Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Song of the Vikings: What’s in a Title?

Authors don’t have total say over their books’ titles. Publishing houses have people who specialize in such things as the marketability of a phrase—something I’m apparently not so talented at, since only two of the titles I’ve picked for my five books have made it through the process.

“Song of the Vikings,” for instance, wasn’t my choice for my upcoming biography of Snorri Sturluson, the story of how a scheming Icelandic chieftain gave Norse mythology to the world.

But it has a pleasing tension to it. Singing is not the first action that comes to mind when thinking about Vikings. Yet it was through their songs—using “song” the way Walt Whitman did in “Song of Myself”—that Snorri Sturluson, writing in the early 1200s, was able to reconstruct the Viking world of centuries before. Viking songs are the source of almost everything we know about the gods, kings, and warriors who ruled the North between 793 and 1066 (the Viking Age) and for two centuries after, until the Icelandic Sagas were written—some of the best by Snorri himself—in the 1200s.

Poets, or skalds, were a fixture at the Norwegian court for over four hundred years. They were swordsmen, occasionally. But more often in his collection of sagas about the kings of Norway, Heimskringla, Snorri depicts skalds as a king’s ambassadors, counselors, and keepers of history. They were part of the high ritual of his royal court, upholding the Viking virtues of generosity and valor. They legitimized his claim to kingship. Sometimes skalds were scolds (the two words are cognates), able to say in verse what no one dared tell a king straight. They were also entertainers: A skald was a bard, a troubador, a singer of tales—a time-binder, weaving the past into the present.

Illustration by Gerhard Munthe.
Who would remember a king’s name if there were no poems composed about him? In a world without written record—as the Viking world was—memorable verse provided a king’s immortality. As the skald Sigvhat Thordarson said to King Olaf the Saint (1015-1030), in Lee Hollander’s 1964 translation of Heimskringla:

            List to my song, sea-steed’s-
            sinker thou, for greatly
            skilled at the skein am I—
            a skald you must have—of verses;
            and even if thou, king of
            all Norway, hast ever
            scorned and scoffed at other
            skalds, yet I shall praise thee.

We know the names of over two hundred skalds from before 1300, including Snorri, one of his nieces, and three of his nephews. We can read (or, at least, experts can) hundreds of their verses: In the standard edition, they fill a thousand two-column pages. What skalds thought important enough to put into words provides most of what we know today about the inner lives of people in the Viking age, what they loved, what they despised. The big surprise is how much they adored poetry. Vikings were ruthless killers. They were also consummate artists.

“These old Norse songs have a truth in them, an inward perennial truth and greatness,” said the Victorian critic Thomas Carlyle. “It is a greatness not of mere body and gigantic bulk, but a rude greatness of soul.”

Illustration by Gerhard Munthe.
Whether Viking songs were sung, chanted to the strumming of a harp, or simply recited, we don’t know. Recently, Benjamin Bagby and the group Sequentia has tried to reconstruct the music of some Viking songs (with mixed results, in my opinion) on their 1999 album “Edda.” 

For a completely different approach to the concept of a “Song of the Vikings,” listen to this delightful recording made in 1915 by the Victor Male Quartet, available through the National Jukebox project of the Library of Congress: 

And finally, theres Todd Rundgren“Song of the Vikings” here:

Let me know if you find any more.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. I bet the members of the Victor Male Quartet wore horned helmets in their session.

  2. Can we entice you to reveal any of your cast-aside title ideas? I'm terrible at coming up with titles for my own work, so I'm rather curious...

  3. My favorite was "Wizard of the North," but there's a book about Sir Walter Scott with that title. Others were "Inventing Gods," "The Lord of the Vikings," "Saga Master," and "God of Wednesday." The last one I liked enough to use here. "Wizard of the North" became a chapter title. The others are best forgotten, I think! One friend said "Saga Master" reminded her of "Stair Master."

  4. "God of Wednesday" is a wonderful title! I'm particularly glad you put it to excellent use.