Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend

Today I received a very encouraging message from one of my readers. He had read an article in The Guardian about the coming Viking exhibition at British Museum. In a review of the exhibition the Guardian journalist asks for a more engaging Viking story. My reader had titled his message: John Snow tells the story.

Tha background is that  British Museum in London opens the exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend on the 6th of March this year. It is the largest Viking exhibition at the museum for more than 30 years and at its centre is Roskilde 6, the biggest Viking ship ever found. From stem to stern it is unbelievingly 37 meters long.

Roskilde 6, 37 meters long; the largest Viking ship ever?
Roskilde 6, 37 meters long; the largest Viking ship ever?

Even if only a fifth of the exhibited hull is made of wood, the reconstructed ship is enormous and impressive. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones writes about the ship: "It cuts through the air like a sword through flesh, relentless. The prow is as sharp as a shark's tooth. ... (It) is spectacular, beautiful, thought-provoking and profound."

Vikings: Life and Legend
The Viking exhibition logo
Despite the many beatiful Viking objects at the British Museum's exhibition, Jonathan Jones is nevertheless missing a good story - the Viking story. The sagas of the Vikings are full of characters, he writes and continues: "Just to reel off some nicknames is to get a taste of their vivid humanity: Ragnar Hairy-Breeches, Ivar the Boneless, Eric the Red, Thorstein the Black, Olvir Hump. The Vikings left a legacy of stories in which legend and truth mingle. They'd have told this exhibition as a story.

"Why not weave their tales and the histories written by their enemies into the mix of archaeological stuff to give it warmth and context? The refusal to do so cannot be an oversight. It looks like an archaeological dogma: only material objects painstakingly excavated are to be relied upon as evidence. The rest is romantic twaddle, apparently."

Jonen asks where the gods are. "The picture stone showing a ship arriving at Valhalla is one of just a handful of images of mythology in this exhibition."

In my books from the Viking Age, the gods are very present in the lives and struggles of the characters, both as helpers and adversaries. I also build the stories on historical and archaeological facts. In the cold North, young Sigurd (later Sigve the Awful) and his family and friends live hard lives just to survive. But for Sigve, who becomes the youngest chieftain in the realm, the challenges are huge. He has enemies all around him: rivals and powerful kings that want to get rid of this upcoming warrior. Despite his young age, Sigve is a famous swordsman and an apparent threat to everyone in power.

John Snow. The Slayer Rune

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John Snow. The Lethal Oath

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