Reviewers praised Neil Price's Children of the Ash for "rescu[ing] Viking history from the grasp of white supremacists ... not by asserting any sort of moral superiority for the Vikings ... but by restoring their rich and strange particularity." Even so, most reviewers missed the key bit of information about the Norse: that they were ultimately converted by Benedictine monks from England and went on to adorn Christendom in its most flourishing age — and that the Scandinavian countries continue (and not by accident) to be on the whole among the most civilized places in the world to live. Read on for the context:
Updated from THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Autumn-Winter 2014 edition.
IN A SHORT story called “The Regent of the North,” published in the August 1915 number of Theosophical Path and collected by Douglas A. Anderson in Tales Before Tolkien (2003), the Welsh theosophist Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) envisions a rugged Viking warrior attached to the old ways, determined to keep the old religion alive:
Halfdan is ultimately torn to shreds by wolves. But as he dies a vision opens before him, and “behold, the shining mountain that had seemed so far, shone now near at hand, and for a mountain, it was a palace, exceedingly well-built, lovely with towers and pinnacles and all the fair appurtenances of a king’s house.” Odin All-Father, king of the gods, and Balder the Beautiful, god of purity and light, emerge to link arms with him, “and in cheerful conversation he passed in with them into the Valhalla.”
Does a similar vision inspire Amaruk Corp., the Norwegian wilderness travel company that refused to hire a young guide because she is a graduate of Trinity Western University, an avowedly Christian institution? (CBC, Oct. 7, 2014; National Post, Oct. 9, 2014, and other media.)
Describing himself as “a Viking with a Ph.D. in Norse culture,” one of the company’s managers, Olaf Amundsen, wrote to the young woman: “The Norse background of most of the guys at the management level means that we are not a Christian organization, and most of us actually see Christianity as having destroyed our culture, tradition and way of life.”
WELL, YES AND no. In 9th-century England, it was the pagan Vikings who almost wiped out monasticism and learning (“From the Norsemen deliver us!” ran the prayer). That is the period that Dr. Amundson is reaching back to. But then in time Norse culture, eventually Christianized, did indeed have a lasting impact in England from the 10th century onward, not least the Norman Conquest of 1066 -- and reached as far as the Volga River and the Mediterranean world. Along the way, and particularly in England, Norse culture was pacified, adapted, and preserved. Amundson has the shoe on the wrong foot.
It was Norway’s King Haakon the Good (938-61), educated in England by the Benedictines, who invited English missionaries to his country. They faced an uphill struggle and much of their work was undone by his pagan successors. Between 995 and 1000, King Olaf Tryggvason — who had grown up in Russia and become a Christian under the influence of a hermit on the Scilly Islands (west of Cornwall), and married a Danish princess in Ireland — and his successor Olaf II Haraldsson (baptized in Rouen, Normandy) between 1015 and 1028 completed the Christianization of Norway. New converts are known to have resorted to traditional Viking methods of sword and fire to pacify recalcitrant pagans, but this apparently convinced some that if Christians had some fight in them they couldn’t be all bad.
Far from being destroyed, much of Scandinavian culture was conserved, including the Norse myths, and the deeds (benign and wicked alike) of Olaf I and II, recorded in the Heimskringla. How did these tales ever come down to us? Well, it seems that it was inevitably the work of Christian monks, many of whose days were spent copying and recopying texts in order to preserve and share them. As Christopher Dawson wrote in Religion and the Rise of Western Culture:
We are apt to regard medieval culture as intolerant of everything that lay outside the tradition of Latin Christendom. But we must not forget that the Northern Sagas are as much the creation of medieval Christendom as the chansons de geste and that it is to the priests and the schools of Christian Iceland that we are indebted for the preservation of the rich tradition of Northern mythology and poetry and saga.
THE NEO-WOULD-BE-Viking Amundsen, and perhaps others like him, prefer to believe Christianity destroyed their ancestral culture 1,000 years ago. The new faith assuredly brought changes, among them that the Norse peoples ceased the practice of raiding, pillage, and slavery and became part of Western Civilization, itself a work in progress. But as an expert in Norse culture Amundsen must know that it is the 14th century, and not the 9th, that is celebrated as Norway’s Golden Age. — C.P. Champion