It may seem incongruous that a man with both a Gaelic name and a German one would write a book about the Viking “heart,” but Arthur – the Gaelic name – and Herman – the German – has done just that. Arthur Herman’s book is “The Viking Heart” published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Herman expands the role of the Vikings in history, and he amends their reputation. They were not just marauders, he asserts, but discoverers, founders and sometimes protectors – but always and almost everywhere, they were traders, settlers and more. Herman traces their influence on western civilization through cultural superstars like J.R.R. Tolkien and Richard Wagner.
Herman’s heritage proves the settlement theory. His roots in the United States date from a Norwegian forbearer and include Oscar Sorlie, a familiar name in this part of the world. The first with that name arrived in North America before the Civil War. By the turn of the 20 century, his great-great grandson writes, “The Sorlies were comfortable and wealthy North Dakota gentry – with the largest farm, it was rumored, in the Red River Valley.” The farm, and other Sorlie-owned enterprises, was in Traill County, North Dakota.
The bridge over the Red River in downtown Grand Forks bears the name Sorlie, but it honors businessman and former North Dakota Gov. Arthur Gustave Sorlie – a Norwegian for sure, but not connected to Herman or the Traill County Sorlies. The Sorlie who became governor was born in Albert Lea, Minn.
Herman does not dismiss the Vikings as plunderers. Nor as conquerors. The latter followed the former. Vikings were crucial in the founding of what became Russia. Their trade routes reached Constantinople, a walled city they failed to overrun. They might have reached Baghdad, though Herman concedes that the evidence is not conclusive.
There is no denying that the Vikings plundered England, but the age of plunder rather quickly gave way to an age of conquest. Well before the time of William the Conqueror, Scandinavians had established themselves in England. Fully half the country fell within what was called “the Danelaw” and when he reconquered the country, the Anglo-Saxon Alfred the Great chose to leave the settlements pretty much alone. Within a century, his descendants had married into the Viking nobility, bringing Canute to the throne and setting up England up for yet another Scandinavian conquest, this one led by William of Normandy, a descendant of Rollo the Viking, who established Scandinavian settlements in France. The Great Northern Railroad put a statue of Rollo in front of its depot in downtown Fargo.
Nor was that the end of Norman conquests. Other descendants of Rollo the Viking established themselves in Sicily and southern Italy, and played a role in the Crusader states in the Middle East – a history that plagues us still.
Herman is at pains to point out that the Vikings included many different people, primarily the Norwegians, Swedes and – in the case of the invaders of England – the Danes. He follows modern historical convention and includes the Finns, though they don’t share the same linguistic heritage.
But there really is no pure Viking strain, he argues, because the Scandinavians ranged widely and interbred freely. No Norwegian should be surprised to find unfamiliar DNA in a lab test. The idea of a “pure Viking race” promulgated by white supremacists, is a dangerous myth, he maintains.
Herman is a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, and the author of several earlier books, including “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” and “Gandhi and Churchill,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.
He is especially interested in the Viking settlement in the North Atlantic and North America. This proceeded in steps, with the settlement of the Orkney Islands off the west coast of Scotland, then the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and finally Vinland, an indisputable historic fact, though there’s still disagreement about exactly where that first Viking settlement was located.
Vinland didn’t last. Likewise, a Swedish settlement at the mouth of the Delaware River was soon overwhelmed by English colonists. Still, it marks a Scandinavian presence in North America before the United States was established. “The first sizable wave of immigrants to America from Norway” arrived in 1825, Herman reports.
There can be little doubt about Scandinavian influence on American religious life and civil society. Lutheran colleges dot the Midwest. Two prominent examples bear heroic Viking names: Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn., named for the Swedish king and conqueror, and St. Olaf, named for King Olaf, who converted and became the patron saint of the Norwegians. Scandinavians have filled just about every elective office in both North Dakota and Minnesota.
Herman builds his story with biographies of notable Scandinavians. Examples here: The economist Thorsten Veblen – for whom a town in South Dakota is named – and Knut Rockne, legendary coach of the Fighting Irish of that Roman Catholic institution, the University of Notre Dame, yet another incongruity in the Viking story.
Another example of how entrenched the Viking heritage has become appeared on Sunday morning, Oct. 3, as I worked my way through the New York Times crossword puzzle. The clue for 118 Across, in the bottom row of the puzzle, was “Icelandic work that influenced Tolkien.”
The answer is “Edda,” proving Herman’s cultural case.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.