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Rediscovering the Vikings 2016

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on November 26, 2016

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The weekend of November 25th-26th, was one of rediscovery, as University College Cork in Ireland played host to ‘Rediscovering the Vikings: Reception, Recovery, Engagement.’ This international conference brought together academics, heritage experts, and enthusiasts to look at public perception of, and interaction with, the Viking Age. 

The conference, coordinated by UCC’s Dr. Tom Birkett and Dr. Roderick Dale, served as the platform for the official launch of the World-Tree Project. This project is the leading step in large-scale community collection in the field of Viking and Old Norse studies. It aims to create an interactive digitized archive incorporating the incredible diversity of Viking-based material, from museum collections to examples of Viking inspired branding. It is hoped that this archive will have a range of applications in teaching materials, in exhibits, and for mapping responses to heritage engagement. At the heart of both the conference and the project is a desire to explore how people interact with Viking history, and to investigate new methods and innovations in exchanging and sharing knowledge about this period.

The coming-together of scholarly interest and public appeal was most wonderfully exemplified by the work of the conference’s guest speaker, author Kevin Crossley-Holland. Crossley-Holland’s translation of Beowulf and his retelling of The Norse Myths are touchstones of Viking and Anglo-Saxon studies. Yet, his work as a poet and children’s fiction author receives even greater acclaim, including the Guardian Children's Fiction Award winning Arthur trilogy and an upcoming illustrated Norse Myths retelling for children.

The charisma and delicacy of this work was on full show at the conference as Crossley-Holland delivered a public reading of his poetry and an extract of his children’s Viking Saga series. It highlighted the conference as a rich meeting ground where academic understanding is combined with creative skill to form stories that can reach, inspire, and engage an audience across the world.

The way the public encounters the Vikings through literature and popular culture was one of the conference's main focuses. One discussion looked at how videogames use Norse culture, and in particular runic inscriptions. Games such as Dragon Age, The Witcher 3, and Jotun utilize Viking Age culture and runes to create their in-game world, often using them connote an ancient, magical, and savage past. The speakers, Dr. Maja Bäckvell and Shirley McPhaul, explored the appeal of using the Viking Age in their Proto-Fictional Universe (to use McPhaul’s phrase), as well as addressing the potential spaces to reconcile the demands of games with calls for greater historical accuracy and understanding. 

This theme was picked up later in the conference by professor Neil Price as he discussed the inescapable popularity of The History Channel’s Vikings. Price addressed the show’s success at presenting a living and believable Viking world as well as the obsession with accuracy, and the extent to which that obsession matters in terms of reception and understanding. He went on to highlight The History Channel’s response to calls for accuracy and information. The channel has produced a documentary which looks critically at historical representation in their own show. 

Together, these constitute a fascinating examination of the ways media is developing to feed a growing interest. Whether literature, video games or TV shows, these talks demonstrated a real understanding of the fact that the majority of people will only encounter the Viking Age through popular culture. This was seen in the context of how scholars can better serve this interest by interacting and collaborating with those creating media. There’s a real sense of applying the learning of academics in other contexts, with the goal of increasing both the understanding and the enjoyment of the various audiences.

    Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.