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Originally published January 16, 2010 at 6:00 PM | Page modified January 21, 2010 at 1:23 PM

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Book review

'The Vikings': the bloody history of the Scandinavian warrior hordes

Author Robert Ferguson's "The Vikings: A History" tells the bloody story of the Scandinavian warriors who spread terror throughout England and Christian Europe during the era known as the Viking Age.

Special to The Seattle Times

'The Vikings: A History'

by Robert Ferguson

Viking, 451 pp., $32.95

In the year 870, Ivar the Boneless of Denmark (his nickname also has been interpreted as "the Snake" or "the Detested") captured the Anglo-Saxon King Edmund. Ivar, who had already made a name for himself by killing an earlier enemy via a gruesome method called the "blood-eagle," demanded that Edmund share his kingdom. The story goes that when Edmund refused, Ivar tied him to a tree, had him scourged, let his men use the hapless king as target practice for their arrows, and finally had him beheaded, tossing the head away in the undergrowth.

Not all interactions between heathen Scandinavia and Christian Europe, during the centuries (from the late 700s well into the 1000s) known as the Viking Age, were quite so bloody. But many of them were, as Robert Ferguson makes clear in his exhaustively detailed new history, "The Vikings." While some writers prefer to see the Vikings as "long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit" — the medieval equivalent of, say, soccer hooligans — Ferguson takes pains to point out the violence and terror that came with their longships.

Writing a coherent narrative of the seafaring raiders from Norway, Denmark and Sweden is no easy task. Almost all the contemporary accounts of the Vikings were written by their enemies or victims; the sagas that give us much of what passes for our understanding of Viking culture were written hundreds of years after the fact. Ship-burials, settlement ruins, treasure hoards and runestones can be and have been interpreted in many different ways. (Scholars tried for hundreds of years to decipher the runes on a particular stone in Denmark, until in the mid-19th century the "runes" were discovered to be marks left by a glacier.)

Take the case of Rollo, founder of what became the duchy of Normandy and as well-attested a figure as any the Viking Age produced. After noting that his "biographers, chroniclers and poets" also called him "Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Ganger Rolf or Rolf the Walker," Ferguson comments that Rollo's prominence, combined with "an almost complete lack of biographical information, " transformed him from an ordinary mortal into a "dense hybrid ... of m(a)n, myth and legend."

Ferguson, author of biographies of author Knut Hamsun and playwright Henrik Ibsen, frames his account as an ongoing scrimmage between Christian Europeans and the non-Christian Scandinavians. He suggests that the Viking raids, which seemed to come out of nowhere toward the end of the eighth century, were at least in part a reaction to the missionary efforts of Charlemagne's empire. Even the bards (or skalds) got into the fight: "Heathen poets impugned the manhood of the Christians, and Christian poets mocked the Heathens for their superstition and stupidity."

Ferguson is careful almost to the point of tedium to note how different sources give differing accounts of the same events, or the limits of what a ruined farmstead in Greenland can tell us about how settlers there lived. In his care to delineate "the treacherous marches that divide legend from credible fact in Viking Age history," Ferguson sometimes comes close to losing the nonspecialist reader.

It doesn't help that, though Ferguson's account is roughly chronological, he tends to skip forward and backward in time and from Denmark to England to France to Iceland. To some extent this is inescapable; the Viking world was not a single polity, and the Vikings themselves ranged as far east as Kiev and as far west as Newfoundland. But Ferguson's approach makes it hard to, for instance, keep Harald Bluetooth and Harald Finehair straight (especially since the latter originally was known as Harald Thickhair).

Ferguson's book likely will find many keen readers in Seattle, where many of us are descended from the Scandinavian immigrants who flooded the area around the turn of the last century. (Ballard still celebrates Norwegian Constitution Day, and there's even a local bank named for the Vikings.) Such readers will learn almost everything there is to know, or reasonably surmise, about who the Vikings were, what they did and what became of them after their realms, one after another, adopted Christianity and joined the mainstream of European culture. It's because of them, after all, that we call those oval things we get from chickens eggs (from Old Norse) rather than eyren (from Anglo-Saxon).

Drew DeSilver is a Seattle Times business reporter.

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