Poetry and the Viking Spirit

Poetry and the Viking Spirit

Obviously the Vikings had their ideas of the perfect man. This is presented to us in Rigspulathe young Viking chief in all his glory, the blond earl with the piercing eyes, a fearless rider and hunter, skilled with all warlike weapons, the leader who wins men and conquers land and whose son becomes king. The picture is perhaps a bit cheap and flashy. A better impression of the Viking ideal is to be found in the heroic figures, both of the Norse tales and of Viking history. Some of these figures have their roots in Nordic soil, some in that of south Germany, but whatever their origin they were real and vital figures in the Viking imagination. Bjarka and Hjalti are two examples: Both were faithful to death by the side of their slain king Hrolf. Other examples are : Starked, the ruthless scourge of timidity; the wise Hamlet; the shrewd Ragnar Lodbrok; the proud and fated lovers Hagbard-Signy and Helgi Hunding’s Slayer, Sigrun, whose loves endured beyond death. There is, too, the great tragedy of the Volsungs; with its fatal triangle of relationships between Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gudrun. How powerful this Sigurd Fafni’s Slayer caught the Norse imagination is shown by the many representations of this saga cycle, in stone and wood, from Sweden, Norway, and the Isle of Man. And  let us not forget among the heroes Volund (weland) the Great Avenger. In Scandinavia history there can be no doubt that Cnut the Great, Olaf Tryggvason, St Olaf, Harald Hardrada, and others were in their day invested with all the glory of popular heroes. These men are the figures, whether of legend or history, which display those attributes the Vikings most revered and sought to emulate: courage, bravery, daring, abandonment to love, contempt for death, munificence, strength of mind, fidelity; and, on the other side of the balance, ruthlessness, vengeance, derision hate, and cunning. These are the ingredients with which the Icelandic sagas of the Middle Ages, with their great traditions, recreate the heroes of the vanished Viking times.

The Norwegian and Icelandic skaldic poetry is an elaborate literary form, bound by rigid rules. Its  complexity parallels that of contemporary ornamental art. It makes use of alliteration and also has internal rhyme within the verse line. Its practitioners use picturesque circumlocutions, vivid metaphors avoiding the common name for a thing, and the complicated verse forms are built upon strict  rules. It was not easy to master the skald’s difficult art. The circumlocutions referred to – kenningar – (‘kennings’) – were greatly admired by the Scandinavians, who loved riddles and enigmas as they did vividness of expression. The best kennings are not merely an ingenious play on words but the poetic expression of experience. Here are a few examples. The earliest known Norwegian skald, the ninth-century Bragi the Old , describes the row of shields on the sides of a longship as ‘leaves on the trees in the sea-king’s forest’. Battle scenes are favourites with the skalds. Battle is referred  to as ‘Odin’s roaring storm’, ‘the Valkyries’ magic song’, and ‘the shout of the spear’. The ship is called ‘the steed of the waves’, the sword ‘the battle-storm’s fish’, the arrow ‘the wounding bee’. The greatest of all known Norse skalds, the Icelander Egil Skallagrimsson calls the surf along Norway’s rocky coast ‘the island-studded belt round Norway’; and to describe how his friends inside this belt gave him silver bracelets he employs such flowery images as ‘they let the snow of the crucible [silver] fall upon the hawk’s high mountain [the arm]’.

It appears that in late Viking times nearly all the skalds were Icelanders. The last considerable Norwegian skald is Eyvind Skaldaspillir, whereas the greatest of the later skalds are Icelandic: the love-poet Kormak, and St Olaf’s two court poets, Sighvat and Thormod. The latter was the man who coined the bon mot as he plucked an arrow from his heart at the battle of Stiklestad. Egil Skallagrimsson has an impeccable technique and a wide range of feeling, capable of expressing passion, terror, vengeance, and happiness; after his son’s death he wrote the poem ‘On the Loss of his Sons’ (Sonatorrek’), in which initial hate and bitterness are compounded with a final calm equanimity.

It is a tempting though dangerous exercise to compare Viking poetry with Viking decorative art. The unnaturalistic animal ornamentation of the early period around 800 was superseded (a) in the ninth century by a naturalistic animal style (‘the gripping beast’), (b) in the tenth by the Jelling ribbon pattern, and (c) in the eleventh by the ‘great beast’ motif. What correspondence can be found with Viking poetry from the ninth to the eleventh centuries? The Norwegian scholar Hallvard Lie has attempted to trace a comparable development of metrical style, but the establishment of such parallels seems extremely difficult.

The greatest Icelandic poem to survive is Voluspa ‘The Sibyl’s Prophecy’. It surpasses all others in prophetic power and force, and has both tragic gloom and inspiring hope. It is a seer’s vision of what was, is, and shall be. The Asir are named rather than depicted in the poem. To the poet they are not the great end of existence; they must atone for their guilty acts. Above them is a greater force. The middle part of the poem describes Ragnarok, the end of the world, in a great series of visions. All is consumed by fire, but when the fires are burnt out a new sun will dawn and life will be renewed. Voluspa suggests that the religion of the Asir had lost its power; it is clearly spiritually inadequate. The poet is ready for a religious change, and it reveals the significant conviction that, when Ragnarok is over, there will be but one god, the Mighty one. Is this to be taken as a premonition, a whisper, of the coming Christian god? Manifestly, the creator of Voluspa was a profound thinker and a great poet.

The Viking spirit, however, involves more than the inspired expression of poets, and to understand its full meaning we must come down from poetic heights and see how that spirit was expressed in the everyday life and behaviour of the Vikings. We must look again, for instance, at a poem mentioned earlier, the Havamal (‘The Sayings of the High One’) though, truth to tell, the speaker is not so very high! The poem deals with ordinary people in their ordinary context. Not all of us are heroes or princes, and it gives us valuable clues to Viking conduct on the daily level. Here the accent is not upon legendary valour but on common sense, not upon princely generosity but on economical house-keeping; not on romantic passion but on abstinence, and respect for the neighbour’s wife. The Havamal is cool and sober – a primer of practical behaviour.

Using that great part of Norwego-Icelandic literature which presumably gives a true reflection  of Viking  life, scholars have tried to depict the Viking’s own view of human existence, of the condition of man and his surroundings. The influential Danish scholar Vilhelm Gronbech emphasizes, from these sources, two outstanding characteristic of the Viking: first, his concern for honour (his own and his family’s); and second his belief in luck in a man’s life and undertakings.

The Viking took nothing more seriously than his family. It is a continuing institution, even though the individuals within it perish. It is the man’s master, it can do without him, but not he without it. The members of it are bound to assist and, if need be, avenge each other, and the honour of the family is supreme. If a man commits a crime which involves expulsion from the family he has condemned himself to the worst of fates: to be an outcast; for no man can be an entity to himself, he is part of the fabric  of a family. To belong to a family of high esteem is a rare blessing, but to belong to some family is a human necessity. Not thrall, the man who can scarcely be said to have a soul.

If a man had luck his honour would flourish the better, honour signifying not fame or fortune but, rather, esteem and security. In all matters the honour of the individual was that of the family also; hence the importance of collective revenge for an injury done to one member of a family. The vengeance could mean either a killing or the payment of compensation by the guilty party. If compensation had to be paid it was important to strike the right balance: the price must not be to high, nor, on the other hand, so low as to make the injured family feel aggrieved. Abundant diplomatic skills was needed to strike a balance of this sort, and the resort to such oaths that, were the case reversed, the giving party would still find the proposed payment equitable. This fundamental principle of family responsibility and family obligation must have created a stubborn trait in the Viking character, as well as a check upon any individual’s disposition to forgive an affront or a wrong: for there was no escape from the family.

The Viking maintained his status in the community not only by his acceptance of the family tie but also by acquiring a wide circle of friends. The Havamal ceaselessly praises the virtues of friendship; loneliness was a dire fate, but to move among one’s friends and receive their praise for one’s actions was indeed a blessing. To the Viking acclaim was like rain upon a parched meadow. When a skald sang the praises of an earl, everyone heard it; and when the earl rewarded him with a gold ring, everyone saw it: mutual appreciation! Both were delighted – the earl by the fame of his deeds, the skald by the celebrity of his poetic skill. When Egil’s  furrowed brow was smoothed by the gift of a gold ring at the English court, it was not only the gold which pleased him but the public recognition of his poetic prowess. This kind of thing, however, had a drawback: it led to an exaggerated dependence on what people said about one, and also to an excessive regard for satirical comment. The Viking was desperately sensitive to satire, derision, and malicious gossip: afraid for himself, yet ready to inflict these barbs upon others; keen to discover the faults of others, these barbs to cutting sarcasm. He was vulnerable to the malice he liked to bestow.

The Vikings were a complex people. Their roots lay in an ancient, non-feudal tradition of freedom, and for a long time they had been cut off in their remote northern lands from contact with the rest of Europe. They were self-conscious and naturally intelligent in a naive way; more responsive to an opportunity for quick action than one for long-term perseverance; and endowed with a passion for daring ventures.

The impact of the Vikings were widespread, but only superficial. No doubt, they brought new impulses and ferments to Europe, but they effected no fundamental political transformation there. Finally, they were a people of marked artistic talents – of which they have left ample evidence in the discoveries of archaeology and in the great treasures of Icelandic literature.