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Five Books To Read While You Wait For Season Five of Vikings

Last month the History channel aired a sneak peek at Season Five of Vikings. If you haven’t been watching, you’ve got just enough time to catch up before the premiere airs in November. You won’t regret it. The story of Ragnar Lothbrok and his marauding iron-age clan is simultaneously one of the most fun and one of the most literate shows on TV.

Its creator, Michael Hirst, has drawn heavily on early medieval sources. In some of these Ragnar is clearly a legendary figure: for instance, when he defeats an enormous snake by donning a pair of tasselled trousers. In others Ragnar seems to be a real historical personage, and the men he is credited with fathering, Ivar the Boneless and Bjorn Ironside, certainly existed. In a sense Ragnar is the last of the legendary heroes of pre-Christian Europe, and the story of his life and legend is the story of northern Europe’s emergence from the Dark Ages.

The History channel has made a valiant effort to imagine the texture of Dark Age life. Okay, Vikings is not one hundred percent accurate, but then neither is The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok— and Vikings has way better haircuts.

If you’re already a fan then I have some news. The Season Five premiere is going to be two hours long. (Like all historical dramas, it’s also going to feature Jonathan Rhys Meyers pretty heavily). If, like me, you’re so excited that you can’t wait till November to sink your teeth into the living throats of your enemies—I mean, into some Norse drama, I have five books to tide you over.

The Ice-Shirt: Volume One of Seven Dreams

William T. Vollmann is one of America’s most prolific and least predictable writers. In 1990 he embarked on a seven-volume cycle of novels dealing with the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. Volume One, The Ice-Shirt, begins at the beginning, with the first Europeans ever to set foot in North America: the Vikings.

Drawing on Norse sagas and the myths of Native American Mi’kmaq and Inuit peoples, Vollmann depicts the clash of two cultures which have never encountered anything the like of one another before. What the Vikings and the Native Americans do share is a world in which the boundaries of myth and ‘reality’ are porous, and like Vikings, The Ice-Shirt attempts to usher its modern readers into that strange-yet-dreamily-familiar way of being.

Vollmann’s fiction is always rooted in exploration and journalism, and The Ice-Shirt is strewn with stories drawn from the author’s own travels in modern Greenland, amongst the descendants of his Norse and indigenous characters. One of Vollmann’s most accomplished and yet least-read books, The Ice-Shirt is a profound meditation on the deepest roots of American culture.

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The Prose Edda

Part of the fascination of the Vikings is that their stories and myths reach back to a time before Christianity, before writing, before history itself. Those stories have survived mainly thanks to the Norse colonisation of Iceland. Due to its remoteness from continental Europe, Iceland was slow to convert to Christianity, and Icelanders continued to remember and pass on pre-Christian beliefs and stories for much longer than other Scandinavians. When Snorri Sturluson was born in AD 1179, many of the old stories were still common knowledge in Iceland.

During his lifetime Sturluson composed half a dozen works of prose and poetry in which he collected and commented on these stories. His Prose Edda contains the most precious material. Its three parts concern themselves with the Norse creation myths, the language of old Norse poetry (featuring lots of mythic examples), and the verse forms of Norse poetry (ditto).

As you might expect of an eight-hundred-year-old book, it can be a little mysterious to a modern reader. But that’s part of the fun. And amongst the mysteries are gripping tales of Thor, Odin and the gang, all told in the striking, earthy and strange language of Viking poets.

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The Sagas of the Icelanders

As well as preserving the old stories of Scandinavia, Iceland’s earliest settlers produced hundreds of stories of their own. The men and women who first set their ploughs to the island’s glaciers and volcanoes were strong, taciturn folk, and their stories preserve their character. In simple, matter-of-fact language, the Sagas of Icelanders relate tales of horrific bloodshed, hard winters, the struggle of the old religion against Christianity, witches, feuds, outlaws skulking in the mountains and epic voyages to Greenland and beyond. Other sagas concern the intricate and unusual politics of the Icelandic colony (which was arguably the world’s first modern democracy), and still others are comic fantasies.

In these translations, the Sagas are surprisingly accessible, their concerns strikingly modern. More than any other body of medieval literature, the Sagas seem to contain the roots of modern northern European culture. This volume collects a representative sample from the vast body of Iceland’s ancient stories. It’s introduced by Jane Smiley, whose novel The Greenlanders (see below) is a modern retelling of an especially well-known Icelandic saga.

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The Greenlanders

In the tenth century Iceland was the western edge of the known world, but when an Icelander named Eirik the Red was outlawed for murder, he sailed west. The island he settled upon and named Greenland would be inhabited by a thriving Norse civilisation for five hundred years until, in the early fifteenth century, the Greenlanders died out. No-one knows why.

Smiley’s epic novel imagines the apocalypse of the Greenlanders. She recreates the daily life, the stories and the relationships of a people struggling against the harsher winters of the Little Ice Age and the constant threat of the native skraeling people.

Smiley, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres—a retelling of King Lear set on a Midwestern farm—relishes the bleakness of Greenland, the harshness of farming life, and the language of people who live simply, far from the centres of their culture. A doctor of medieval literature, Smiley also has a profound feeling for the language of the sagas. The Greenlanders may be the closest a novel can come to the ancient stories of the Vikings. 

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Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman is one of the foremost fantasy writers of his generation. He’s turned his hand to everything from children’s books to graphic novels, but whatever form he’s working in he draws deeply from the well of ancient mythologies.

‘If I had to declare a favourite,’ he announces in this volume, ‘it would probably be the Norse myths.’ And Gaiman proves his devotion with this retelling. It’s painstakingly faithful to what’s known of the myths (mainly thanks to good old Snorri), but Gaiman has taken the decision to present the surviving fragments as a single continuous narrative. One of the many strange features of Norse myth is that is devotes a great deal of attention to the end of the world—Ragnarok—so it makes sense to give a story with such a strong ending a beginning and a middle as well.

If you’re looking for a way into the old stories, and the Prose Edda seems too mysterious, you can’t do better than Norse Mythology.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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