#982 Notable Viking networks
Gone Viking: A Travel Saga
by Bill Arnott
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2020
$25.00 / 9781771604475
Reviewed by Howard Macdonald Stewart
Most of the stories in Bill Arnott’s Gone Viking describe travel around Britain and the North Atlantic world. A unifying theme is the imprint left on many of these places by those Scandinavian navigators and traders, colonists and governors, and raiders and pillagers who we call Vikings. One chapter even reaches the Mediterranean, as the Vikings did, and another takes us to Haida Gwaii and Hawaii. I found these Pacific accounts unnecessary, their connections with Vikings tenuous and contrived. The book is on firmer ground most of the time, as Arnott and his partner wander around the British coastline, the Scottish Highlands, Scandinavia, Greenland, Newfoundland – and Iceland a couple of times, the best part of the book.
I could relate to many of Arnott’s stories. Unlike my old friend MacKay, with her almost white wolf eyes and family ties to Scotland’s far northern shore, I’m too brown eyed and brown haired (or used to be) to claim Viking heritage. But many of these stories are set in places my people came from in Britain or Ireland. So they illuminated my ancestors’ diverse experiences with the hairy Scandinavians who came ashore near them more than a thousand years ago. In the process, Arnott helps readers understand the bad press that Vikings have had to live down. Sacking churches and murdering their owners will do that. The aggrieved clergy seldom had much good to say about the towering visitors after that. And these holy men and women were usually the only ones around who could write, so it was their Viking stories that prevailed, in English at least. But imagine if the mainstream histories of Spanish or British adventures in the Americas, for example, were written not by their own scribes but by Inca or Cherokee scholars instead. Their accounts would read a lot like our traditional depictions of Vikings.
Yet, as Gone Viking helps us see in place after place, like the Spaniards and the British, Vikings were also exceptional navigators, astute traders, and prolific settlers. Like the Mongols, who’ve been similarly maligned in our popular culture as little more than bloodthirsty ravagers, the Vikings did much to link diverse peoples and cultures. Far corners of Europe and the Atlantic world, from Constantinople to Reykyavik, Kiev to Newfoundland, were tied together for a while, in one way or another, by their shared experiences with early Scandinavians.
Like William Dalrymple’s revelations about the many ways the ancient Levant is tied to today’s eastern Mediterranean via Byzantine culture, Arnott helps us see links between old European ways and modern ones via the Viking “pagans.” The sharp divide that we often draw between them and us is really far more blurred and nuanced than we make out, with much old Norse mead rebottled and rebranded as new Christian wine. The Vikings left behind much that is part of our everyday lives, starting with Tiw’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day and Frey’s day.
And then there is Iceland. Early Icelandic settlers may have obliged many Celtic womenfolk to accompany them on their journey west, but the culture they spawned in that distant outpost wasn’t a British style hybrid. It was, and still is, unequivocally and fiercely Norse. I liked the stories about Iceland the best because this place and its people, its quirky food and stark geography are so genuinely exotic and often downright weird. I hope Iceland’s new found popularity on the tourist circuit (pre-Covid at least) won’t erode its unique personality.
I’ve come to realize that much travel writing is best consumed in modest sized bites. I made the mistake of trying to read Bill Arnott’s book too quickly, in big chunks. As usual, my review was overdue. But reading this book too fast made me feel like one of those grey tourists on package tours: rushed, herded, and harassed, overstimulated but unsatisfied, often needing to pee. This book, like much travel, is far more enjoyable when it can be stretched out over a longer period. Don’t try to binge-read Gone Viking. Taken slowly, maybe one chapter a day, it’s a series of delightful little feasts.
Howard Macdonald Stewart is author of Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia (Harbour Publishing, 2017). An historical geographer and semi-retired international consultant whose work has taken him to more than seventy countries since the 1970s, Howard has reviewed books for The Ormsby Review and BC Studies. His memoir of a youthful bicycle trip down the Danube with the war hero and debonair cyclist Cornelius Burke, “Bumbling down the Danube,” was published in The Ormsby Review in 2016, and his memoir, “The Year of the Bicycle: 1973,” followed in 202o. He has also written a popular Remembrance Day piece, “Why the Red Poppies Matter,” as well as many book reviews, most recently of books by Seth Klein, Liliane Leila Juma, Kate Harris, Deni Ellis Béchard, Meaghan Marie Hackinen, Joy Davis, and Brian McDaniel. Howard Stewart is now writing an insider’s view of his four decades on the road that followed his perambulations of 1973, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker. He has lived on Denman Island, off and on, for more than thirty years.
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