The best books for understanding the Viking mindset and relationship with the world

The Books I Picked & Why

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

By Neil Price

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings

Why this book?

Neil Price was recommended to me by Marissa Lingen, a fellow science fiction author of Nordic descent with a passionate interest in Scandinavian history, and she was absolutely right. I have another of his books, The Viking Way, on my queue right now. 

This book is the modern social history of the Vikings that I always wanted and could never quite find before. It's gigantic, comprehensive, and focused far more on the personal lives of individuals than on endless lists of kings, wars, and begats--which differentiates it from others such as Kenneth Harl's recorded lectures at The Great Courses or Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings, which was the first book on this topic I read. 

Price manages to unify archaeology, climate history, written history, and present a sweeping synthesis of the cultures and migrations of the Nordic countries in the late Iron Age and early Medieval period that brings alive individuals and motivations without descending into glorification. He makes the historical Viking culture real and present, makes plain the driving forces behind Viking expansion and their network of trade and reaving--but he doesn't excuse its atrocities. He manages to discuss the archaeological evidence without falling into the trap of presenting Viking navigators as nearly supernatural beings, and he doesn't shy away from 20th-century cultural appropriation of this history by fascists.

This is an excellent overall book that makes plain cultural drives for renown and the intimacy and personal integration with which the Viking world viewed its gods and spirits. It gives a good sense of Nordic fatalism and the idea that fate--wyrd--is not negotiable, but that we are in charge of how we meet that destiny, and that is what we ought to be remembered for.


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Last Rituals: A Novel of Suspense

By Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Last Rituals: A Novel of Suspense

Why this book?

This is a modern Icelandic Noir crime novel about a divorced personal attorney in Reykjavik who gets sucked into a horrific mystery at a university. It delves into Icelandic myth and Medieval black magic (the infamous Necropants make an appearance). I think it's very revealing about the frontier mentality that in some ways still persists in Iceland, and which saturates the Sagas. It's got a great sense of place and offers a nice cross-section of life in a modern Nordic country.

Also, it's really entertaining, and a little bit grotesque.


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The Viking Hondbók: Eat, Dress, and Fight Like a Warrior

By Kjersti Egerdahl

The Viking Hondbók: Eat, Dress, and Fight Like a Warrior

Why this book?

This is a fun light book on Viking material culture, aimed at kids or adults who like pictures. (Me!) It's a delightful, breezy overview of exactly what it says on the box, and serves as a great entry point for readers who aren't sure what they need to know or where to start.


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Jar City: An Inspector Erlendur Novel

By Arnaldur Indridason

Jar City: An Inspector Erlendur Novel

Why this book?

Another work of fiction, (in fact, another Icelandic Noir), this book explores modern ramifications of Nordic kinship relationships and the limited Icelandic gene pool. It has a tremendous sense of place and is deeply wintry and claustrophobic. An unsettling mystery by a modern master of the form.


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Kin

By Snorri Kristjansson

Kin

Why this book?

It's probably not by accident that three of the five books on this list are by Icelandic authors, as so much of the history and mythology of that nation is tied up with its Viking heritage. This novel, while somewhat unevenly paced, is a vivid depiction of life in Medieval Iceland, where kinship and honor were the basis by which human society clung to an unforgiving landscape. Its thematic emphasis falls on entrapment and isolation, and it offers a gorgeous sense of a premodern Nordic landscape.


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