Viking and Victorian Values
We'll discuss this topic in more detail
in the following weeks. However, it is worth asking at this point in the
course, how did the Victorian and eventual Edwardian understanding of
Norse literature and culture shape Tolkien's own reading and response to
the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf?
One example is the work of philologist
Samuel Laing (1780-1868). Laing's 1844 Chronicle of the Kings of Norway
was later republished in 1889 as Sagas of the Norse Kings. Laing
held among other things that ancient Viking culture represented:
A hardy "spirit of
freedom" that enabled small groups of people to take on
overwhelming tasks with far-reaching influence.
An anti-feudal culture of primitive
A strong oral culture that
reflected and created national identity across scattered tribes.
A culture that was not dominated by
monasticism or imperialism
A strong tradition of property and
A culture of craft and
Discussion Question: How many of
these values are truly reflected in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf?
Oh! wild and Runic legendry,
Thou breath'st a living fire,
As storm-winds to wild melody
Had woke the minstrel's lyre.
A sound, as if deep ocean's waves
With midnight's breezes sung,
This chant'st thou o'er the heroes' graves
Whose knells the Past hath rung.
We read of fell Berserker
And feel our fibres glow
With sympathetic ire to wage
Like conflict with the foe.
We long to roam the stormy main,
Wild Norseman-King, with thee,
And, scorning every dastard-chain,
To live for ever free.
--The above lines are taken from
a poem by A.G. in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine in response to Laing's
work. This material is located in Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the
Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th-Century Britain.