, Dr. Fabulous has already cornered that market and I'd be nothing more than a cheap knockoff. So, instead, I might be morphing my way into an avuncular tweed and Doc. Martin wearing scholar much too influenced by the style of the epistolary novel. Or maybe not. We'll see.

Any way dear readers, I'm sure some of you who have read my earlier post "Barbarian Chic" must surely have asked yourself something along the lines of "The Victorians infatuation with Vikings? How come I've never heard of this?" The reason, dear reader, is politics. The Victorians loved the Vikings. School children were given Vikingish books as grammar school and Sunday school prizes. Iceland, with its saga sites, was a tourist destination. People flocked to public lectures, and study groups were formed to learn Old Norse-Icelandic in order to read the works in their original. People debated the nature of Odin, who he was and what he represented (some believed Odin to be a "mighty Scythian leader who had once challenged the tyranny of Rome and who could now act as a role model for upwardly moble Victorian young achievers." Viking themed songs were sung in Victorian parlors and the subject of a cantata by Edward Elgar. (All this, and more, can be found in Andrew Wawn's The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain.)

The love and interest in the Vikings didn't begin with the Victorians (Wordsworth and Coleridge were fans of the Poetic Edda, Walter Scott's The Pirate was a best-seller and was adapted for the stage, and Thomas Gray published a number of translations of Old Norse poems (well, really, he translated into English a number of Latin translations of Old Norse poems, my two favorite of which are "The Decent of Odin" and "The Fatal Sisters"). Britian's interest in Iceland and the Old North dates back much further, really beginning in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Before continuing, I should back up just a bit. The first problem with what I've written so far, both here and earlier, is the term "Viking." While its etymology is of some debate, and while it's common for those of us in the English speaking world to refer to the Vikings and the Viking Age (roughly 800-1100 CE) to mean Scandinavians and all their colonies and trading outposts during the Viking Age (from Newfoundland to modern day Russia, and even to Baghdad and Constantinople, where they not only to traded, but formed the Varangian Guard, which itself eventually became the Imperial Guard of the Byzantine Emperors. It may also be interesting to note that after the Norman Invasion of 1066, a number--some sources claim up to 5,000--Anglo-Saxons went to Constantinople to sign up with the Varangians. You can read this in the Wikipedia article I link to above, but I, of course, already knew this).

While we refer to all this Scandinavian peoples as Vikings, the word viking itself is best thought of as a gerund noun. In other words viking is something you do rather than something you are. Well, when you were going a-viking you could be said to be a viking, but you get my meaning. While there were what we might call professional vikings, most did it on a part-time basis. Going viking was a way to make a name for yourself, set up a nest egg, and see new places and meet new people. Really. A group might set off with trade goods, do some viking, sell the goods, hang out in the court of a noble or king, get some more trade goods, do some more raiding, do some more buying and selling, and then return home. A typical man going viking might sometimes go for a summer and sometimes might sometimes go for years. But enough on that.

The second thing we need to know is that for reasons too complex to go into here but which I often simplify down to Franco-Prussian nationalism, we refer to what was, and is, really Scandinavian culture as "Germanic." English? A Germanic language. The Anglo-Saxons? A Germanic peoples. The settled homeland of the Indo-Europeans that we refer to as the Germanic peoples? Sweden and Denmark. As I said, Franco-Prussian nationalism with its roots in the Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne. It was not just the Victorians who loved the vikings, but Victoria's cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II, as well as Victoria's son-in-law, Frederick III who briefly reigned between the Wilhelms, were vikingophiles as well. In fact, Haggard's Eric Brighteyes was dedicated to Victoria's daughter, the Empress Frederick less than a year after Frederick's death.

So, back to your question, dear readers. In short, World War I happened. The love the British had for the Prussians suffered a blow at that point. And to the extent that the Great North had become affiliated with the Germans, the Great North suffered. I don't think it's coincidence that it wasn't until the late 20th Century that scholars started returning to Friðþjofs saga hins frækna, a Victorian favorite closely connected not just to Victoria herself but the Kaisers. And if the Hunnish* connections weren't enough there is, of course, Hitler's "use" of Teutonic mythology. Now, again, this is all a simplification and there were other factors involved, including the study and influence of Greco-Roman culture which, of course, remained strong throughout this period. But it's worth noting that part of the Victorian Old North movement was a debate over the England's connections to the North vs. the South, i.e., the Germanic rather than Greco-Roman culture. This debate itself stopped after WWI.

*Yes, I wrote Hunnish and I did so for a reason. I might be wrong, but I don't think Hun was used as a slur for Germans prior to World War I. But, either way, Attila and the Huns play a prominent role in Germanic culture. The Germanic Heroic Age (300-500 CE), which corresponds to the migrations of the Goths, Vandals, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, etc., may itself have been sparked by Attila's incursions into Western Europe, and he a character or is refered to in a number of Germanic texts, most notably the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, and the Old Norse-Icelandic Völsunga saga and Poetic Edda. In fact, the Edda has two poems bearing his name: the "Atlakvida" ("The Lay of Atli"), which is believed to be one of the oldest poems in the collection, and the "Atlamal" ("The Greenlandic Lay of Atli"). It's worth noting here that while the Old Norse-Icelandic texts present Attila/Atli as a cruel and greedy bastard who kills his brothers-in-law Gunnar and Hogni because he wants the treasure of the Niflungs (the Rhinegold Sigurd won when he slew the dragon Fafnir, the Attila of the German Nibelungenlied, which tells the same story more or less, is a noble figure. It's also worth noting that the name Attila is probably Gothic and probably means "little father," and that a number of Goths served under him. In other words, the use of Hun as a German racial slur is, I think, directly related to this very topic.

But, you might ask, would Robert E. Howard have known any of this? The short answer is yes. I say this having read through a number of Howard biographies, bio-bibliographies, collected letters, accounts, and the like. If you want to know more, I'll gladly give you citations. Or, you can wait. While a full-fledged study of the Victorian Viking medievalism and sword and sorcery fantasy is far down on my list of scholarly projects, behind social memory and Old English literature, medieval and contemporary rhetorical memory, and various Ong/orality-literacy/media ecology issues, it is on my list.


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