Illustration by Thomas Heath Robinson
Of late the VV has been immersed in researching the world of the Vikings – not exactly a nineteenth century theme or so you might imagine - except that the Victorians have had a great deal of influence when it comes to our current historical view of the folk from the lands of Ice and Fire, those invaders previously portrayed as ‘luther' (wicked), cruel pagans who wantonly destroyed our monasteries, murdering the holy men, raping and pillaging at will, and even taking slaves to sell. No wonder potential victims were said to pray in earnest: 'From the wrath of the Northmen, Oh Lord deliver us.'
Illustration by Thomas Heath Robinson
The use of the term ‘Viking’ – as pertaining to the Vi-kings, sea-kings, and sea-rovers – only really came into common use at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Norsemen and their sagas became a source of interest in lectures, poems and novels. The word has its original source in the travels that the Norsemen made, when leaving their homes and setting out to go ‘a viking’ in other lands, sailing fast and efficient boats to search for new trade or spoils of war.
Replica of a Viking long ship, built in 1893 and exhibited at the Chicago World Fair
There is something rather Victorian in the concept of efficient transport, not to mention empire building, be that through domination and war or social integration, and perhaps that's why there came to be such an interest in Viking culture with several archaeological sites bringing new intelligence to light, with runic inscriptions leading on to contemporary interpretations of the old Icelandic sagas. Why, it was even claimed that Queen Victoria was descended from a certain Ragnarr Lodbrok (or Hairy-Breeches) who had once been a famous Viking chief.
From their illustrious regent down, most every Victorian gentleman was proud to consider that his veins flowed with noble Viking blood – imbuing a patriotic devotion and bravery in times of war, and in the words of George Dasent who translated many old Norse tales -
‘They (the Vikings) were like England in the nineteenth century: fifty years before all the rest of the world with her manufactories, and firms and five and twenty before them with her railways. They were the foremost in the race of civilisation and progress; well started before all the rest had thought of running. No wonder, then, that both won.’
The quote below has been taken from the final page of Erling the Bold: A Tale of Norse Sea-Kings. Written by R M Ballantyne and published in 1869 Erling the Bold was only one of several Viking saga tales studied by Victorian schoolboys -
‘Yes, there is perhaps more of Norse blood in your veins than you wot of, reader, whether you be English of Scotch; for these sturdy sea-rovers invaded our lands from north, south, east and west many a time in days gone by, and held it in possession for centuries at a time, leaving a lasting and beneficial impress on our customs and characters. We have good reason to regard their memory with respect and gratitude, despite their faults and sins, for much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much of what is manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, and much of our intense love of freedom and fair play, is due to the pith, pluck and enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old sea-kings of Norway!’
Illustration for The Song of Frithiof by Thomas Heath Robinson
‘The Song of Frithiof’ was another such tale; a medieval Icelandic saga published in 16 different versions during the Victorian era. This epic story of doomed love, treachery and adventuring was taken to the nation's heart – especially when the hero prevailed and converted to the Christian faith.
Thomas Heath Robinson's wonderful artwork may well have secured the success of the myth, with Frithiof depicted as handsome with his long blonde hair and horned helmet - though it is considered doubtful today that the Vikings wore any such headgear; their helmets less extravagant, made simply of metal and leather. But then again when comparing Mr Robinson's illustrations with this image of a modern day re-enactor - well, the VV knows which she prefers.