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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Vikings at War
Vikings at War
By Kim Hjardar and Vegard Vike
Casemate, 2016, ISBN 978-1-61200-403-7, US $39.95 / UK £29.95


Fighting and war were intricately woven in the tapestry of Viking life. It was brutal and raw, just like life itself, and Vikings were particularly good at mastering the components that constituted this lifestyle. Rather than examine the entire sphere of the Viking world from AD 750 to 1100, the authors focus on one facet of this society – the warriors, whose activities impacted the lives of many from America in the west, to the Caspian Sea in the east, from the Russian forests of the north, to Jerusalem to the south. Their intrusive raids ultimately led to upheavals that altered the course of European history.

Hjardar and Vike present this comprehensive examination in six chapters, each focusing on a particular aspect of a warrior’s life. It begins with the inside covers, which are full-color maps depicting the Viking world during a period of 350 years. Many histories of this era open with an account of the raid on the Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island or Iona Abbey in the Hebrides; these authors chose an even earlier incursion when King Beorhtric of Wessex sent his bailiff to confront the intruders into his realm in the summer of AD 789. This first record of a violent encounter at the hands of the Vikings did not end well for the bailiff.

Whether they were called Norsemen, Danes, heathens, Rus, Varangians, al-madjus, Finn Gall, or Dub Gall, they had two things in common. They came from North, the region we know as Scandinavia, and they were Vikings. Chapter one answers five basic questions: who they were; what “Viking” meant (both then and later); why the raids began; what technological advancements allowed them to venture far from land; and how Vikings, rather than Christians, saw the world. This section also examines Viking society and the role of the warrior in it, as well as their religion.

No book on warriors and military life would be complete without a discussion on “The Art of War,” which is the topic discussed in chapter two. This umbrella covers many facets: troops, homeland defense, trial by combat, training, raiding, battle formations, intelligence and logistics, strategy and stratagems, mercenaries, beserkers and wolfskins, warrior women, and tending the sick and wounded.

Chapter three looks at fortifications, both temporary and permanent, while chapter four focuses on Viking ships. The latter includes a double-page timeline that shows how the cargoes, barges, and longships developed. There is also an annotated list of archeological finds of these vessels.

Chapter five, the only one written by Vegard Vike, focuses on Viking weaponry. All freemen were expected to have and use three types of weapons to defend the land. Weapons were status symbols, in both life and death. The principal arms were the spear, shield, sword or axe, but also discussed are knives, bows and arrows, and personal armor. The arms trade is another topic Vike covers.

The final chapter, the longest of the six, centers on Viking invasions. Here Hjardar divides up the world into eight parts: Islands in the West, Ireland, England, the Frankish Empire and France, the Iberian peninsula, lands in the East, Byzantium, and Greenland and America. Each part includes a full-page color image of the Viking who invaded that region. This allows readers to see the similarities and differences, for example, between a Viking who went to Ireland and one who traveled as far as America. In addition to explaining how the invaders reached these destinations, Hjardar provides overviews of the raids and battles that occurred there and how that area’s Viking history unfolded. Readers are also introduced to specific Vikings whose names – such as the Earls of Orkney, Sigtrygg Silkbeard, Eirik Bloodaxe, Olav Tryggvason, Svjatoslav, and the Varangian Guard – and experiences are recounted in the historical record.

A host of color photographs, diagrams, maps and battle movements, and artwork beautifully illustrate this 400-page coffee-table-sized book. Several double-page spreads of original artwork allow readers to visualize such things as a ship burial, the raid on Lindisfarne, and the Vikings’ winter camp in Repton, England. Throughout the text, the authors include excerpts from original sources to enrich and enhance the topic being discussed. Special boxed highlights, incorporated into every chapter, showcase such subjects as early warrior culture, a woman’s honor, loyalty oaths, traveling to the afterlife, and persons of particular renown. Aside from the end notes, there are a bibliography and an index with four separate divisions – people, places, subjects, and major battles. A list of maps is also included.

                in Gudrod's army (artwork used with permission of
                publisher)Garrison soldier from Birka
                (artwork used with permission of publisher)
(left) Warrior in Gudrod's army around 800, who may have fought the Franks. (right) Garrison soldier from Birka around 930. Equipment displays Eastern characteristics.
(Both images are copyrighted and used with permission of publisher.)

Winter Camp in
                  Repton (artwork used with publisher's permission)Winter camp at Repton
                  (artwork used with publisher's permission)
Example of original artwork depicting what the winter camp in Repton, England may have looked like in 873-874.
(Bot images are copyrighted and used with permission of publisher.)

The only section with outdated information appears in chapter two and concerns warrior women. This isn’t the author’s fault, as results of DNA studies on a Viking warrior found in 1888 have only recently been shared publicly. Viking warrior women did exist outside of folklore; to the author’s credit, he did leave open the possibility that some women, and even men, stepped outside their sex’s normal societal constraints to follow a different path.

The authors’ purpose in writing this book was to provide readers with vivid look into the Viking Age, and this they consummately achieve. Even though the writing isn’t always riveting, nuanced insights and delightful historical tidbits make this volume not only a worthy addition to any collection specializing in Scandinavian history, but also a stellar resource for history buffs and authors seeking background for their novels.

Visit the book’s website

Review Copyrighted ©2018 Cindy Vallar

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