Viking Stylings

Posted on December 12th, 2011 in games, interviews

Leif Johnson interviewed me recently for an article over at The Escapist about the use of Viking culture in Skyrim, and indeed the relative underuse of Viking themes in computer games.  Well worth a look for those many of you who’ve been playing it over the last few weeks.  I thought I might as well reproduce the whole interview here since, you know, otherwise my precious words will only go to waste.  That would be unforgivable.

Do you think readers (or players, for that matter) respond well to Viking elements in traditional fantasy literature?

I suppose I’d say that readers or players respond well to any elements that are vivid, coherent, and well thought through.  But Norse and Anglo-Saxon elements have been firm favourites in epic fantasy for a long time.  Obviously those myths were a big part of Tolkien’s inspiration, and through Tolkien have become common throughout the genre.  I suppose one thing that’s interesting lately is that a lot of the savagery, sex, treachery and moral ambiguity that is so much a hallmark of genuine Norse myth (and a lot of other myth, for that matter), and that Tolkien tended to minimise in his work, is leaching more and more back into mainstream fantasy.

So you’re playing Skyrim–what do you think of it, especially in comparison to similarly themed video games? And why? 

So far I think it’s magnificent, I must say, and the setting is a big, big part of that.  I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Elder Scrolls games.  On the one hand there’s no bigger, more free-form and more immersive fantasy roleplaying experience out there.  On the other hand the gameplay can be a little hokey and in the past I’ve found the worldbuilding can be an incoherent mass of fantasy clichés.  Having a much narrower theme with Skyrim seems to have allowed for a much more convincing and atmospheric setting, and that percolates through to every part of the experience.  Compare the blandness of the Fighter’s Guild in Oblivion – they’re a bunch of fighters who meet in various non-descript fantasy buildings – with the Companions in Skyrim, who seem to have a whole ethos and personality and live in an upended longship.  The more scripted central plots – dragon attacks and so on – also seem to have become a lot more impressive this time around, and there’s a lot less repetition of bland, identikit dungeons filled with a random creature chosen to match your level requirements.

Do you think Viking elements (such as ambiance, characters, and even mythology) add anything special to traditional fantasy literature and settings? Or do they lack that same, hmm, magic?

There’s certainly something about the Viking mindset – the intense manliness and violence, the obsession with honour and disregard for death – that lends itself to heroic storylines, and indeed when that way of thinking is convincingly laid out it can seem far more alien than many fantasy stories do.  As with any other story element, though, it’s all in how you use it, picking out those details and working them into a greater whole that seems vivid and arresting.  You can have a tedious, obvious, clichéd Viking setting, all horned helmets, battleaxes and songs about mead, or you can have one that looks for something a bit more alien, unusual, and inspiring.  I’d say that in the past the Elder scrolls tended towards the obvious with their fantasy settings, but Skyrim is a mighty stride in the right direction.

Do you think that Skyrim’s success will start a string of Viking-inspired novels and games? Why or why not? And will this be a good or bad thing for the fantasy genre?

Well there’s always been a strong current of Viking inspired novels, both historical fiction (like Robert Low’s the Whale Road), fiction that mixes historical and fantasy (like MD Lachlan’s Wolfsangel), and out-and-out fantasy in invented worlds.  And Skyrim is far from the first fantasy roleplaying game to tackle the area.  I fondly remember the hugely flawed but very atmospheric Gothic 3, though it had nothing like the detail and grandeur of Skyrim.  Probably there’ll be some extra interest in the area, in the way that anything successful encourages imitation, but what I applaud about Skyrim isn’t so much that it uses Viking influences, as that it uses them with care and imagination.

Ever consider working elements of Viking lore more heavily into your work? Why or why not? (I know Logen and the Northmen have a strong Viking/Anglo-Saxon feel about them, so feel free to elaborate on that.)

Well one of the cultures in my work takes some of its cues from Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture, a sort of strange combination of Norse fatalism and Yorkshire common sense with a big emphasis on warring, feasting, death and honour.  But I don’t know that I’d ever want to go more self-consciously Viking.  I tend to be more interested in the mindset than the scenery…

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  1. Overall the Viking history and mythology has been greatly underestimated.There’s always been a trend to discard the Viking hisory as “merciless raiders whose only concern was to pillage,loot and live their lives bathed in the blood of their enemies”.
    A very interesting view on the above can be seen in M.Cricthon’s “Eaters of the Dead”,which in essence is a view of medieval North through the eyes of an Arab.

    My second thought is that Viking mythology does appeal more to most anglo-saxon writers (or at least,individuals that received anglo-saxon education) much in the way Greek mythology would appeal more to greek-educated people or Japanese mythology would appeal more to japanese-educated people.

    That being said I’d pick the pure D&D delight of Neverwinter Nights (either I or II) over any Oblivion or Skyrim!

  2. Great interview. I got the sense from your responses that you’ve worked through your fair share of viking history and mythology. Any recommendations for the hobby historian/worldbuilder?

    (On that note, I know that I personally would enjoy a full blog post with some recommendations of historical source material that you’ve drawn inspiration from over the course of writing your books. Just finished the Crusades, by Thomas Asbridge, and I’m itching to find some more well-written history reading. Not sure if that’s something else others would enjoy, or that you would be interested in writing, but a man can dream right?)

  3. Interesting stuff (and I didn’t know you were also from Yorkshire). Did you know Yorkshire lads still use some Viking slang?

    I’m not from an especially broad Yorkshire part of the county, but in the playground we used to use the word ‘lekking’ (aka ‘laking’) which is derived from the Viking word to play. It’s also why there are names like Batley, Morley, Ilkley etc (ley means farm, and I think that is Viking-derived). And, of course, Eoferwic became Jorvik, which became York.

    I’ve slightly used Vikings as an inspiration for one of the races in something I’m writing. Not so much drinking horns and mead as the Godi (which were a surprising thing to read of in Njal’s Saga) and raiding.

  4. Liam,
    Far from an expert. I’d actually recommend a novel, Robert Low’s the Whale Road, for more on the viking mindset. I will probably do a blog about history books at some point, then. In the meantime if you’re after some quick and entertaining history, try Tom Holland’s Rubicon, John Julius Norwich’s Short History of Byzantium, CV Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War, David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. Scattergun on the subject matter but all thoroughly well written, I’d say.

    Iangr,
    I’d have to rate Baldur’s Gate way above Neverwinter Nights, methinks.

    Thaddeus,
    How very dare you, sir? I am from Lancashire.

  5. Haha. My apologies, when I read “…Yorkshire common sense…” I made an inaccurate assumption, clearly at odds with the facts of the matter (ie you being from the dark side of the Pennines).

  6. Joe,

    I love how I’ve bumped into you, albeit unknowingly, on an Iron Maiden DVD cover many years ago. I later read your books. And now I live in the same town as The Escapist’s Headquarters is located at.

    You get Mr. Abercrombie.

  7. You get around Mr. Abercrombie.*

  8. Need time to play a bit of Skyrim. Sounds great, I had the same problems with Morrowwind and did not make a try for Oblivion cause the big open world felt empty at all.

    Can’t wait to see how they used the “vicing” theme especially in the art of the nordic culture. Had to do a celtic art course at univerrity and was lost for weeks in all kind of books about nordic/vicing/celtic stuff.

  9. On a lighter note,I just found out about the “Took an arrow in the knee” Internet meme…LOL

    http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-took-an-arrow-in-the-knee

  10. Hi Joe,

    Did you get a chance to see Yahtzee’s review of Skyrim on the Escapist magazine website? Do his observations of the game match your own or are they completely different?

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation

  11. I don’t know about Vikings, specifically, but I like barbarian themed things just because it represents the collapse of stagnant social orders. Robert Wright wrote in his book “Non-Zero” that barbarians were ultimately the people brought working memes to other cultures across Europe and Asia becasue they were frequently mobile and had to take with them the things they plundered that made the most sense to be able to transport. In many cases, those were IDEAS. Ideas weren’t cumbersome. They increased the skill base of cultures which ultimately laid the foundations for many civilized societies, even ones they pillaged!

    Unrelated to my little rant, I follow a Norse Mythology blog – my favorite recent entry was about Thor: http://www.norsemyth.org/2011/09/blond-thor-stan-lee-wasnt-wrong.html

    Enjoy!

  12. ‘The Whale Road’ is possibly the best historical fiction book on Vikings out there. Its also quite believable and does not paint the Vikings as superhuman in any way, I don’t want to ruin anything but I really would not want to be a member of the oathsworn.

    I think the problem with Norse culture and mythology being used in film and games nowadays is that too much emphasis is put on the warrior aspect of the culture. Which then leads to the inevitable mead drinking, wench pinching, meat chomping Vikings that we see in Hollywood. No one has ever really explored Norse culture. Hence why there are not really any good films about Vikings. I’d say the best so far was Valhalla Rising, that captured an essence of the Viking mind set, but to the uninitiated it was honestly just a bleak mess (or so my friends have told me).

    The thing I enjoy most about old Norse culture is this grim acceptance. This idea that your fate has already been foretold by the Norns and really there is no point in worrying about it, just make sure you a good and productive life. There is a quote in the Havamal (i think thats how its spelt) that reads men die, cattle die, but fare won fame never dies. This at its root I believe is central to the Viking mindset, they were a people who lived fast and died young and tried to make every day count. Why this concept has not been explored is beyond me, especially as I believe its quite relevant to today’s society where almost every one is grasping for their fifteen minutes. Any way that’s just my thoughts.

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