What sort of books inspired you as a child?
As a child, I wasn’t very bookish. That lasted until the moment that I got hold of the January 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, featuring the first instalment of Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. After that, I read science fiction. But I also had a juvenile edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, The Talisman and The Fair Maid of Perth, and I read Herodotus’ Histories again and again.
Your new book, ‘Laughing Shall I Die’, explores ‘the Viking mindset’. Which books sparked your interest in that period?
People ask if there’s a correlation between science fiction and medieval/historical studies, and I think that it is the fascination of imagining and trying to understand alien mindsets. The overlap comes out in books such as Harry Harrison’s The Technicolor Time-Machine and Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. Both writers, unusually, could speak Danish and were at least familiar with Old Norse. One historical novel that I read long ago and still think is the best ever written is a Swedish one by Frans Bengtsson, called The Long Ships in English. I also had a book in German retelling the medieval romances of Dietrich and Hildebrand.
What made you start questioning common images of the Vikings?
What led me to question the general trend of “Viking” studies wasn’t so much books as conversations, and titles. One scholar told me that he just didn’t like the idea of the “Vikings”, nor even the word. A common reaction, but it doesn’t stop writers who feel that way using the word in their titles – The Viking Achievement, Song of the Vikings, Age of the Vikings. The books turn out to be about Scandinavians: much nicer people, traders, explorers, urban developers. “Viking” meant “pirate, marauder”: it’s a job description, confirmed by much documentary evidence – poems, sagas, runestones – and often grisly archaeology. The public image of Vikings is full of errors from the age of Gothic enthusiasm, but quietly changing the subject because it’s distasteful is not the way to correct it.
What would you recommend as good non-specialist overviews of the whole ‘Viking era’?
The best overviews are Gwyn Jones’ A History of the Vikings and, more recently, Martin Arnold’s The Vikings: Culture and Conquest. With histories like these, who needs novels? Eleanor Barraclough’s Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas and Neil Price’s The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia remind us how weird some of the material is – Scandinavians were more affected by Arctic and shamanic cultures than Eurocentric histories make out.
What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, to my grandson Zaph.
What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
The big one is The Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, edited by Joep Leerssen, which covers everything from artwork to opera. Also, there’s Jo Nesbø’s Scandi detective story, The Thirst, and on the science fiction pile, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi.
Tom Shippey is professor emeritus of Saint Louis University, Missouri and the author of Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (Reaktion).