Myths, Legends & Folklore
A Viking warrior knows no fear – or does he?
By Sarah Dahl
Vikings had and have a reputation of being fearless warriors. Enemy troops reported that Vikings had the advantage of not being fazed by the carnage; and that they sought an honourable death above all, to gain a good reputation. We know their mindset and religion was focused on the idea to die honourably and go to Odin’s dining table (Valhalla) rather than saving their lives and being cowards. Which is what made them so feared and effective, even when they appeared in small numbers: Where other troops would hold on to their life and rather withdraw than be eliminated, the Viking warriors often or at least more willingly kept charging until death (and therefore the lovely Valkyries collected them).
So this is how the Vikings are depicted in fiction and history books: the myth of the fearless warrior. But in my research and writing I always want to look behind the hard, historical facts, and at the human behind the myth. Could these men really have been that fearless? Weren’t they just human?
In historical fiction I often can’t find the notion that the warriors lining up to battle were human, more than moving formations and blood-spilling servants.
No matter how well-trained they were and how fearless they seemed to appear – they surely knew the cold sweat and stuttering heart right before the enemy charged in. And that urge to just run.
Luckily, Hjardar/Vike in their brilliant “Vikings at War” describe the long period leading up to a battle as surely also leading to fried nerves. To strengthen morale, they performed rituals and listened to their chieftain’s address; and they pumped up egos with chants, duels, shouting of abuse, and other displays of strength. Once the lines were ready to clash, Hjardar/Vike describe, the men “would have been stricken with nervousness … mumble protective incantations and prayers, checked their weapons one last time, checked that their neighbours were as focused as they were.” The beating of shields and war cries heightened the tension to bursting point. They add, “Many nervous bowels were emptied in the few minutes before hell broke loose.” See that? A Viking warrior shitting himself? Now that is new.
I absolutely love this description - because it gives the cold, historical facts of what it meant to fight a battle a very understandable, human depth.
In my writing, I always try to be honest to human emotions. So in my Tales of Freya featuring the warrior couple Nyssa and Aldaith (“The Current”, “Bonds”, “Battles”), I show their brave warrior mindset AND the range of emotions. They are trained and focused, they know what they let themselves into and are prepared to die and go to Valhalla (not exactly a bad place to end up in). So this is what they put in the forefront of their minds, to counter fear and stay focused.
But once they fall for each other, once they are in love, they encounter an entirely new problem: Fear. While managing to push back the well-known fear of dying with the usual means of comradeship, routine preparations, chants, and fighting moves, something else keeps creeping in and distracting them: Fear - for the other.
They suddenly know what it means to panic. They suddenly are scared to lose the one they love most. They are distracted, making themselves vulnerable at the worst imaginable time. Aldaith is very much upset and confused by this new finding – that he fears for Nyssa’s life, not his own.
They still don’t fear death as such, they are still exceptional fighters – but suddenly they are afraid to be left behind on this earth, to have to face life alone, to have to watch the lover die. Surely, Aldaith’s chieftain wouldn’t have liked his new confusion. It is exactly why chieftains preferred unmarried men as their soldiers, those who weren’t too attached and missed at home. Often they were away for years; families had to cope without them – and sometimes never learned if their sons or husbands lived or had died. Too much attachment can become a very humane problem.
In my Tales, I bring this issue TO the warriors. They have no attachments at home, but love finds them on the battlefield. My couple train and duel together, they fight, sleep, and love shoulder to shoulder. And this then becomes their weakness.
Before the carnage (in “Battles”), Aldaith has this feeling of foreboding. He’s nervous, looks out for Nyssa. He is distracted during the frenzy to an extent that almost gets him killed, and when he can’t see his lover anymore, he almost loses his mind, risking his life in a move that endangers his comrades. I totally see why his chieftain wouldn’t be happy about this: a distracting love affair in his ranks.
In “Bonds” and “Battles” I show the new, unforeseen dilemma of love: the warriors’ emotions get in their way, making them question what they knew and felt all their fighting lives. Aldaith and Nyssa might still be fearless and ready to die, but not for their lover to die and leave them behind. The pain that comes with that is unbearable.
So their last battle turns out to be the ultimate test – of their skills, focus, and bond. And in the end, they face an impossible decision. Not because of war, but because of the love they found.
Additional source: Vikings at War, Kim Hjardar/Vegard Vike
Tales of Freya
A collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking Age
by Sarah Dahl
In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.
In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.
Pick up your copy of
Tales of Freya
Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She was an editor in several German publishing houses and managed a translation agency. The magic of writing re-entered her life at UCD Dublin, where she sat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office every day, while working on the ‘Dictionary of Hiberno-English’. Tolkien’s spirit must have done something to her creative muscles – it sure wasn’t the bland view from his office. She became a full-time writer soon after and still works as an editor, translates, and coaches new authors. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts.
Connect with Sarah: Website • Newsletter • Facebook • Twitter • Instagram • Goodreads.
Thank you Mary Anne!ReplyDelete
I enjoyed this article, Sarah. Most accounts paint the Vikings as being totally fearless, so it's good to see this exploration of the real emotions of warriors going into battle.ReplyDelete
Thank you! Yes, that's exactly my motivation, and the hard facts in books or museums don't convey the reality of war, even for men with such a strong mindset.Delete
The article is excelent. I love the Vikings, their legends and threir Mythology. I have been to Scandinavia a couple of times, because of my work (I am a Mathematician). I visired all sites I could and it all made me love more the Vikings and th so civlized Scandinavians they became. I admire them, and I have a very good friend in Denmark. I am very interest in Sarah Dahl´ s work and I will get my hands on it as soon as I can. Congratulations Sarah, Best, Rafael.Delete
You have certainly raised some interesting points. They were bound to feel fear, how could they not? But they are always perceived as these almost out of control, berserker type warriors who had no regard for their own life — of course, they longed for a glorious death so they could go to Valhalla, but I am sure, like their enemies, they didn't particularly want to die.ReplyDelete
exactly that. Even the strongest mindset can't prevent raw fear and all that, it's just biology? Most likely some warriors were better than others at fearlessness - and I imagine all those poor farmers being called in by the chieftain to help would have been quite lost and fearful on the battlefield compared to their professional comrades...Delete
Similarities with going to Paradise for Muslims. I'm sure they were scared, deep down. They wouldn't be human if they were not.ReplyDelete
Yes, totally agree, Jen. It's just inhumane to think they were war machines, strong mind or not. Every man will have been different. Some experienced, some not, some professionals, some farmers. And even among the pros there will have been differences in how they handled the intense stress.Delete