Featured Image: (Adobe Stock Photo).
Neil Price, The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. (London: Penguin Random House, 2020). E-ISBN: 978-0-241-28399-8.
Ask and Embla are the first humans in Norse mythology. The Poetic Edda relates how Odin and his brothers Vili and Vé bring them to life. In the prologue of The Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price gives his retelling of their story. It is a scene worthy of a good novel rather than a popular science book. So, is this the prelude to a generic history like so many others, or will it give this book a place in the hall of fame alongside Else Roesdahl’s The Vikings?
Neil Price is the Chair of Archaeology at Uppsala University and spent much of his academic career studying and publishing about the Vikings. His latest book aims at a broad audience, though, not just scholars. We are not bothered with footnotes or endnotes. The references at the end are useful if you wish to read more about a topic. That smooth, uninterrupted read is a strength of the book.
What also helps, is what the author does with the general idea about Vikings we all learn at school, on television or in books. He removes all frills of that concept and puts the Vikings in a very human, very real and to a degree, relatable light. And the modern reader sees how the Vikings, too, were trying to conform to society (or not), how their societies were struggling with change, and new ideas. And just when you feel comfortable, with the skill of a novelist, Price takes you on a sweeping history lesson.
New Beginnings, Various Endings
The Vikings slowly emerge from the mists of the Vendel period. This is not a time of fairytales, but rather the stuff that makes mythology. And it turns out the Salme boat burials (700-750) are just as important for the early beginnings of the Vikings, as the Lindisfarne raid of 793. We learn what motivates the Vikings to venture out of Scandinavia and the Baltic to the familiar routes to the East, West and South. In short, we learn everything and anything that explains the Viking expansion, their impact on other societies and how they create new societies in Iceland and Greenland. Up until that point when their footprint on the world around them starts to diminish until it disappears over time, when the Vikings slowly retreat into the fiery haze, leaving a very different world behind.
This tale never runs away from the author. It runs smoothly and naturally from topic to topic. Meanwhile, it incorporates all up to date scholarly views, that of the woman in the Birka warrior grave included. It makes for one of the most accessible and readable books on Viking history at the moment. And it helps that the overall story has an oral quality to it. As if Neil Price is standing in a large auditorium, or on a theatre stage – sharing his vast knowledge with the audience, telling us about the Vikings:
They changed their world, but they also allowed themselves to be altered, in turn(Page 436)
Verdict: highly readable, state-of-the-art overview