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Laughing Shall I Die featured in the Literary Review

on Thu, 11/23/2017 - 11:50

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.

Read full review here

Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings
Tom Shippey
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781780239095
Hardback, £20.00

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