Children of Ash and Elm – A review

Cover image from Basicbooks.com

Children of Ash and Elm (2020) is a new book published by professor of archaeology at the University of UppsalaNeil Price. The book is new in its approach to telling the story of the Viking Age in the sense that Price is actually narrating an experience for the reader, more so than simply describing the Viking Age. Price uses Nordic mythology as a narrative frame for explaining the complex societies in Scandinavia in the period 750–1050 AD. This is also what the title hints at: the names Ash and Elm are the English translations of Askr and Embla, the first human beings that the gods created according to Old Norse mythology. Whether Askr and Embla actually mean “Ash” and “Elm,” now that’s another story.

A background for this review

In order to give you a proper understanding of my opinions about this book, you should know that I have taught courses on Old Norse mythology and the Viking Age at college level consistently for more than five years. As a specialist in the field and an educator of undergraduate students, I am always searching for the perfect book on the Viking Age that will hit that golden spot right there between being accessible for 2nd and 3rd year American college students, and at the same time teach them the complexities of our knowledge about the Viking Age.

I have for long been a fan of Neil Price’s academic work with pre-Christian Scandinavian burial customs, Scandinavian magic, and his crossovers between archaeology and literature to investigate performance. I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Children of Ash and Elm because I was interested in using it in my classes. The abovementioned golden spot is actually incredibly hard to reach, and for several years now, I have used my own compendium in my Vikings classes: a mix of texts that I have written myself and some photocopies. It is therefore with genuine regret that I am adding my voice to the chorus of less than enthusiastic reviews of Children of Ash and Elm.

What is good about the book?

As always, Neil Price excels in presenting archaeological data in a comprehensive and approachable way. The chapters that display his expertise are excellent. His chapters The Social Network (p. 107–40), The Performance of PowerMeeting the Others, and Dealing with the Dead (p. 180–268) are particularly good! These chapters conclude the first half of the book, which sets the stage for understanding the mentality of those Scandinavians that would eventually end up in records of Viking attacks. 

Heavier on the material culture, Price offers excellent insight into the cultural modalities of Scandinavians in the Viking Age, sprinkled with small everyday things like the image of a pair of mittens with a string attached that would run through the jacket of a child, around its back, to keep them from being lost. Price appropriately combines material and intellectual culture to give us a sense of who the Scandinavians of the Viking Age were.

In the second half of the book, the section called The Viking Phenomenon (p. 271–504), Price goes to town on the historical facts that can be gleaned from chronicles and archaeology. This section is the tightest in terms of methodology. In the beginning of the book, Price explains that he is more interested in telling us why Vikings did what they did, rather than what they did. With a skillful handling of the more easily accessible sources (chronicles), he excels in telling us … what … Vikings did in the Viking Age in that last section of the book. And so, he misses the mark—but in a skillful way.

There are things you can pick at. For instance, the skewed Anglo-Swedish focus and how weak his description of the economic foundation for the Viking Age is: The Channel trade that begins in the 500s and creates a network into the Baltic sea. Price has 5–6 pages dedicated to the subject in the chapter Maritoria and quickly rolls over to the Scandinavian trade ports that develop somewhat later. Meanwhile, he chooses to focus a lot on … Orkney and Shetland … I mean, interesting places and all, but the North Atlantic islands are hardly the most important aspect of Viking Age trade—or the Viking Age in general (despite all the literature from Iceland).

However, the chapter Silver, Slaves, and Silk that largely forgets about the importance of the Channel trade in the 500s, does otherwise do a great job at connecting Viking activities in the east and the west. Price’s insistence on calling the invading Vikings hydrarchies, instead of attaching them to fictional polities that correspond to modern nation states in Scandinavia, is a healthy approach. We need more of that and less “Norway,” “Denmark,” “Iceland,” and “Sweden,” when we describe the Viking Age.

It is also refreshing to see a scholar who so directly tackles the subject of gender, biological sex, and sexuality in the Viking Age, as is the case in the chapter Border Crossings (p. 155–179). This is where Price’s approach shines the brightest, if you ask me: he rightfully kicks what he calls the “caricature of masculinity,” attached to the Viking, in the balls, and deflates the idea of the emancipated and independent Viking woman, who serves as a role model for modern women. These rigid gender stereotypes never seem to have existed in the Viking Age, and Price remarks that it is ironic that “Viking-Age reality should embrace a true fluidity of gender” (p. 155). Good job on that one, although maybe we are playing a little too much into the Zeitgeist?

What does not work in the book?

The one thing that is the least impressive aspect of this book is probably what appeals to most non-scholar readers: the narrative frame that Price adds based in Old Norse mythology. Price is not a textual scholar, and it shows.

Price begins his book by stressing the need for interdisciplinary methodologies and collaborations in order to properly understand the Viking Age. He proceeds to a very broad and loose description of literary sources that are relevant to his study, and then he gives us a quick rundown of conventional ideas about the Viking Age. This happens in the span of fourteen pages (p. 14–28). For all the caution he advises that one treats the literature with, he throws that out of the window once he gets to the chapter The Home of their Shapes(p. 31–62). 

Price uncritically uses the creation myth from Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (1220 AD) to give us a sense of what Scandinavians might have thought their world looked or felt like. This story of a creation of the world from ice and fire is widely known in popular culture, and I am sure many readers will find it appealing, maybe even accurate. Of course, the problem with it—as known by any textual scholar—is that it is in fact one of the parts of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, which has the strongest infusion of medieval Neoplatonic philosophy and Christian theology. 

Similarly, Price provides the quite banal—and long disproven—description of the pre-Christian Scandinavian worldview as arranged in fortress-like concentric circles with Miðgarðr (Middle Earth) in the middle, Ásgarðr above it, and Útgarðr surrounding it all (p. 36–37). The (otherwise brilliant) Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup is responsible for the popularization of this misrepresentation of the pre-Christian Scandinavian worldview in multiple publications from the 1980s and 1990s. 

Sure, it is how the 13th century, Christian author, Snorri Sturluson would like to see the Viking Age world, but this conceptualization has since been disproven by multiple scholars, me included. It is a popular way to envision the pre-Christian Scandinavian worldview and cosmology among Neopagans and in other parts of modern appropriations of Old Norse mythology today, but it is, nonetheless, quite problematic to uncritically propagate in scholarship.

Most notably, the use of the term útgarðr to describe some kind of outer realm is incredibly problematic. It appears in Snorri’s story about Thor’s journey to Útgarðaloki in Edda. This story is well-known as a late, Christian invention, possibly even a conversion narrative! It has nothing to do with pre-Christian conceptions of the world, and anyone familiar with the medieval Mappae Mundi will be aware of this. Notably, Price derides the numerous contemporary attempts at structuring the pre-Christian Scandinavian cosmos as speculative, qualifying some as “New Age fantasia with careless abandon,” yet, he is reproducing 13thcentury “New Age fantasia,” himself. 

Sure, we can always question what it matters that an archaeologist provides a misinterpretation of the Viking Age worldview from a literature that he does not fully understand. However, this lack of understanding of the literature permeates Price’s first 106 pages of Children of Ash and Elm and leads to downright falsehoods later on. On page 145, Price claims that “Even the goddesses were known to sleep with male thralls, out of boredom, lust, or in one instance as a way of rebuking a husband.” As a specialist in Old Norse mythology, I am still perplexed by this statement: Which goddesses? “Known” to whom? What “one instance” are you talking about? This is a level far beyond interpretation—at best, Price is inferring several layers in his interpretation of one or more myths; at worst, he has completely misunderstood something here.

Overall, Price trusts the written sources too much and relies too heavily on handbook information about the saga literature to augment his descriptions. Throughout his furnishings of the intellectual life of Viking Age Scandinavians, he refers to the medieval Icelandic saga literature and the law code Grágás. While there is a good case to be made for the usefulness of this literary material that was written down some 200–400 years after the Viking Age, Price does not concern himself with making that argument.

The argument for using medieval Icelandic literature from, say, 1200–1400 AD, to understand, say, 800–1000 AD Scandinavia, is that the literature relies on cultural memory and oral-narrative material: memories, thoughts, and ideas that have been passed down orally for centuries. Despite what you might think—and may have learned playing the “telephone game” in school—oral-narrative information can actually be quite accurate. Under certain conditions, orally transmitted knowledge can retain accuracy for millennia

However, you cannot just take any medieval Icelandic saga or the extensive law codes and apply it to a time that occurred long before some crucial cultural shifts! The 13th century, the Golden Age of saga writing, was temporally, geographically, and culturally far removed from the 9th century. Christianity had incurred some major cultural shifts—times had changed drastically. Furthermore, one also needs to take into account that Iceland—at any point from the early 800s—was a very different society from mainland Scandinavia. This means that the cultural modes represented in medieval Icelandic literature may be true for Viking Age Iceland, but may not necessarily apply to Viking Age Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. 

Think of it in terms of an American in 2020 describing life in England in 1720. Depending on the quality of the research this person would be doing (and, by the way, they would have access to a lot more information than those 13th Icelandic authors), we would get a more or less removed representation of the 18th century reality of life. Regardless of the quality of their research, however, this description would never be an accurate representation of the historical reality. Price is not alone in using medieval Icelandic literature as standard sources to the Viking Age. Plenty of scholars do this with more or less critical reflection. 

Of course, one must ask, if we can just use the saga literature in that way, why are no scholars using Saxo’s Gesta Danorum? Or Theodoricus Monachus’s Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium? Who am I kidding? We know the answer: they wrote in Latin. Similarly, we see this frivolous use of the Icelandic law Grágás to claim things about what Vikings accepted culturally and legally. Sometimes, the Norwegian law Járnsíða, the Gulaþing and the Frostaþing laws, are also used for points of reference for what Vikings did and thought and such, but, for some reason, nobody ever use the medieval Swedish and Danish laws … except for an awkward nod to Gutalagen and Forsaringen here and there. 

Let me just make it clear once and for all: all these sources are equally horrible (although for different reasons), and favorizing one group over another is either because you lack understanding of them, because you are lazy, or because you are cherry-picking according to a more or less conscious bias.

While I will chalk Price’s management of the literature up to a lack of understanding and perhaps a dash of laziness (a well-connected scholar like him should have no problem calling up a specialist on the literature!), I will accuse him of straight up Anglo-Swedish bias in his representation of the Viking Age. We begin with map two in the book. An amalgam of Classical and Anglo-Saxon sources has been used to piece that together—not by Price himself but by the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo (apparently)—yet the map is completely devoid of Danes, Jutes, Angles, and other well-known tribes in the Danish area. The original lands of the Danes, generally assumed to be what is now Scania in southern Sweden, is inhabited by “Luguder” and “Berger,” whatever they are (the data has been lifted from Frode Iversen’s Between Tribe and Kingdom: People, Land, and Law in Scandza AD 500-1350 [2018] in Dagfinn Skre’s “Rulership in 1st to 14th century Scandinavia.” Once again, we are dealing with an archaeologist who is analyzing literature). Denmark, which is and has always been an integral part of Scandinavia, is completely lacking from this map of “Scandinavian tribal groupings, legal districts, and kingdoms” in the period 500–1350 … 

Speaking of legal districts, Price displays his deep lack of knowledge about Scandinavia south of Götaland, when he writes: “… Skåne and parts of Blekinge and Halland provinces, [was] considered to be culturally and politically part of Denmark until well after the Middle Ages and [was] not formally incorporated into the Swedish nation until the late 1600s” (p. 87).

“Was considered to be…”? “Was not formally incorporated into the Swedish nation until…”? “The Swedish nation…”? What are you talking about, Neil? These provinces that were the original polities of the Danes were ceded to Sweden in 1658 during the Little Northern War. Until that point, they had never been anything but their own region and a core part of the Danish kingdom. There is a text written entirely in runes that describes the border between Denmark and Sweden in 1300 AD! What kind of Viking scholar does not know that text? I mean, it’s in runes and all…

Finally, I will have to mention another incredibly egregious claim in the book: As is the case with any book on the Viking Age, Price begins his presentation with the traditional performance of what-does-the-word-Viking-mean? He stays true to the curious yet cautious way that all scholars begin when discerning the word “Viking:” its exact origin is unknown. Fine, OK, that’s cool. I mean, from an etymological perspective, it’s not rocket science, but let’s be cautious. Price then goes on to repeat the standard explanation: it may be derived from the word vík, which means “bay.” Good, this interpretation goes along the lines of Vikings being pirates that hang out in bays and strike at passing traffic. No problem. This corresponds with both the source material and most solid scholarship out there, even the use of the word in the oldest Anglo-Saxon texts: wicings are pesky pirates. Nothing controversial about that.

However, then Price goes on to ramble about the theory that the word Viking may come from the place name Viken in Norway (which he misspells as Víken). The Viken-theory is one of five theories about the origin of the word “Viking,” and it was promoted most heavily by the Norwegian (image that!) philologist Finn Hødnebø. Aside from this theory being a blatant and simple attempt by a Norwegian nationalist to connect the origin of the glorious Vikings to his country’s past (not being aware that Viken was under the rule of Danish kings until Harald Hard-ruler effectively broke their influence in southern Norway in the 1050s …), it is also based on incredibly poor reasoning. As the skeptic Eric Christiansen wrote in a footnote in his Norsemen in the Viking Age: “… this transfer of meaning depends on too many implausible factors: that the Viken people were called Vikingar rather than the better-attested Vikverjar, that they took the lead in piracy at a very early date, when all Baltic peoples had been at it from Roman times, and that no more descriptive word was available” (p. 2). That Price decides to reproduce the one theory out of five that falls the quickest for Ockham’s razor is beyond me. Dude, if the first evidence of the word is from Anglo-Saxon sources in the 700s, its most likely origin is rather in the word wic (Latin vicus) or in a now lost Anglo-Saxon word that means “bay” like the Nordic vík, than in the fever dreams of Norwegian philologists.

To sum it all up: read the parts of Children of Ash and Elm where Neil Price interprets archaeological material and avoid any instance where he is messing around with literary sources. I recommend beginning your reading of the book at page 107 after the labored interpretations of the intellectual context to the Viking Age. I am sad to say that this book never turns out to fulfill Price’s ambitions of describing the why instead of the what of the Viking Age. Price’s handling of any intellectual context to the Viking Age that can potentially be gleaned from the highly complicated literary material, is simply not up to par, and this makes him fundamentally unsuccessful in giving us any insight into how Scandinavians of the Viking Age were thinking about their world.

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