‘The Viking Heart’ Review: Norsemen to the Rescue

‘Don’t expect people to give you a helping hand in the U.S.,” wrote the Danish author of “100 Pieces of Advice for Emigrants,” a pamphlet for aspiring migrants to the New World published in Copenhagen in 1911. The author did make sure to tell his nervous readers that American police officers “are your good friends. Turn to one if there is anything you are having trouble with.” This was America as seen by those in distant lands whose dream it was to live there: Unlike Old Europe, it was a place for self-starters, where public servants could be trusted to aid ordinary citizens, not torment them.

At the time, thousands of Danes, Norwegians and Swedes were boarding steamships for the U.S., in a Great Migration out of Scandinavia that had kicked off in the mid-19th century. Among those to leave for America—in a flight from hunger, joblessness and scarce Norwegian farmland—were two grandparents of Arthur Herman, a historian whose latest book, “The Viking Heart,” is an absorbing and humane account of how the long-ago ancestors of modern-day Scandinavians—the Vikings—shaped Europe as warriors and how, later, their more orderly descendants left a profound cultural and material mark on the U.S. as immigrants.

Anna Carlson, Mr. Herman’s Norwegian immigrant grandmother, is the guiding light in his tale. She is the Nordic Everywoman who, in his eyes, embodies the spirit of adventure and reinvention that are at the core of what he calls the Viking heart. He’s eager to dispel many lurid misunderstandings at the outset. The “real Vikings,” he tells us, “were neither superheroes nor rampaging, bloodthirsty savages.” They were, in most ways, like his grandmother: people “looking to better their lives through finding new land and opportunities.”

The Vikings, insists Mr. Herman, were farmers, herders and fishermen who turned to war and plunder “to enrich themselves in a world where wealth was scarce and where ethical standards about how to get it were even scarcer.” To put it another way, the Vikings wouldn’t, perhaps, have sacked the monastery in Lindisfarne in northeastern England in A.D. 793 if they could have found a way to farm in Minnesota. Mr. Herman doesn’t make that claim, of course, and readily acknowledges that the early Vikings were accomplished at terrorizing and killing their quarry. But it “does a disservice” to them, he says, to exaggerate the savagery of their raids. In a world where rape and pillage “were largely the norm,” the Vikings “do not stand out as particularly bloodthirsty or ruthless, no matter what the chronicles of contemporary monks suggest.”

Certainly there is no people in history with an aura as thrilling (or chilling). In “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples,” Winston Churchill described the Vikings as “salt-water bandits, pirates as shameful as any whom the sea has borne,” even as he lauded “the discipline, the fortitude, the comradeship and martial virtues which made them . . . the most formidable and daring race in the world.” In Mr. Herman’s telling, however, it’s a myth to assert that the Vikings formed a single race. That misconception, he says, underlay the Nazi ideology of Nordic racial purity, and persists in “white nationalism’s appropriation of Scandinavian heritage.” In fact, wherever they went as conquerors and settlers, the Vikings intermarried with the locals.

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