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Lars Magnar Enoksen,
(The Fighting Art of the Vikings)
Historiska Media, 2004. ISBN: 9185057320
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2004:2
Much has been written about the Vikings’ fearsome reputation, and in later years a great deal about their civilizing influence in northern Europe. But Enoksen’s book succeeds where very few others venture. Using original skaldic sources and a variety of runic texts he interprets the role of combat and warfare in Viking culture to ask a highly specific question: why were the Vikings so successful at raiding, besieging and overwhelming their enemies? The answer, as we see in this highly engaging book, is that Nordic culture and law were based on war and fighting prowess.
The Vikings practiced a number of combat sports such as glima wrestling and water wrestling (the purpose of the latter, to stop narrowly short of drowning one’s opponent). The author is a practitioner of glima wrestling, still a competitive sport in Scandinavia today, and he is thus able to make some inspired suggestions about Viking hand-to-hand techniques.
The meaning of the word “sport” (idrott) was much broader in Viking times than it is today, for it included a number of accomplishments such as runic know-ledge and weapon-making, in addition to normal physical pursuits. In this we see certain links with tradition in Tudor England, where nobles were not only expected to show fighting prowess, but also learning. With Italian influences, this eventually became synonymous with the idea of the Renaissance courtier.
The Icelandic sagas testify to the constant presence of violence in Scandi-navian society. Men who could not wield weapons were unlikely to keep their property, even if they could demonstrate moral superiority. And yet, as Enoksen shows, Viking society was also highly regulated. According to early law books such as the twelfth-century Grågåsen from Iceland and Hednaboken from Sweden, offenders were tried in a court where, if found guilty, they were made lawless for offences ranging from libel, unarmed attack or killing. Once lawless, criminals could be killed with impunity – a likely prospect in a society where blood-revenge was commonplace.
Ultimately, the Vikings were successful because they lived in a highly regulated society. The spoils of victory were divided according to carefully defined criteria. Depending on their status, warriors were paid by their chieftains in food, silver, or even ships. In return they pledged absolute loyalty. Furthermore, we see early signs of egalitarianism in Viking culture. There are instances of simple men raising runic stones to fallen chieftains. In Haddeby, a king erected a stone in honour of a lowly fighter. After King Knut had conquered England early in the 11th century, and found himself ruling over an empire with unwieldy diversity, he abolished all differences of rank unless based on proven fighting prowess. Or, as Enoksen puts it, “In the Viking era one acquired the social position one deserved, based on one’s skill at arms...”. Even women seem to have shared in the warrior cult. Accord-ing to Saxus Grammaticus, shield-maidens played a significant part in the battle of Bråvalla.
Even in his spiritual outlook the Viking warrior was wedded to the idea of fearlessly accepting his fate. The courageous fighter, when killed, would be taken away by the Valkyries, later to help the gods in the final battle of Ragnarök. Havamåls vers sums up the Viking philosophy well: “Beasts die, kinsmen die, and you are bound for the same death. But I know something that never dies – our judgement of the dead.” Thousands of runestones in Scandinavia still bear witness to the heroic actions of warriors in ancient battles. Ultimately, the Vikings seem to have viewed violent death as an inevitable fact. Dudo, the 9th century French chronicler, said of them that in battle “they seem rather to be slaughtering animals than fighting with men...”
Other reviews by Henning Koch
- Thomas Bodström, Populisten (The Populist). Reviewed in SBR 2014:1.
- Hannes Råstam, Fallet Thomas Quick - Att skapa en seriemördarare (Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer). Reviewed in SBR 2013:1.
- Sara Arrhenius and Magnus Berg (eds), Resan till månen (A Trip to the Moon). Reviewed in SBR 2012:2.
- Lukas Moodysson, Tolv månader i skugga (Twelve Months in Shadow). Reviewed in SBR 2012:2.
- Anders Olsson, Ordens asyl (The Asylum of Words). Reviewed in SBR 2012:1.
- Peter Törnqvist, Kioskvridning 140 grader (Kiosk Rotation 140 Degrees). Reviewed in SBR 2011:1.
- Birgitta Stenberg, Eldar och is (Fires and Ice). Reviewed in SBR 2010:2.
- Lars Sund, En lycklig liten ö (A Happy Little Isle). Reviewed in SBR 2009:2.
- Jonas Gardell, Om Jesus (Of Jesus). Reviewed in SBR 2009:2.
- Per Wästberg, Anders Sparrmans resa - en biografisk roman (Anders Sparman's Journey - A Biographical Novel). Reviewed in SBR 2009:1.
- Mikael Timm, Lusten och dämonerna - Boken om Bergman (The Lust and the Daemons - a Book about Bergman). Reviewed in SBR 2008:2.
- Dick Harrison and Kristina Svensson, Vikingaliv (Viking Lives). Reviewed in SBR 2008:1.
- Bengt Jangfeldt, Med livet som insats. Berättelsen om Vladimir Majakovskij (Life at Stake: The Story of Vladimir Majakovsky). Reviewed in SBR 2007:2.
- Roland Poirier Martinsson, Arkimedes. Matematiker, vapenmakare, stjärnskådare (Archimedes. Mathematician, Weaponsmith, Star-Gazer). Reviewed in SBR 2007:1.
- Henrik Nilsson, Nätterna, Veronica (The Nights, Veronica). Reviewed in SBR 2006:2.
- Fabian Kastner, Oneirine - Roman i tusen delar (Oneirine - A Novel in a Thousand Pieces). Reviewed in SBR 2006:2.
- Henrik and Fredrik Lindström, Svitjods undergång och Sveriges födelse (The Fall of Svitjod and the Birth of Sweden). Reviewed in SBR 2006:2.
- Jan Bondeson, Blood on the Snow. Reviewed in SBR 2006:1.
- Birgitta Stenberg, Alla vilda (All Wild). Reviewed in SBR 2005:2.
- Zvonimir Popović, Våt sand (Wet Sand). Reviewed in SBR 2005:2.
- Fredrik Sjöberg, Flugfällan (The Fly-Trap). Reviewed in SBR 2005:1.
- Marie Hermanson, Hembiträdet (The Maid). Reviewed in SBR 2005:1.
- Peter Englund, Tystnadens historia och andra essäer (A History of Silence and Other Essays). Reviewed in SBR 2004:2.
- Johan Bargum, Avsked (Leave-Taking). Reviewed in SBR 2004:1.
- Göran Hägg, Svenskhetens historia (A History of Swedishness). Reviewed in SBR 2004:1.
- Stig Claesson, Efter oss syndafloden (Après nous le déluge). Reviewed in SBR 2003:1.
Other reviews in SBR 2004:2
- Judith Black and Jim Potts (eds.), Swedish Reflections. From Beowulf to Bergman.. Reviewed by Karin Petherick.
- Ulf Danielsson, Stjärnor och äppelen som faller: en bok om upptäcker och märkvärdigheter i universum (Stars and Falling Apples: a book of discoveries and remarkable facts about the Universe). Reviewed by Peter Hogg.
- Alexander Deriev (ed.), Ars-Interpres. An Internation Annual Journal of Poetry, Translation & Art, No.1. Reviewed by Ardis Grosjean Dreisbach.
- Inger Edelfeldt, Efter angelus (After Angelus). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
- Peter Englund, Tystnadens historia och andra essäer (A History of Silence and Other Essays). Reviewed by Henning Koch.
- Maria Gustafsson, Den vidunderliga utsikten (The Amazing View). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie.
- Ninni Holmqvist, Biroller (Supporting Roles). Reviewed by Martin Murrell.
- Åsa Larsson, Det blod som spillts (The Blood That Was Shed). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie.
- Katarina Mazetti, Tarzans tårar (Tarzan's Tears). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
- Lotta Olsson, Den mörka stigen (The Dismal Path). Reviewed by Anne Born.
- Anders Paulrud, Ett ögonblicks verk (In the Twinkling of an Eye). Reviewed by Tuva Tod.
- Gunilla Linn Persson, Vännen (The Friend). Reviewed by Marie Allen.
- Marie Peterson, Du tror du vet allting (You Think You Know It All). Reviewed by Sarah Death.
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