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The Viking Renaissance

Leif Johnson | 12 Dec 2011 12:00
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Few historical settings seem so appropriate for videogames as Viking-age Scandinavia. Even if you disregard its grim mythology and sagas stuffed with stoic comitati, it's hard to dismiss the entertainment potential offered by a society that produced kings with names like Eric Bloodaxe. And yet, until Skyrim, videogame developers have done exactly that for the most part. That's not to say that videogames are strangers to elements of Norse mythology (consider, for instance, the wolf Sif in Dark Souls or the Jormungand Brood of StarCraft), but extensive Viking settings and storylines in videogames are less common than air conditioners in Iceland.

For a time, it seemed like Viking lore would never fully recover from the Nazi stain.

It's not immediately clear why. Even now, it's evident that Skyrim's expansive Viking-styled settings and ambience partly account for the game's wild popularity. While its Nordic trappings aren't a far cry from the overused fantasy tropes of crenellated castles, knights, and forests (which, in fact, filled Oblivion, Skyrim's predecessor), they do feel just foreign enough to imbue the game with a novel aura. That unfamiliarity in itself is surprising, considering how long Viking lore has been around, but there may be historical reasons for its absence from cultural consciousness.

According to Martin Arnold, a professor of Scandinavian Literature at England's University of Hull, a spirit of "popular enthusiasm for a particularly Germanic northern tradition bloomed at the beginning of the Romantic era," especially in response to James Macpherson's wildly celebrated Celtic "Ossian" cycle and the rediscovery of treasures such as the epic poem Beowulf. At its height, this interest grew to include the German composer Richard Wagner's famed Ring Cycle, which drew much of its inspiration from Old Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas.

"The problem is that Wagner's Ring Cycle and related works were absorbed into all kinds of dangerous ideas about white supremicism," Arnold says. "In time, these assertions of cultural identity gradually took on a more belligerent form that was especially evident in Germany." Indeed, by the time World War II erupted, key members of the Nazi high command such as Heinrich Himmler were established authorities in the field, and Viking runes were used to represent the Schutzstaffel (SS). "This was a catastrophe for Nordic mythology," Arnold said. And for a time, it seemed like Viking lore would never fully recover from the Nazi stain.

But redemption came from an unlikely place. "In a curious way," Arnold said, "it was the United States that really started to rescue Nordic and Viking themes by debunking the high culture stuff with releases such as Bugs Bunny cartoons that ridiculed the Wagnerian themes." Not much later, the superhero Thor made his first appearance in Marvel comic books, and comic strips such as Hagar the Horrible did away with many of the weighty themes that had come to define the mythology. And, of course, no single person had a greater impact on the development of contemporary fantasy quite like J.R.R. Tolkien. While Tolkien only tangentially incorporated Vikings into his work -- even his Rohirrim were more Anglo-Saxon than Viking -- he showed that similar fantasy settings could still exist without all the baggage from the Third Reich.

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