Monday, May 28, 2018

Book Review - Laughing Shall I Die, by Tom Shippey

Considering his long and illustrious career as a Germanic philologist, Tolkien scholar, and literary critic, Tom Shippey’s latest work feels like the culmination of a number of papers and monographs he’s published over the years on something that might be termed the “heroic imaginary” of medieval Germanic literature. This began with Old English Verse (1972), in which collection of essays “The Argument of Courage: Beowulf and Other Heroic Poetry” best articulated the ideas which would find their final expression in the present volume. But although Laughing Shall I Die spends a chapter focusing on the world of Hygelac and Hrothgar and the fall of the Scylding (or Skjöldung) dynasty, the focus of the book is on the Viking age itself. 

Shippey poses a question at the beginning of the book: what was it that made the Vikings so feared and so effective, despite the fact that they possessed few technological advantages over their main opponents, who were from similarly warlike cultures and shared many similar values? In answering this question, Shippey tries to steer between the “horns on helmets” Romantic-era stereotypes as well as the more recent efforts to rehabilitate “Viking culture” in academic circles. He argues for a Viking ethos (and for Shippey “Viking” is a job-description, not the name of an entire culture) characterized by complete self-control in the face of emotional duress, stoicism in the face of “losing,” and understatement through prose but expression through poetry. 

Although this book engages freely with historical and contemporary scholarly thought on the subject and does not shy away from the occasional linguistic digression, Shippey has done an admirable job of making this book accessible to non-academics. Full of good humor, irony, and enough grisly murders and dynastic struggles to satiate even the modern and enlightened appetite for such things, the only thing you need to enjoy this book is an interest in the people who called themselves Vikings.

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