After books and TV series on ‘Ancient Britain’ and ‘Celtic Britain’, one expected Neil Oliver to embark on a consideration of the Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon periods of British history, but instead he has jumped forward to the Vikings. And not just their impact on Britain, but their place too in the wider world. His book has an introduction and nine chapters. It is aimed at the general reader: there are no notes or references. As is usual with books of TV programmes, there is more here than is seen on screen, such as the excavations of the hall at Uppsala or the sailing of the ‘Sea Stallion’ from Roskilde to Dublin. In the acknowledgements, he makes plain that the TV series came first; the book was written afterwards.
Oliver makes plain he has axes to grind and that his fascination with the Vikings were inspired as a child by Kirk Douglas. He is no Viking expert and admits as much. His is a very personal voyage of discovery, an attempt to fill out more detail, more flesh than he had beforehand. These journeys, though, meander, ramble, and often lose focus. And whilst he is also – or was – an archaeologist and journalist, one wonders whether there are better places to go to for the interested reader, better books to read, written by real experts.
But you’ve got to admire his chutzpah in his opening sentence of his first chapter, where he makes a worthy attempt at emulating Rutger Hauer’s ‘I’ve see things you people wouldn’t believe’ speech at the end of ‘Blade Runner’. For Oliver’s strength is not in his research or the conveyance of ‘facts’; rather, it is his marrying history to visions using his undoubted literary talents. Here are two examples that appear on the opening pages: Viking place-names are “marbled like fat through the flesh of Britain”, and Cnut, “famed for an audience with the incoming tide”. I also liked his description of hakarl, an Icelandic fermented shark dish, whose taste is akin to “a French kiss with the living dead.”
But he lets himself down too often with poor proof-reading: thus we are told emperor penguins endure “the Arctic winter” (there are no penguins in the Arctic); that it is Sweden’s eastern border that is mountainous (it is the western); that the eighth-century town of Birka is described as sited “in west-Central Sweden” (but the maps shows it almost in Stockholm); and that “As far as the records seem to show, the British Isles did not experience large-scale Viking attacks until about the middle of the eighth century” (he means the ninth). He can contradict himself too: on page 218 he tells us of the lack of turf on Greenland, but four pages previously he had extolled the plentiful soil and grassland there. Also on the downside is some (probably) unconscious misogyny: he presumes, for instance, that the necklace of dog teeth worn by the Vedbaek woman was made by a man.
But a plus point is Oliver’s attempt to give us deep history by providing in his earlier chapters details of Scandinavian prehistory (although the result of his considerations are not as clear as Alex Woolf’s more concise rendition of the same in his book ‘From Pictland to Alba’). All praise is due to him for looking at the Vikings from their own angle rather than from those of the people with whom they inter-acted. But Scandinavia is a large landscape that varies from Norway’s high Arctic peaks to Denmark’s marshy estuaries. Granted his admission that, for example, Roman contacts before the Viking age is a world of “shadows and fragmentary glimpses”, Oliver’s attempts at describing Scandinavia’s prehistory in the form of site-specific archaeology is never going to paint a lucid and comprehensive portrait.
Oliver’s attempt at a portrait of the Vikings, if not lucid, is certainly broad – from Constantinople to Newfoundland, from lake Ladoga to the banks of the Liffey – and, as he says, “When reading and thinking about the Vikings I certainly have to pause and remind myself that so many elements of their grand adventure were unfolding almost simultaneously … It is precisely because the Vikings were so busy …that it is almost impossible to grasp the whole of it, the depth of it.” In his final chapter Oliver argues that conversion to Christianity “cut the thread … to all that had gone before. In every way that mattered, they would cease to be Vikings.” But how they became Vikings in the first place and started on their explosive course across the seas and through the river valleys of Europe is still the subject of argument, and one that Oliver can only provide options. All the same, Oliver is an engaging companion on his travels. He has a way of bringing fresh perspectives to a scene even if ultimately readers may feel unsatisfied with the final unveiling of his portrait.
By the way, the book comes with two maps, but these are not fit for purpose. Luckily I already knew much about the geography – especially of Denmark – but those who do not will need to take down from the shelf their own atlas. There is, though, an eight-page Viking 'who's who', a chronology, a bibliography, and index.