Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sea Wolves: A History Of The Vikings

I've always been interested in Viking lore, from the invasion of England to the exploration of North America.  There is something mystical about the reputation of the bloodthirsty Norsemen, with their raven banners and dragon-prowed longboats.

Recently, I have been building some Viking and Anglo-Saxon forces for Hail Caesar battles.  Although my interest has been deep concerning the Viking age, I realized that I needed to expand my knowledge past my rudimentary ideas about what really happened in the Dark Ages.

I ordered Lars Brownworth's book The Sea Wolves: A History Of The Vikings and read it cover to cover quickly.  The writing is easy to follow and keeps the reader engaged throughout. As a concise, yet thorough, history of the entire Viking age, I highly recommend it to all dark age history buffs.

Although the book doesn't go into great detail on battle tactics and only has basic information about some of the larger battles in England or continental Europe, it excels as a broad overview of the two and a half centuries that encompass the Viking age.

First off, the author explains that the term "Viking" is actually a word for "raider" and goes on to detail the different regions that made up the Scandinavian world: namely the modern-day countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Although the brutality of the Norse exploits are described in a graphic manner, the author always keeps the overall accomplishment of the impact of the Viking age at the forefront.

The book is organized by regions of Viking influence and flows in a generally chronological manner and  opens with a description of the raids of Lindisfarne and the Irish monastery at Iona. After a general description of Norse culture and the geographic areas of Scandinavia in which the Vikings are described as adventurous sea-wanderers, the text shifts to the raids and campaigns in continental Europe and the plundering and ultimate breakup of Charlemagne's Frankish empire.

Several key characters from legend are discussed in great detail, especially Ragnar Lothbrok and Thorgils "the Devil." The campaigns in England are covered in chronological detail including the conquering of Northumbria and East Anglia. The rise and steadfastness of Alfred the Great's Kingdom of Wessex is covered as well. The major battles of this era are covered in general, but not in great detail.

The Viking adventure in Ireland is also covered nicely, and this is a section that I found especially enlightening. When one thinks of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxon England comes to the forefront, yet the Norwegian and Danish campaigns in Ireland and western Scotland are equally as exciting.

The book shifts at this point to discuss the exploration of the Norsemen in the discoveries of Iceland, Greenland, and Leif Erikson's landing in North America. This was an interesting focus away from the bloodthirsty raids that everyone thinks of and highlights the Norse impact on world history.

The Viking adventures in the Slavic lands and what is now modern-day Russia is discussed in a great amount of detail, demonstrating the adventures of primarily Swedish Norsemen in this area of the world. The impact of the opposing empire of Byzantium and the eventual creation of the Varangian Guard is also discussed. Many ideas were brought back to Scandinavia from the Byzantine Empire and served to begin the process of modernizing the Norse world.

The evolution of paganism to Christianity is covered throughout the book. The impact of the Anglo-Saxon and Byzantine cultures were especially important to the hesitant, but ultimately successful, conversion of the Norse beliefs in the Christian God. It's important to note that there were still holdouts to the end and continued embrace of the worship and cultural impact of Odin, Thor, and the rest of the pagan Norse gods.  

Sea Wolves winds down with a discussion of the struggles and evolution of Scandinavian culture at home, highlighting real upheaval and legendary personalities especially in Norway and Denmark.  

As the story winds down, the battle of Stamford Bridge is acknowledged as the sunset of what is known as the Viking Age. The quest for the English crown by Harald Hardrada is described in great detail and Harald's death is heralded as a great Viking death and ultimate entry into Valhalla.

The impact of the Vikings that helped to shape the modern world is huge, although this era of history occurred over a thousand years ago. The ultimate creation of a united England, the formation of Russia, and the discovery of the New World, were but a few of the major consequences of that Norse sea-lust. Lars Brownworth has written an excellent general history of the entire Viking age that is a great starting point for any historian interested in this time period.

As a great beginning to the journey of researching the Dark Ages, this book is outstanding.

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