What is the Viking heart?

Sons of Norway D.C. Lodge weighs in


Photo: Евгений Горев / iStock
Viking culture has always been cloaked with a shroud of mystery and romance, which Arthur Herman explores.

Washington, D.C.

Author Arthur Herman spoke to the Washington D.C., Sons of Norway lodge about his book The Viking Heart, and he generated a lot of enthusiasm. As a result, the lodge’s reading circle voted to discuss his book at its February meeting. Herman was invited to attend the discussion via Zoom and answer questions.

After reading the book, some members remained enthusiastic, while others had lingering questions or were disturbed for a variety of reasons.

The first questions to Herman referred to the book’s title and subtitle, which many did not understand.

Rolf Svendsen: The inquisitive reader will search in vain for a specific answer to precisely the definition of the “Viking heart.”

Herman said he believes the Scandinavians have a thread of continuity that runs from the earliest times to the Viking Age to the Post-Viking Age, through the Middle Ages, through to the Modern Period, and today through to the Scandinavians and also to the Scandinavian Americans. He calls this thread a “special skill set,” the extraordinary balance between a strong commitment to family, to community, and to values and a sense of cultural solidarity on the one hand. On the other hand, is the recognition that individuals should have the freedom to venture out on their own into the unknown to find things to bring back to strengthen their community. He believes that this was the primary reason for the Viking raids in other places. This balance means that it is not the Viking mind but the Viking heart that wants to strengthen its community.

Barbara Myklebust: Why did you subtitle it How Scandinavians Conquered the World?

Herman said he used this title for three reasons. First, in the historic sense, as the Vikings went very far to the east, to the west, and to the south. They are everywhere in the known world. Second, in the sense that their cultural values have permeated the modern world in terms of art, literature, how we think of a society, and how we care about others. Third, because in the medieval period, Sweden became a European superpower.

In the days following the discussion, several members shared their thoughts about the book.

Bill DeRoche: I have mixed feelings. This is clearly a well-crafted book. Given the scope, it is impossible to include every detail of history. Still the one day that every Norwegian in Norway, the United States or elsewhere, celebrates is Syttende Mai. There is no mention of the Constitution that I can find, although I think it is an example of the “Viking heart.” The Normans are discussed, but the pivotal role of Vikings at the various battles in 1066 is given short shrift.

This is a popular history written for a general audience and its purpose is to inspire thinking about how the Viking spirit can be seen throughout Scandinavian history. As a popular history, it lacks the precision expected of scholarly writing, and students may want to use more academic sources in their class assignments.

Bruce Nelson: The author’s personal and conversational writing style was engaging and probably appealing to most readers. To me, the book seemed decent, thoughtful, and ambitious. It contained many insightful nuggets of information that were not known to me or were perhaps forgotten. It covered a lot of ground. So, the author, a popular historian but I believe a non-specialist of Scandinavian studies, was wise to organize the book essentially as a series of light essays rather than getting bogged down in too many details.

He highlighted people (especially exotic explorers, conquerors, and queens and underrated Scandinavian-American heroes), places, and subjects that interested him. He provided a unifying focus with an intriguing overall thesis—that the Nordics, through the ages, were resourceful, daring, and promoted community solidarity and contributed substantially to establishing democratic values, individual freedom, and entrepreneurship in the West, particularly in the United States.

Even if this argument seemed strained at times, I think he was persuasive in laying out the significant impact that Viking influence had on Western civilization. He also did a pretty good job, in my mind at least, of putting the less attractive features of Viking life—slavery and violence—into a historic context.

But I think it may also have detracted a bit from the weightiness of his subject matter. I would have preferred a more authoritative-sounding narrative on the order of Kenneth Clark’s reflections on civilization with fewer references to the Game of Thrones.

viking heart

Arthur Herman’s The Viking Heart has quickly become a Viking bestseller.

Rolf Svendsen: I liked the book for what it is: a journalistic review of Scandinavian history of emigrants to the United States especially. (The Scandinavian diaspora of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Theodore Blegen tells us, was nearly exclusively to the United States.) This book is a wide- ranging, eclectic story of some famous and some less-than-famous Scandinavians for the general reader. Although Herman is a historian, this is not a historical monograph. It is more a reminiscence with some factual inaccuracies, which I did not find troublesome. All things considered, it is a good read, a recommended book.

Paul Rood: Missing among the stories of great Scandinavian-Americans is the man who perhaps made a greater impact on American history and politics than any other: Earl Warren, the Norwegian-American, who as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, promulgated several decisions vital for the advancement of freedom in the United States, beginning with the Brown decision of 1954.

Paul also cited numerous factual errors, including 1) the assertion that the largest number of Scandinavian immigrants were Norwegians. In fact, 1.2 million Swedish immigrants outnumbered 800,000 Norwegian immigrants, 2) the German invasion of Norway was not on April 4, 1940, but on April 9, 1940. He also had numerous criticisms of Chapter 15, “The Viking Heart in War and Peace.”

But he remained enthusiastic. “I listened to the audio version, which was narrated wonderfully by Kiff VandenHeuvel, and then I bought the hardcover to pursue the information in greater detail. On the whole, it is an excellent book. The author, who we learn was trained as a medievalist, does an excellent job of showing the major trends and personalities of the Middle Ages. This loving attention to the Middle Ages, which pleased this reader, might turn off readers who are not such avid students of history. Nevertheless, the author does well at succeeding eras, as well, particularly in his discussion of Scandinavian immigrants who distinguished themselves in the United States.”

Laurie Jaghlit was very disturbed that his statistics about the Witch Trials in Norway were completely off base. This was obvious to anyone familiar with the scholarly research done by Dr. Liv Helene Willumsen, author of Witches of the North: Scotland and Finnmark.

Lynn Juhl: A work of love on his part, too long, too many obscure names and long-lost places, a wonderful story of Norge, its people, and history. Made me even more proud to read it, although it was maybe a little too flattering.


This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2022, issue of
The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.