Judith Lindbergh Finds the Vikings’ Soft Side

I’ll be going to see Judith Lindbergh read from her debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale, tonight at Coliseum Books (a joint event with Marisa de los Santos). I’d heard Lindbergh had spent over a decade researching the Vikings, so I was curious to hear some of her thoughts on what it’s like to live with a subject for so long. This is what she had to tell me….

lindbergh.jpgThe interesting thing about the Vikings is that, for me, as the author of a novel about them, I never really liked them very much. Well, that’s not exactly true. I never liked the public image of the Vikings. It was almost embarrassing: the stereotypical brawny warrior, horned-helmeted (a detail that is archaeologically unfounded, by the way), filthy and brutish, more beast than man. I do not dispute the facts of the Viking raids, or the Vikings’ male-centered ethos, or the numerous sagas depicting wild, raging battles fought by ferocious warriors. But as a 21st-century woman, I wanted to get past these testosterone charged images. I wanted to find a way to the Viking heart, assuming it was in there at all.

The poem, Hávamál (The Sayings of Hár) is part of The Poetic Edda. It outlines in detail the worldview of the Norse, as spoken by Hár, “the One-Eyed” god, one of the many appellations of the great god Odin. Much of the poem reads like passages from the biblical Proverbs, with Hár/Odin giving counsel to his listeners of all that is right and wise in a man’s behavior. The overtones are fatherly, and the focus is on the man’s world where hospitality, moderation, loyalty, wisdom, and self-control are key.

All hail to the givers! A guest has come
Say where shall he sit?

Such extravagant geniality seems simply pretentious, but it was also self-interested, I realized. The guest might as easily be a stranger as a well-loved friend. If a man didn’t welcome and treat his guests fairly, how could he count on such hospitality when he himself traveled through distant lands?

thrallstale.jpgBut within that frame, Odin warns, as if sitting beside the newcomer in the long-hall, that the guest should not be foolish:

To be bright of brain let no man boast,
But take good heed of his tongue:
The sage and silent come seldom to grief
As they fare among folk in the hall.

Odin asks the stranger to consider his status among others, to keep his ego in check, perhaps to use a bit of discretion before speaking out too boldly and embarrassing himself. Odin also warns against too much drinking, which, of course, could lead to ill-considered talk:

For good is not, though good is it thought,
Mead for the sons of men;
The deeper he drinks the dimmer grows
The mind of many a man.

Encouraging self-control, particularly when drinking, seems in direct contrast to the image of horn-swilling carousers from Hollywood Viking films. There boldness and bravado outshines more subtle thought and behavior. In fact, the Hávamál shows surprising self-consciousness, with warnings about waking in the night plagued by thoughts of guilt or disgrace, and cautions about being mocked by other men. And interestingly, a fear of death—not on the battlefield which in the Viking realm was viewed as preferable, but fear of death from old age with its accompanying miseries:

The unwise man thinks that he ay will live,
If from fighting he flees;
But the ails and aches of old age dog him
Though spears have spared him.

In a way, it seems the lesser of two evils, when one considers the pain and anguish of what the Norse called “straw death”—to die in bed with only the most rudimentary of comforts, and without the benefits of modern medicines like aspirin, or morphine. Perhaps to die in battle quickly, with little suffering, charged with fervor for a cause deemed worthwhile, would have been preferable indeed.

I began to understand the outlook of the Vikings through the Hávamál and other poems that make up The Poetic Edda. There was music in their poetry, personal point of view, and emotion, things that seemed lacking in the translations of sagas I’d read. Through Odin’s words, I began to get inside of the Vikings’ skin, to understand the great anxiety trapped within these men. Behind the bravado was the fear of being abandoned, or ostracized, or embarrassed, of being naked and alone:

In the fields as I fared, (for fun) I hung
My weeds on two wooden men;
They were reckoned folks when the rags they wore:
Naked, a man is naught.

In this fear, I saw a vulnerability in the Viking culture I hadn’t seen before.

I grew compassionate to their lot. These were harsh times when suspicions ran high, with justifiable terror of annihilation from the “other”—be it a neighbor, or outsider, a beast, or nature itself. To be weak was to be susceptible. To be alone meant death. I could forgive them their bluster, their violence, their chauvinism, all viewed from my entirely modern, feminine perspective. And once I accepted the world as they saw it, I could begin to imagine being a woman in their world.

The excerpts from the Hávamál are from Lee Hollander’s translation.

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30 January 2006 | guest authors |