The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World

Book review

Book cover for The Viking Heart by Arthur Herman

Book cover image

Laguna Woods, Calif.

The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World was written by the popular historian Arthur L. Herman. The author of numerous books on various aspects of history, he is best known for his 2001 bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World and his more recent Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. The latter book won a finalist nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Of Norwegian descent on both sides of his family tree, he decided at long last to write a popular history of his own people, the Scandinavians.

In The Viking Heart Arthur Herman has written a grand saga of the Scandinavian people from the Ice Age to modern times. What I like about this book is that it puts Scandinavians at the center of history. We have actually enjoyed a larger role in history than we generally get credit for; and Herman’s book justly gives us our due as important world players in history.

According to Arthur Herman, Scandinavians from before the Vikings to modern times have shared a common cluster of traits that Herman calls “The Viking Heart”—a set of cultural, social, and spiritual characteristics that have shaped their lives over the ages. If any one person ever embodied all the characteristics of the “Viking Heart” it would be Fridtjof Nansen, the great Norwegian arctic explorer and humanitarian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herman is careful to point out that these traits are not embedded in the genes of Scandinavians, but rather, they are deeply rooted in their common culture and shared history. What gradually gave birth to the “Viking Heart” was the struggle to both survive and thrive in the far reaches of Northern Europe over a period of some 10,000 years.

After a brief summary of Scandinavian prehistory, Herman launches into the story of the Vikings. He elegantly writes of their ocean-going longships as being as “buoyant as water lilies.” These sleek ships gave the Vikings access to most of coastal and inland Europe where over some 300 years (750 A.D. to 1050 A.D.)  the Vikings built up an extensive northern trading empire that moved goods (including enslaved people) back and forth over vast distances—from Baghdad to Greenland. 

Herman makes the important point that the Vikings, in their role as the middle party of Europe, opened up new trade routes all over Europe and down the rivers of far-off Russia. Their raids, both big and small, released the locked-up treasures of the Church, royalty, and nobles so it could recirculate in a vibrant commercial network that re-energized the economy of Dark Age Europe. The wealth the Vikings gained from raiding and extortion also funded the rise of powerful sea kings like Olaf Trygvasson and Styrbjörn the Strong in the Scandinavian homelands. The greatest of them, Canute the Great, ruled not only most of Scandinavia at his height of power, but also all of England. 

And Scandinavians settled nearly everywhere in northwest Europe during the Viking Age, and they left behind both their genetic and cultural legacy. The descendants of the Norse who followed the Viking chieftain, Rollo, to Normandy in the early 900s, turned up again as the Normans in 1066 A.D. to conquer all of Anglo-Saxon England. Herman makes a good case that the Scandinavians in their guise as Vikings were not secondary players in early medieval Europe; rather they were the main movers and the shakers of the age.

After both ravishing and revitalizing Europe in their varied roles as warriors, kings, traders, and explorers, the Vikings slowly withdrew to their Scandinavian homelands to work on building stable Christian nations. For the post-Viking medieval period, Arthur Herman turns his narrative attention to three powerful women of Scandinavia: Saint Bridget of Sweden, Queen Ingeborg of Norway, and Queen Margaret of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Queen Margaret, the last of the three women, became the most powerful woman in Europe in her day and as “sovereign lady and rightful master” forged the union of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden “which at the time included Finland” into a single union of nations: the Union of the Three Crowns, the largest political entity in late medieval Europe other than the Holy Roman Empire.

After leaving the late medieval period behind, Herman brings his historical focus to King Gustav II (Gustavus Adolphus), a military and political genius who made Sweden the “Colossus of the North” in the early 17th century. He led the Protestant fight in the Thirty Years War against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and by the time of his death he had reshaped the political map of Europe. He also reformed, modernized, and centralized the government of Sweden while at the same time making the Swedish army one of the greatest fighting forces of the age.

Following his biographical portrait of King Gustav II, Herman segues to the story of Scandinavians in the New World by telling the tale of Sweden’s first colony (1638) along the Delaware River. But Swedes and other Scandinavians did not really start their mass migration to North America until well into the 19th century. And once they decided to come, they came in great numbers to escape stifling social structures and stagnant economies at home. The first wave of Scandinavian immigration came before the Civil War; the second wave flowed in after the war and lasted until the 1920s. Today, there are more people of Scandinavian descent in the United States than in Scandinavia proper.

Arthur Herman populates his telling of Scandinavian immigration to the United States and Canada with mini-biographies of prominent Scandinavian-Americans as well as with anecdotes about the story of his own immigrant ancestors from Norway. A favorite of mine was the story of the “Great Dane,” William Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who revolutionized the auto industry in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and then at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s asking led the capitalist charge to build the United States into an “arsenal of democracy” to defeat Japan and Germany in World War II. One of his sayings was particularly Scandinavian and in keeping with the concept of “The Viking Heart” in its sentiments. William Knudsen said, “We can do anything, if we do it together.”

the Gokstad Viking ship

Photo: Karamell/Wikipedia
The Gokstad ship is an iconic Viking artifact. It is housed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Near the end of The Viking Heart Herman returns to the Scandinavian homelands to reveal what has been happening there while thousands of immigrants have been sailing to America. As the 19th century progressed, more and more spectacular archeological finds from the Viking Age helped to spur the pride of Scandinavians everywhere. The discovery of the Gokstad Viking ship in 1880 combined with the re-discovery of the Icelandic medieval sagas particularly ignited a pan-Scandinavian pride in a shared Viking past. Sweden, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and especially Norway, experienced a flowering of nationalism, but it was of a benign liberal bent. Its character is best exemplified by Norway’s parade on Constitution Day, May 17th; since the late 19th century the parade has not featured military units and weapons, but simply flag-waving children.

As a remedy to their citizens leaving for America, the governments of the various Scandinavian nations all began to study why their people were leaving in droves. By the turn of the 20th century the social democrats in each of the nations had found the solution. Led by Sweden, the Scandinavian countries invested heavily in economic development and industrialization, increased voter suffrage, and allocated national resources to education. This “capitalism with a social conscience” worked; and after 1900, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, could boast of having the fastest growth of any countries in the European West up to World War II. 

What either dampened or destroyed their economies was the coming of World War II. Norway and Denmark, for example, suffered crushing five year occupations by the Nazis. Finland was smashed by the Russians after making a valiant stand. Sweden was able to remain neutral and had its economic progress severely weakened, but not demolished. After the war all the Scandinavians nations returned to consensus politics, investing in social services for their people, and making the best use of their resources. Today, the Scandinavian people, as a group, enjoy the highest standard of living in the world.  Yet, a sense of community and shared values still binds the citizens of the Nordic countries.  The “Viking Heart,” as conceived by Herman, clearly continues to beat in 21st-century Scandinavians.

In his conclusion, Herman notes how many aspects of the “Viking Heart” have become wildly popular with many peoples around the world. Most notably, the Vikings and their mythology and sagas have become beloved themes in both literature and entertainment. These themes appear in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, in operas, in comics, in computer games, and in film and television. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and even Star Wars, to name but a few films, all drew inspiration from what Herman defines as “The Viking Heart” of the Scandinavians. Today, “The Viking Heart” is not exclusive to Scandinavians but is available to anyone who finds it of value to their lives.

Although I liked the book overall and recommend it to readers of The Norwegian American, I found it contained some occasional irritating errors that could have been avoided. For instance, Herman confuses King Olav Tryggvason with King Olav Haraldsson (Olav the Saint) and has Olav Tryggvason in his guise as Olav the Saint erroneously die at the Battle of Helgeå in 1026 A.D. In another section, he wrongly asserts that enslaved people made up the larger proportion of the population of Viking Scandinavia. This is incorrect. Most scholars estimate that enslaved people made up only between 10% and 25% of the total population in the homelands. And there was a glaring error of omission that any Norwegian American could not help to notice. Herman never mentioned Norway’s constitution of 1814 and the subsequent revolt against Sweden.

 Arthur L. Herman’s The Viking Heart, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will be released to the public on Aug. 3, 2021. Pre-publication orders are available now.

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.