What is it about Vikings? by Lari Don

I often ask, when I visit schools: “Who likes Vikings? Who wants to hear a Viking story?” And hands shoot up into the air. Kids love Vikings! Why? Why, unlike all the other invaders and traders who came to these shores, do Vikings get that enthusiastic welcome? I doubt I’d get the same reaction if I asked about the Normans, the Saxons or the merchants of the Hanseatic League. (Though I’ve never tried, because I don’t tell stories about them… And that’s probably the answer!)

We love Vikings, because Vikings have a great brand.

Those long sleek boats, with those carved prows. Those helmets, with the horns (yes, we all know the horns are historically inaccurate, but we can’t help seeing them when we say ‘Viking’.) Their arrival out of the cold north, with the sounds of wolves howling and bears roaring behind them. Their gods, with hammers, thunder and tricks.

Like ‘unicorn’ or ‘dragon’ or ‘werewolf’, the word ‘Viking’ arrives in our head with an instant image and immediate excitement.

We are fascinated by Vikings because they have a strong and compelling image, and I believe that comes from their stories. The stories they told about their gods, and the stories they told about themselves. Vikings were already creating their brand – a mix of violence, magic and great accessories – when they brought their stories here along with their ships and swords.

And I believe their stories have remained strong and compelling because Norse communities were still telling their stories orally when widespread writing arrived, so they wrote down their own stories, in their own way, rather than having them written down by invading empires or invading anthropologists. We can read Viking tales written down by the Vikings’ own descendants, mostly in Iceland. The people who wrote them down were Christian, writing about their families’ pagan past, but they told the stories with a passion that suggests they hadn’t entirely stopped believing… 

We have a variety of stories about Vikings. We have the great sweeping myths, about the gods in Asgard high above the world of men, but we also have the sagas, the stories the Vikings told about the deeds of their ancestors.

That’s why the Vikings and their sagas are perfect for projects. Unlike unicorns or werewolves, they have the advantage of being real. The Viking stories draw kids in, then it’s possible to widen that out by looking at the evidence of their real historical lives. And for many parts of these islands, there are specific local connections. In Orkney, for example, you can follow the Orkneyinga Trail to visit sites mentioned in the sagas.

And for me, it’s that connection between story and history, magic and reality, which makes the sagas so wonderful to tell.

The Viking sagas are magical because the people who told them and wrote them down believed in magic. They believed the dead could rise and want to come indoors for the warmth; they believed greed for gold could turn you into a dragon; they believed you could ask a god to help you win a riddle contest; they believed magic could protect you in battle, especially if your girlfriend was a shapeshifter or your mum could sew magical banners. But they also told stories that feel (and often are) very real. Stories about boys who refuse to fight, traders trying to make a profit, and explorers discovering new lands – stories with no magic, just long journeys and hard work and difficult choices, stories that feel human and almost contemporary.  

That mix of magic and reality is perfectly captured by Cate James’s wonderful illustrations for The Dragon’s Hoard, which balance visual research and inspired imagination.

But most Viking stories aren’t gentle or family-friendly. I read dozens of sagas while researching The Dragon’s Hoard, and it was a bloody and brutal experience. Many of the stories were dark, violent and filled with revenge. Reading the sagas proves that Vikings were not always (not often!) very nice people, and that they celebrated their own violence and brutality in their stories. It was a significant part of the way they saw themselves and the way they wanted others to see them. It was part of their brand…

So I searched for saga stories that were suitable for children, but that also reflected the wider tone of the sagas. I chose not to retell stories about incest or murder within families or long bitter feuds. But I also chose to retell stories that didn’t have happy endings. This is NOT a picture book: characters die in these stories. (But it is about Vikings, rather than fluffy kittens or glittery princesses, so I assume that readers will be expecting a bit of blood!) 

Also, I don’t tell the Vikings’ stories unquestioningly. When the Vikings invade my own childhood home of Moray, or murder the first people they meet on the shores on America, I don’t portray those as glorious victories… 

However, The Dragon’s Hoard is a book filled with more than just battles and berserkers. The saga stories are bloody, but they can also be funny, exciting and surprising. I found stories about polar bears, swans, zombies, babysitting, embroidery, generosity, monsters, dragons, treasure…

And that’s the thing about Vikings. Once I waded through the blood, I found the real treasure: stories that made me smile and gasp, stories that I wanted to share. Stories that were original, strange, compelling, memorable, and filled with amazing images. I know that I wouldn’t want to meet a real Viking, that these were people my own ancestors dreaded and feared. But I also know that I’d have loved to hear the Vikings tell their stories…  

The Dragon’s Hoard

Written by Lari Don

Illustrated by Cate James

Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 

This guest blog was written by Lari Don, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the FCBG. Lari Don is a writer and storyteller brought up in the North of Scotland, now living in Edinburgh. She writes retellings of myths, legends and folklore (including Breaking The Spell, a collection of Scottish tales, also illustrated by Cate James) and she writes picture books and adventure novels. She is passionate about sharing her love of stories with children in schools, libraries, book festivals, tents, castles, forests, caves… You can often find Lari on Twitter @LariDonWriter and you can find more info about Lari’s books, stories and events on http://www.laridon.co.uk/


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