You’re a Norse warrior sitting at the bench of a longship, straining at a wooden oar that blisters your calloused hands and your ship slips up the Thames. Your sword sits ready at your side, its razor-sharp edge shielded from the bitterly cold ocean spray now dripping from your sun-bleached beard by a woolen-lined scabbard, and your shield is affixed to the side of the dragon-headed longship, protecting you from any Saxon arrows. Despite the dangers, despite the multitude of enemies silently watching you from the bank, you’re not fearful. Rather, you’re excited, ready to unsheathe your sword and plunge it into the heart of one of Alfred’s warriors. What’s driving you to be there? Why is your life on the line?
Fast forward a few hundred years. Now you’re a Swedish pikeman fighting for Gustavus Adolphus in his quest to subdue and take over large swathes of the Holy Roman Empire. You’ve been on the campaign trail for months, your swollen feet having trod across fields in Bohemia, Saxony, and even Wallachia. Outnumbered, far from home, exhausted and hungry, you still perform your task superbly, charging with vigor into the ranks of bewildered troops from the Holy Roman Empire that were just devastated by a massive volley of musket fire. What’s driving you to be there? Why is your life on the line?
That’s the question at the root of The Viking Heart by Arthur Herman or, as he puts it in the introduction:
These characteristics of the Viking heart have been an essential part of Scandinavian culture almost from its beginning. They are by no means the exclusive property of Scandinavians or of Scandinavian immigrants to this country. In truth, they did not completely define the Vikings themselves, whose more rapacious and brutal exploits have been handed down in history and legend. But over the centuries, Scandinavians have figured out how to make the most of this constellation of human virtues.
The Viking Heart drove their expansion across the known world, carrying them from Muscovy to Paris, London to Constantinople:
In short order, Danes sacked London (in 841), Nantes, Rouen, Paris, and, deep in the heart of Gaul, Toulouse. By that date Swedish raiders had penetrated up the Volga and founded a settlement at Novgorod. They captured the town of Kiev, where one chieftain, Rurik, would go on to establish a permanent capital, raiding and enslaving the Slavic inhabitants nearby. Danish raiders attacked Seville in Spain in 844, and then Nîmes and Pisa in the Mediterranean. Over the next two decades, Viking raiders from Kiev ranged across the Black Sea. They reached Constantinople in 860. By then, another intrepid band had reached Baghdad, home of the caliphs. By 878 more than half of England, as well as large portions of the rest of the British Isles, was under Scandinavian occupation. Ireland and Scotland had ostensibly become Norwegian colonies. Before the Norsemen were done, they would expand their range west into the Atlantic, even as far as North America.
And what are those values?
Courage in battle, loyalty, leadership through example rather than birth or status: these are the first qualities of the Viking heart, German style, to be recognized in Western literature.
Arthur Herman begins The Viking Heart brilliantly. In a few exciting chapters, he traces the exploits and adventures of the Vikings, the fighting prowess of their descendants, the Normans, namely William the Conqueror and Robert Guiscard, and the brilliant campaigns of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Sagas of Icelandic adventures, tales of Norman conquest, detailed discussions of battles during the Thirty Years’ War, all of them show the values and virtues that made up the Viking Heart.
A few short passages show the nature of this section of the book:
Ragnar sailed up the Seine in March of 845, eager for battle and confident in victory. He had more than two hundred ships and four thousand men headed up the river for plunder. To stop him, Emperor Charles the Bald pulled together an army, which he split in half in order to guard both banks of the river. Ragnar saw his chance. He quickly sprang on the smaller force before the other troops could come to their aid and destroyed it, taking (the chronicle says) 111 prisoners. He decided to hang all 111 on an island in the Seine, in plain sight of the second force, as a form of psychological warfare. Ragnar’s ruthless cruelty worked. Charles’s remaining troops retreated in disorder as Ragnar triumphantly entered Paris and sacked the city on March 28—Easter Sunday, as it happened. It was a symbolic victory over the Christianity Ragnar despised as well as a literal victory over a hapless Carolingian emperor.
beyond the propaganda and fake news of the day, it’s likely that the Vikings’ savage attacks on this and other Christian sites were actually a reaction against Charlemagne’s ongoing genocidal war on the Vikings’ pagan Saxon neighbors. The renegade Saxon rebel leader Widukind had taken refuge in the court of the Danish king Sigfrid. No doubt he wove horrific stories of the atrocities the Franks were committing on his people, stories that would have been passed along to Sigurd’s successor, Godfred, and then his successors. The message would have been clear: these Christians were waging a war of extermination on their neighbors and kin, and it was time to hit back hard.
We don’t know exactly when the first Norman knights showed up in the boot of Italy. One story has it that a party of forty Norman pilgrims were journeying to the Holy Land when they stopped at Salerno. There they learned that the town was under constant siege by the Muslim Saracens. The Normans went to the local prince and asked for weapons and horses so they could help defend the town. They then went on to defeat the Saracens almost single-handedly, achieving an impressive degree of slaughter. That led the local people to beg the Normans to stay. When the victorious pilgrims said they had to go home, the residents of Salerno loaded them with gifts to encourage other Normans to come to the town, which they soon did.
It’s from there that Herman starts to go off track.
The problem is that The Viking Heart quickly becomes illogical, and the whole “viking” part of “The Viking Heart” is replaced with “generally good person from the perspective of a moderate leftie in the 21st century.” Two passages show what I mean:
Like Lindbergh’s views on race, Gutzon’s are alien to the modern Viking heart. Like their ancient forebears, both men strove to conquer the external world and to accomplish the impossible, one working in stone and the other alone in the air. But neither conquered the prejudice in his soul, any latitude allowed for the era in which he lived notwithstanding. We can look back with awe on the accomplishments of these men. But if we are looking for inspiring values, we have to search elsewhere.
The Nobel Peace Prize still symbolizes an ideal of human progress and peaceful community, certainly the highest yearnings of the modern Viking heart.
Sorry, Arthur, but I seriously doubt that the Volsungs, Ragnar Lodbrock, or Robert Guiscard, a man whose tombstone memorialized him as “the terror of the world” would have cared in the slightest about “human progress,” nor would they have given much thought to the evils of “prejudice.” The Vikings, after all, raped and plundered monasteries as part of their holy war and the Norman Crusaders were a bit “prejudiced” against the Jews and Muslims they slaughtered in Jerusalem, killing so many people that the blood rose to their knees as it flowed down the streets.
The Viking Heart isn’t a heart that the modern leftist would much like. It’s one of war, conquest, and heroism. It’s the heart of Beowulf and Roland, not the progressive “Vikings” Arthur Herman grasps at straws to create out of thin air. The Vikings were bloodthirsty savages. Noble savages perhaps, but not men whose values can be squared with wokeness. Try as he might, no argument that the Nobel Peace Prize is on of the “highest yearnings” of the Viking heart will ever make sense. The Vikings weren’t exactly peaceful.
The Viking Heart is a promising book that starts off strong but quickly falls apart when he tries to make the spirit of Vikings amenable to modern leftists. Their spirits are quite different and, try as he might, will never be reconcilable.