Book Review: The Real Vikings

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Ages 9-12

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Book Review: Adventures with the Vikings

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This book from National Geographic opens up with the bloody murders at Lindisfarne Abbey in 793, giving the impression that the Vikings were just bloodthirsty warmongerers bent on conquering the poor defenseless England that stood in their way. However, just as suddenly, the book takes an entirely different turn, pointing out the many civilizing and downright pleasant qualities these "settlers from Scandinavia" had. This glimpse into the Norsemen's dualism sets this book apart from others of its kind and is especially helpful in teaching students (and even their teachers and parents) that the men and women from Scandinavia who sought food, plunder, and/or refuge in England and elsewhere in Europe were not the one-dimensional warlords that is their common caricature; rather, they had issues just like every other people at that time. (One particular debunking fact that the authors have included gets special mention from this author: The idea of animal horns on the side of the Viking helmet came from a costume designer dressing up Vikings in Wagnerian operas. No real Viking helmet with horns has ever been found or even referenced in traditional Norse sources.)

They had a written language, unlike the early Angles and Saxons; further, the Norse took the time to write things, very much unlike the early Angles and Saxons. And, contrary to popular belief, a great many of the so-called Vikings came to stay in England and in Europe, their ice-capped homes being stuffed to the gills with other Vikings just like them. Overpopulation can be a powerful motivator for immigration.

The book, as is usually the case with National Geographic, is packed with illuminating photos and illustrations, showing just how pervasive the Viking influence was all over Europe, from merely geographic settlements to cultural borrowing and lending that filters down to this day.

Another strong point with this product is its attention to detail and perspective. A whole section is devoted to the Vikings' obvious advantage in shipbuilding and sailing. Because they had a need to improve their ships in order to sail long distances and perhaps even do battle at sea, the Scandinavians made better, tougher, larger yet more maneuverable ships. So, too, did necessity drive the betterment of weapons: Viking long, sharp swords and heavy shields were a powerful one-two combination that proved decisive in many a battle of conquest. Again, overpopulation and a desire for new adventures can be a powerful motivator for invention.

One other thing to point out about this book: It includes accounts and illustrations of just how widespread the Viking occupations were. In the popular imagination, the Vikings took over half of England, a bit of northern Europe, Greenland, and maybe landed in Newfoundland (or maybe not, depending on whom you believe). This book sets the record straight on that front, with, among other things, an illustration of a Viking siege of Paris and a map showing Viking trade routs as far south as Jerusalem and as far east as central Asia.

This is an excellent introduction to or reminder of the study of the Vikings, complete with perspective, illustrations, and excellent facts to match. Pick it up!

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