Today, much of the popular discourse on the Vikings tends to be directed towards the rehabilitation of medieval Europe’s northerly inhabitants as respectable people. In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey blows this longship out of the water with a thought-provoking and entertaining exploration of the Viking mind-set, which he describes variously as ‘psychopathic’ and a ‘death cult’. As Shippey points out, not all inhabitants of medieval Scandinavia were Vikings, since the word simply means ‘pirate’ or ‘marauder’. These bloodthirsty raiders, it turns out, aren’t nearly as popular as we might expect with academics, who prefer to write books about medieval Norse endeavours in areas such as trade, exploration and urban development. Not so Shippey, who showcases a range of evidence from inside and outside the Norse world in order to put the Viking back into the Viking Age.
The title quote, ‘laughing shall I die’ (læjandi skalk deyja), is taken from the Old Norse poem known as ‘Ragnar’s Death Song’. The Ragnar in question is the individual nicknamed Lothbrok (‘Hairy-breeches’), immortalised in sagas past and television series present. According to legend, he dies in a snake pit, into which he is thrown on the orders of the king of Northumbria, a fact that brings us to one of Shippey’s major interests: heroic death scenes in Old Norse literature. The reader is introduced to the many horrific ways Vikings could meet their ends, from having their hearts carved out by their enemies to being executed and thrown into mass graves. The circumstances leading up to their deaths could be equally bloody and varied: family feuds spanning several decades, tangled and tortuous love affairs, ruthless rulers hellbent on vengeance. Underlying these colourful stories are complex questions of source reliability and of the relationship between legend and history, and Shippey tackles these issues head on. This is a book written for an intellectually confident readership happy to be stretched mentally: there are regular inclusions of Old Norse passages alongside English translations, and notes that explore scholarly debates and controversies.
The book is divided into three parts: ‘Dying Hard’, ‘Moving to the Bigger Picture’ and ‘The Tale in the North’. Part one concerns notable individuals and families from the distant – quasi-legendary – past: dynasties such as the Volsungs and the Nibelungs (where wronged and vengeful women feature prominently), the aforementioned Ragnar and his sons Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Bjorn Ironside, and the troll-like, violent poet Egil, star of The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson. All embody the bloody-but-unbowed Viking mind-set, described by Shippey as ‘a spirit which is like no other on earth’. The theme is developed in the second part, in which personalities give way to historical events set on a wider geographical stage, taking in the Celtic lands, continental Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. Once again, Shippey’s interest is in what these historical events reveal about the Viking ethos and mentality. In this section his range of sources expands correspondingly, to include texts written in a variety of languages and scripts. In part three, the breadth and geographical scope of the source material shrink back, with Shippey focusing predominantly on what can be gleaned from the 13th-century compilation of kings’ sagas called Heimskringla. These sagas were written by Snorri Sturluson, the most famous Icelander of the 13th century (and a strong contender for most famous Icelander of all time). Shippey takes the reader on a journey from the mists of legendary antiquity up to the late 12th century, tracing a line of Nordic kings who are portrayed as bold, brave and warlike. Once again, the question is as much about how they are presented as what they were actually like (if they existed in the first place).
While much of the book is concerned with the Viking mentality that emerges from Old Norse textual sources, this is well placed within a broader historical context. The chronological sweep is impressive, beginning in the centuries prior to the start of the Viking Age (traditionally dated to the end of the eighth century, with the first raids on the British Isles). We are introduced to characters situated in the hazy borderlands between history and legend: King Hygelac (immortalised in the Old English poem Beowulf) and King Hrolf (described by Shippey as ‘the Danish King Arthur, only much more likely’). To some extent the entire book exists at this interface between fact and fiction, an uncomfortable but honest place for a work that seeks to explore something as nebulous and hard to pin down as a cultural mentality.
With this last point in mind, particularly effective is the way Shippey utilises archaeological material, such as the mass graves discovered at Repton in Derbyshire, St John’s College in Oxford and the Ridgeway in Dorset. The last two sites were unearthed only in the past decade and their inclusion here is testament to the ever-evolving nature of historical research. Fittingly for an author concerned with tales told centuries ago, Shippey reveals a talent for telling stories of his own, bringing these scarred and shattered bones back to life through his own interpretations and source analysis. Throughout, Shippey’s distinctive voice comes across loud and clear: conversational, intelligent, irreverent, darkly comic – not unlike the Old Norse sagas and poems he explores. Psychopathic death cult or otherwise, I suspect the Vikings themselves would have approved of both the tone and the content.