Vikings. It’s such an evocative word and instantly bringing images of dragon-ships crashing through stormy seas, raiders plundering and burning coastal villages, while pagan priests make bloody sacrifice to cold gods. This is the popular image of Dark Age Scandinavia, but is it a truthful image?
Well that is the question that Neil Oliver confronts in the appropriately titled Vikings by looking at the archaeological and written evidence to piece together the history of these people and an image of their culture.
Interestingly, this book doesn’t initially look at evidence from what we would traditionally think of as the Viking Age – the years between the infamous raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793 and the Norman Conquest of England in AD 1066. Instead, Neil Oliver begins his exploration back in pre-history with the Stone Age and Bronze Age settlers of Scandinavia. In fact, the first third or so of the book is spent exploring the roots of the ancient people of Scandinavia and how their cultures gave birth to the Vikings.
But once Oliver does reach the Viking Age proper, the book picks up pace. We get a comprehensive overview of Viking history. We touch on everything you would expect: from the famed journeys across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and North America to the drive into the Eurasian steppe and the founding of Russia as they sought out Byzantine and Middle Eastern treasure. This means that the book does a great job of capturing the sheer scale and explosion of activity that was the Viking Age, but unfortunately – rather by restrictions of size and the fact that it isn’t an academic book – it does only touch on each topic quite lightly. One chapter is never going to be enough to properly explore the wars with Anglo-Saxon England or the founding of the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, but the book does provide a solid introduction to these topics. I definitely learnt a lot, but also had plenty of questions after as well.
If I had one proper criticism of the book, it’s that the writing does meander a bit. Oliver’s style makes for easy reading, but quite frequently he tends to go off on a bit of tangent that, quite simply, just feels like him getting lost from the path. You can tell he enjoyed writing these parts, but they didn’t always actually seem relevant to the overall history of the Vikings. And this frustrated me a bit, especially considering some events – that you may call important – like Rollo’s founding of the Normandy barely get a paragraph or two.
Overall, I think Vikings is a great introduction to the topic. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about Vikings and am glad I picked it up for #Norsevember.