The Vikings entered history with a bang. The year 793, marked by their unheralded attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne, where they descended like ‘stinging hornets’ and ‘fearful wolves’ to enslave or slaughter the defenceless monks, has become a somewhat predictable prelude to most histories of these Scandinavian raiders. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough’s new entry into the genre is no exception, but Beyond the Northlands soon diverges from its more run-of-the-mill companions. For this is history as the Vikings might have told it, not from the dusty annals of their victims, but through the medium of the sagas, those collections of boastful tales forged in the harshness of northern winters, in which heroic misdeeds and judicious exaggeration were often privileged over narrative rigour or the small matter of facts.
Readers wanting a detailed catalogue of battles, an analysis of Norse ship-building techniques or an account of the growth of royal power in late medieval Scandinavia might wish to look elsewhere. As Barraclough puts it, ‘through the saga lens, some parts of the world come into sharp focus, some are