Viking Week

It’s been a good week for Norse and Viking stuff. I’ve been to see Thor, which was certainly more Marvel comic than Norse myth, but that was predictable. Then, after a very long wait, British television finally gave us a programme on the Icelandic sagas – what took them so long? It was part of a Scandinavian week on BBC 4, involving a very mixed bag of  Jar City, Night Shift, bits of Noggin the Nog, and various other things I didn’t see. For those not in the know, Noggin the Nog (that’s a picture of him) is a classic series of very simple animated films for children, in which the characters are loosely based on the Lewis chess-pieces, and the stories set in the ‘Northlands’. Jar City is a film made some years ago of Arnaldur Indriðason’s detective novel Mýrin, and Night Shift is a wonderfully wacky and pretty surreal Icelandic sitcom set in a petrol station (highly recommended).

But back to the sagas. It’s great to have a TV programme on sagas, after many many years of waiting, and I am happy to admit that there were several things I liked about The Viking Sagas. The landscapes were great, and beautifully photographed. My esteemed colleague Heather O’Donoghue was earnestly enthusiastic about the literature. I liked the fact that saga-extracts were read out in Modern Icelandic. I also thought it was a good idea to focus on just one saga (Laxdœla saga): that allowed more depth than would otherwise have been possible. But the trouble with watching a programme on a subject about which you are knowledgeable is that it’s hard to resist the urge to nitpick… Sorry guys, here goes.

I could just about put up with the title, and the fact that the programme had to end with Tolkien (who may have been influenced by Norse myth, but not so much by the sagas set in Iceland). However I do think neither is worthy of BBC4, though they might have been OK on BBC3. I wasn’t impressed by Dr Janina Ramirez (not clear what she is a ‘Dr’ of) in any way, and was especially irritated by her overdone reaction shots. I didn’t like the various errors (the statement that the genetic results showing a large proportion of Icelanders descended from females from the British Isles came from the DNA analysis of old bones, the related misleading statement that ‘Aud the Deepminded’ was ‘British’, the strong implication that the days of the week in modern English are derived from the Norse gods, and the strong implication that modern-day practitioners of the Ásatrú are somehow ‘remnants’  of the old pre-Christian belief (rather than a modern reinvention). In general there was a bit too much mythology for a programme supposed to be about the sagas and their landscape. And I was completely mystified by the many hanging and revolving names and books… All in all, a curate’s egg of a programme which I couldn’t help feeling was not fully worthy of BBC4.

The days of the week also cropped up briefly in Thor, in the library scene, and continue to be peddled as evidence for Norse influence on English by the uninformed. The days of the week are complicated and not simply to be reduced in this way, nor do they necessarily all derive from a common Germanic pre-Christian origin. And a programme about Iceland should at the very least mention the fact that Icelandic doesn’t have theophoric days of the week… Those who would like to know more are encouraged to read Philip A. Shaw’s ‘The Origins of the Theophoric Week in the Germanic Languages’, Early Medieval Europe, 15 (2007), 386-401.

Well, dear reader, forgive me my rant. In the end, though, I feel positive about it all – it’s great that there is so much interest.

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