June 16, 2019


REVIEW: Laughing Shall I Die By Tom Shippey (Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, June 16, 2019, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Here are two take-aways from Tom Shippey's latest book: One, "Viking" was a job description, not a racial or ethnic designation; and two, a quality demanded of those Vikings was a finely honed, mordant sense of humor that perhaps we modern nine-to-five cubicle-dwellers would find difficult to understand.

That sense of humor includes composing, on the spot, even as the composer is being bitten to death by a pit-full of adders, a beautiful song that will be handed down through the ages. The song concludes with the line, "Laughing shall I die," primarily because the dying Viking knows his sons are coming to wreak vengeance on the king who put him in the pit and will subject said king to a longer, slower, far grislier demise.

It's pretty funny, apparently, if you're a Viking.

For the rest of us, it's funny because the death song's composer is named Ragnar Hairy-breeches, and one of his avenging sons is named Ivar the Boneless. It turns out, though, that while Ragnar may be mostly the stuff of myth and legend, Ivar is not only an historical figure, he is a significant one.

As for the "Boneless" part, no one is quite sure of the nickname's origin, but one theory is that he was being compared to a serpent -- which to the Vikings meant a dragon -- so it's actually a compliment.

The author's stated purpose in this book is to explore what gave Vikings their edge, when they had fewer people and resources than most of the populations they came up against, as they swept across Britain and mainland Europe into Russia and the Middle East over a distinct 300-year period. He argues that their edge was "the Viking mindset. To put it bluntly, it's a kind of death cult." Their disdain of death made them hard to beat on and off the field of battle.

Posted by at June 16, 2019 9:26 AM


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