Oi! Two drastically different books on the same subject today. Who knew it was possible to make Vikings utterly BORING?!
I waited so long to finally get this, and it ended up taking me aaaaages to get through. I skimmed a lot. The author is supremely knowledgeable about the subject matter but the book is bone-dry. And that is coming from someone who reads non-fiction almost exclusively. I just could not get into this one, no matter how hard I tried - which is kind of ridiculous when you think about it, because the Vikings are not a boring subject matter at all. Yet, here we are. It did not help that the print was incredibly tiny. Normally that doesn't bother me, but if I am already borderline about picking it up once my boredom has set in, print size becomes an issue.
Ferguson can not be entirely to blame, I suppose, though it is his writing style that nearly had me asleep. A major issue with this kind of history is the lack of written records. The author even addresses this issue early on. We don't have contemporary sources because there are very few, if any, that could be called conclusive. That is why we have non fiction texts today that focus on what we can learn from other records, such as those who were conquered by these warriors. But, as we know, those sources themselves are biased against their enemy. Basically, this book is a snooze-fest and that makes me sad. Definitely NOT a starting point if you know nothing about the Vikings, their history, and/or their impact on the world.
At least the cover is pretty.
Despite having a more ridiculous cover, this book covers the topic in a far more engaging way. I am really just chalking this up to be the varying of writing styles. Maybe. My opinion might change in another thirty minutes, who knows.
Either way, this book was better and I read it much more quickly because I wanted to keep reading. That doesn't mean it is prize-worthy, but it is certainly attention-worthy.
What this book does rather well, as compared with the previous one above, is that it works WITH the material available, dealing in the provable and concrete. Though the Vikings are long gone, they left a lasting legacy that survives to this very day, all around us. The reach of the Vikings spanned half the globe and it shows. All the usual gang is here, Ragnar, Ivar, and Erik. But we also meet Vlad, Olga, and a cast of others who each contributed to this legacy. It is a given that we also hear quite a bit about my boy Alfred the Great, and his efforts to hold the Vikings back and retain/build up his kingdom.
Given the lack of primary sources, I appreciated how well the author used what we do have, both from the conquered and the conquerors. The book is told in chronological order, but then breaks down further by region. We see the mighty warriors as clusters of men in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, and watch them spread out far and wide, testing the waters of Ireland, England, Spain, Iceland, Greenland, and finally North America to the west. But they went east as well, and from those journeys we get the Rus, the Balkans, Ukraine, and so many places in between. These warriors also travelled to the Middle East, leaving their mark there as well.
When one considers the lasting impact of the Vikings on our world today (such as days of the week named for their Gods, and my fave football team, to name a very very few - you might be surprised if you do a search to find out just how many of our words today come from the Vikings), it is easy to forget how short their era of exploration, raiding, and pillaging actually was. Less than 300 years, to be exact - from that fateful arrival at Lindisfarne in 793, to the felling of my fave berserker, Harald Hardrada, at Stamford Bridge in 1066.
Speaking of the last Viking warrior, I appreciated the attention given to Harald Hardrada. Though I am firmly on the side of the Anglo-Saxons in all matters of 1066 (don't even get me started on William the Bastard, though I recognize he was necessary in order for the rest of history to play out as it did), there is a special place in my heart for this guy. What a life he lived, and how lucky we are to even know anything about it. Before venturing on his ill-fated voyage with King Harold's seriously crazy brother Tostig, Hardrada spent much of his life journeying in the opposite direction. He spent several years in the east and found himself as a commander of the Varangian Guard, mercenaries of the Byzantine Empire. This was an elite group and it was a privilege to become a guardsman. The men in this infantry unit enjoyed great wealth as a result. Given his history, it makes his death at Stanford all the more surprising - his men were simply not prepared for what the other Harold was bringing to the battle.