Histories of the Viking Age
February 15, 2011 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend an accessible history of the Viking Age to complement a vacation to Iceland, the Faroes, and Norway?

I'm going on a trip this summer to Norway with a few days enroute in Iceland and the Faroes. Before trips like this I enjoy reading as much as I can on the background of the place, particularly the history. For this trip the defining moment seems to be the Viking expansion, 800 to 1100, so I'd like to learn more about it. (For bonus points, I'm interested in the later history too, the Viking stuff just looks like the most fun.)

I'm looking for intelligent reading that's also entertaining enough not to feel like work. Something about the level of Guns, Germs and Steel. The Fatal Shore was the perfect book like this for Australia; The Perfect Heresy and Seven Ages of Paris were great for a recent trip to Paris.
posted by Nelson to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you can do better than to read the Sagas. I can recommend this translation. It's not complete, but it has a good selection.
posted by bricoleur at 1:53 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

But the Sagas aren't the same as the historical record, and a good historical survey picks out how they relate to other sources and the archaeological record. Some of the most fascinating evidence comes from other civilisations' encounters with Vikings -- as far-flung as the Byzantines and Abbasids -- and they don't make it into the sagas.

This is a tricky one. The standard chunky one-volume texts -- Gwyn Jones, Else Roesdahl, Foote & Wilson, etc. -- are possibly a bit too dry and scholarly; more accessible narrative histories, such as Magnus Magnusson's 1980 book, or Robert Ferguson's recent work, can be a bit scatterdash. The advantage of the chunky 1-vols is that they shouldn't be hard to find in libraries.
posted by holgate at 2:16 PM on February 15, 2011

I've heard good things about the Magnusson book. The Sagas are a good bet, though. Egil's Saga and Njal's Saga are probably the best places to start. Mind you, Icelanders also wrote historical works in the middle ages, most notably Heimskringla and Sverris Saga, about Norwegian kings. And contemporary non-fiction, which was later collated into Sturlunga Saga, which deals with the Icelandic civil war of the 12th and 13th centuries.
posted by Kattullus at 2:51 PM on February 15, 2011

The Ferguson is very detailed--it's hard to keep all the major players straight--but still worth reading. However, if I were in your shoes I would go for fiction. Specifically: The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson or even Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, despite the fact that the location itself is not on your vacation itinerary.
posted by Morpeth at 3:29 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding Bengtsson's The Long Ships--one of the most enjoyable historical novels you'll ever read, regardless of subject matter.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:47 PM on February 15, 2011

I'm veering a bit off-track here, but if you haven't seen D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, then please do not dismiss this as just a kid's book. The view of the Viking culture is deep and the artwork is groovy.
posted by ovvl at 4:28 PM on February 15, 2011

Oh, and you might want to check out Emily Lethbridge's Saga-Steads of Iceland blog, which is about her journey around Iceland, checking out historical and sagalicious scenery. The "Press Coverage" sidebar has information about her project.
posted by Kattullus at 5:03 PM on February 15, 2011

I can recommend this translation

Seconded - that book's what compelled me to invest in the five-volume Complete Sagas of Icelanders that is my nerd treasure.
posted by fixer at 5:56 PM on February 15, 2011

If you have not already read it, pick up a copy of the Prose Edda.

"The Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, Snorri's Edda (Icelandic: Snorra Edda) or simply Edda, is an Icelandic collection of four sections interspersed with excerpts from earlier skaldic and Eddic poetry containing tales from Nordic mythology. The work is often assumed to be written by the Icelandic scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson around the year 1220." (wiki)

For a uniquely Scandinavian (and appropriately historical) experience, drop by a Glima club while you're in Iceland. Memail me if you're interested and I can find you the contact info for the club that a friend trained at while he was there.
posted by edguardo at 7:53 PM on February 15, 2011

I like the Roesdahl -- I found it very readable. It covers the societies well, and discusses evidence (and the lack thereof). But it's a slim paperback and is written for an undergraduate/lay person audience.
posted by jb at 8:09 AM on February 16, 2011

The penguin historical atlas that Amazon wants to sell you with the Roesdahl is also good, and the maps are a helpful addition to Roesdahl's narrative. We used both in the Intro to the Vikings course I ta'd.

The Prose Edda is wonderful -- but it's myth, not history, and won't teach you about the history and development of the place you are visiting. Similarly, I really enjoyed the Vinland Sagas, part of which are set in Iceland and which are a realist story of people c1000 -- but I found them much easier to understand after reading secondary material like Roesdahl.
posted by jb at 8:14 AM on February 16, 2011

Thanks for all the recommendations. It looks like Roesdahl's history is the closest to what I was asking for initially and I appreciate the suggestion of The Long Ships; I always feel a bit guilty reading historical fiction, but then again I enjoy it greatly.

I hadn't considered going to a primary source like the Eddas or Sagas, but that may be a perfect thing to read while actually there. In the past I've had a hard time enjoying old works like Beowulf, The Iliad, or Gilgamesh. Is there some edition that provides enough modern guidance for lazy readers to follow along while preserving the voice of the original?
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on February 16, 2011

The edition of the Edda I linked to on Amazon has got some great and informative endnotes and a thorough introduction. It's translated into plain English, and very easy and fun to read.
posted by edguardo at 10:10 AM on February 18, 2011

The Prose Edda is just what it says - prose - and is much easier to read than verse like Beowulf. It's the same difficulty of reading as a collection of Greek myths or fairy tales. It's really a collection of short stories, or at least the first part (the part that you would be most interested in - the myths).
posted by jb at 3:45 AM on February 19, 2011

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