Thursday, February 26, 2015


The History Channel series, “Vikings”--now entering its third season--has just as much violence and almost as much sex as “Game of Thrones,” with the added recommendation that it is a dramatization of real events.  And the even higher commendation that it is about my great-great-great-great-great grandfather and his wife, my grandmother, the Viking Shieldmaiden. (More about that later.)

Of course I must boldly underscore “dramatization,” but if the writers of the series have taken a bit of dramatic license, they have done so with the dusty books of history open before them.  The first season of the series is centered on the Viking raid of the monastery at Lindisfarne, England, in 793 A.D., which is also the year (and the event) that historians cite as the beginning of “the Viking era.” After watching the episode, I looked up the year 793 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles; it was immediately apparent that the “Vikings” screenwriter had done the same:
on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.
Further reading in these Chronicles even corroborates the detail, in the show’s story line, of how the Viking raiders had no sooner pulled their longboats onto the beach than they surprised and attacked the retinue of sheriff’s men who approached them, mistaking the invaders for traders.

And Alcuin, an English priest at the court of Charlemagne, writes to the Bishop of Lindisfarne:
Your tragic sufferings daily bring me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.
And that is pretty much how “Vikings” depicts the action. It is skillfully written as gripping viewing for a 2015 television audience. Gripping, but, it seems, not exaggerated.

Viking leader Ragnar Lodbrok. (Those who know Caryl's
family will tell you that he looks a lot like a Nasby.)
The Vikings are variously described in the chronicles and history books as “Norsemen,” (Norwegians) and “Danes.”  Since these labels also define the lineage out of which Caryl and I have sprung, I have taken to playing a little game--while watching the series--whereby I identify a particularly strong (or beautiful) warrior (one who survives the battle, of course) and claim him or her as Caryl’s or my ancestor. The fierce farmer-King Ragnar Lodbrok, and his wife, the Shieldmaiden Lagertha—who have so far survived
The Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha
to be the parents of many children—have thus been added to the ancient pantheon of our family: our great-great-greats. (The mathematics of heredity and genealogy show that, in terms of our relationship to real characters living at that time, this is most likely true.)

In claiming the heroes and winners as part of my own line, I am in good company. Robert Ferguson, in his excellent, scholarly, and very readable new history, “The Vikings,” points out that the annals of many early chroniclers, although a source of good general knowledge, are “prejudiced by the author’s inclination to exaggerate the importance of members of his own family in the commission of important deeds.”

Walt, an elderly member of the congregation I served in Anchorage many years ago, was a man of thoroughly Norwegian ancestry. He was a gentle, soft-spoken guy, but his eyes would actually gleam when he got to bragging about how the Vikings literally “seeded” all of western civilization. I, too, am fascinated by “family” tales of world-wide exploration and, yes, conquest. The Age of the Vikings that began in 793 continued until 1066, when—rather than coming to an end—it transmogrified into the conquest of the English by the Normans, who were somewhat more civilized (and Frenchified!) descendants of the Vikings by another name. Some historians suggest that the Norman Conquest was the most complete overturning of one people by another in all of recorded history.

Do you hear that? Like my friend Walt, I’m slipping ever-so-slightly into bragging. When seen through the swordplay-loving eyes of the armchair adventurer in me, it is easy to overlook the fact that, as many historians point out, the experience of being confronted by longboats filled with exotic, armed warriors coming out of the mist of the sea into the local cove or quiet river estuary to wreak "rapine and slaughter" was an experience of violence, fear, and, yes, terror.

The ancestral Scandinavian story with which Caryl’s and my generation are most familiar is that of our doughty great-grandparents leaving the beautiful but impossibly tiny or rocky crofts of Norway and Denmark to settle in the unbelievably vast (160 acres!) and rich prairie homesteads of the Midwest, and of the earnest young pastors they quickly summoned to bring their church to them--a church in which their descendants hold sacramental feasts of the holy food of immigrants and seafarers: Lutefisk and Lefse.

It’s a story that I love and that is in my blood. But I am grateful to “Vikings” and the History Channel for reminding me that--in addition to (and before) that of our pious pioneer grandparents Johan and Ellen and Ole and Beret--my veins also contain the blood of King Ragnar the Fierce. And the Viking Shieldmaiden Lagertha. "Grandma." 

The Sognefjord, in Norway, out of which the Vikings sailed
to invade England, and through which our grandparents
sailed in their journey to America.
In the mountains above the Sognefjord. The beautiful but
impossibly rocky Nesbo farmstead from which
Caryl's Great-Grandfather emigrated in 1878.

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