Arthur Herman explores Scandinavian culture, history, and its worldwide effects in The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World. As the publisher puts it, he “melds a compelling historical narrative with cutting-edge archaeological and DNA research to trace the epic story of this remarkable and diverse people.” For me, the book seemed about 80% history with repeated detailed battle descriptions. The archaeological and DNA aspects are just a minor part of the whole. Herman also reviews the accomplishments of multiple Scandinavians and Americans of Scandinavian ancestry.
Herman covers broad territory here, in terms of both content and location. He details Viking leaders through the centuries, both successful and failed. There’s also a small amount about Viking women, both leaders and not. But fundamentally, this book is about the exploits of Scandinavian men from early days until the present. It’s a lot to cram into just under 500 pages.
Of course, Herman includes the wide-ranging efforts of Viking warriors as they ventured into Europe and even into Asia. It’s clear that these efforts affected nearly every culture reachable by the longships. And, as someone with considerable Norwegian DNA, it interests me to see how men from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and territories now known as Finland left their DNA in practically every place my ancestors lived.
Herman also discusses the impact of more modern men from the traditional Viking countries. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these men battled against evil forces. Except when they were the bad guys. They were captains of industry and philanthropists. Also, they were regular guys working hard to make their small farms successful. On the other hand, they created explosives and fed the Nazis ideas about Scandinavian / Aryan perfection myths.
Each Scandinavian country responded to the times with their own style of changes. Their politics and economics have their roots in what Herman calls “the Viking Heart.” This idea crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America in the early 1800s, creating cities whose population was majority Scandinavian. And Herman explores it all, in large or small part.
The best part of this book is its diverse subject matter. Unfortunately, that’s also the worst part. Herman literally covers thousands of years of history. That means some sections just aren’t long enough. On the other hand, Herman is immensely excited by the strategy behind every single Viking battle. I confess to skimming these sections.
Viking book always cover the battles. Frankly, it’s just a part of the culture. But I was hoping for more depth on other meaningful topics like religion, culture, and lifestyle. Herman does address all of those, but they make up a smaller, somewhat rushed, percentage of the book.
Yet, every significant period is covered. So, for example, Herman addresses religion through the years. He talks about Old Norse gods and religious practices in places like Upsalla. And he discusses the Scandinavian relationship with both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Yet, there’s not enough depth on any of these topics, which frustrated me. And the same thing happens with discussions of art and literature.
In Herman’s previous books, he clearly focused on histories about war. I just didn’t look closely enough before agreeing to read and review this book. That’s on me, not him. Still, it makes me hungry to pair this book with a relisten to Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Or to pull a couple of unread books off my shelf about Norwegian American women. Stay tuned!
Many thanks to NetGalley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Mariner Books, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review. Publication date: 3 August 2021
Images in the photo above were taken at a Viking exhibit at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA. They are of a recreation of the famous Jelling Stone, which dates from the time of King Harald Bluetooth.