Interview: Author Neil Price - The Children of Ash and Elm - Or why do we all love Vikings?
Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Vikings are awesome. They are also, quite literally, everywhere. There's probably one stood behind you right now.
Did I make you look? I got myself all worked up and made myself look. There was no Viking there, but there could have been.
When it comes to fictional versions of Vikings, we are spoilt for choice. There's Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new Netflix Show 'Vikings Valhalla', the hugely popular 'Lost Kingdom' books from Bernard Cornwell, the smash-hit Viking flavoured survival video game 'Valheim', and the upcoming blockbuster film 'The Northman'. I could go on, but I won't, because I really need to crack on and get to the point.
When it comes to non-fictional Vikings, you are spoilt for choice too. Say you want to read the history of the Vikings, just where to begin? There are so many Viking history books to choose from! May I humbly suggest, that if you are fourteen years or older, you start with The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Viking by Neil Price. It's a hefty but gloriously insightful account of the Vikings and, as luck would have it, the book is released in paperback RIGHT NOW.
To celebrate, we were lucky enough to have a chat with the man, the legend, Neil Price. Neil is an archaeologist specialising in the study of Viking Age-Scandinavia and has numerous history books to his name. Let's get stuck in and have a chat with Neil - enjoy!
Imagining History - Please could you tell our readers a little bit about your wonderful book The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings?
Neil Price - Most histories of the Vikings start with the first recorded raid, on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793, and treat it as a bolt from the blue – the ‘start’ of three hundred years of mayhem. But that’s the view from outside, the Vikings as others saw them, and I wanted to write a book that tried to tell their story from their own perspective. I begin centuries earlier to examine how their society evolved, where they came from, why they did what they did, and the guiding principle throughout was to try to see things through their eyes. In the end, they were individuals as complicated and varied as we are, and we shouldn’t reduce them to stereotypes. I can’t judge whether the book is ‘wonderful’ (but thank you!), though I do think it’s a little different from the conventional picture of the Vikings.
What inspired you to want to research and write about the Vikings?
I’d always been interested in history, but in my mid-teens I started to read the Icelandic sagas at the same time as several Viking documentary series (by Magnus Magnusson and Michael Wood) were also showing on TV. I started working on archaeological excavations when I was 17, and went to university to study the Vikings properly - and that was that, here I am nearly forty years later!
Could you tell us a little about your research process for the book? How did you take so much information, so many sources, and turn it all into a readable read for a wider audience, not just Viking experts?
It’s important to understand that any book like this is a synthesis of many, many scholars’ work; as a university professor, I’m used to bringing research together in this way. But this book is also very much my Viking Age, and the product of decades spent thinking and writing – all this has been in my head for a long time. I also think that making research accessible is an obligation and a skill in its own right, and hopefully, I’ve succeeded. The key is to treat the Vikings as people (and people are always interesting) and to remember that our past was once very much their present.
What is the most bizarre Viking fact that you’ve discovered during your research?
So far as I know, no item of Viking clothing has ever been found with pockets!
Well, that’s brilliant! Pockets are an underappreciated clothing essential. Without them, how else would we coat the washing with tiny fragments of used snotty tissue? OK, so what one Viking ‘fact’ that we all think we know to be true isn’t actually true at all?
I guess the obvious one is that they had horns on their helmets – they did not! – but I suppose another is that the berserkers used mushrooms (or similar) to get their rage on: there is no evidence for this whatsoever.
Vikings are more popular than ever, with books, TV shows, films, and video games based on Vikings proving to be mega hits. Why do Vikings have such an enduring appeal with modern audiences?
They do seem to be everywhere, don’t they? I think they speak to a rather dubious ideal of freedom and consequence-free abandon, of setting out for a far horizon, and their extraordinarily vivid mythology still carries an undeniable thrill – but at least some of them were also ruthless killers and slavers, for whom violence was an ideology and a way of life. It doesn’t do to let your guard down around the Vikings: they’re undoubtedly fascinating, but that’s not the same as being admirable.
Finally, what are you working on next?
In my regular job at Uppsala University, I’m directing a long-term project on the origins of the Viking phenomenon, which is generating lots of academic publications, but I’m also working on a new book focusing on individuals in the Viking Age. I’ve been doing some historical consultancy work too, most recently on the movie The Northman – do see it! – and there are some other projects of that nature in the pipeline.
That is excellent Neil - Laura and I are looking forward to checking out The Northman upon its release and reading your future work too!
Well, dear reader, we love Vikings and we know you do too, so why not check out Neil’s very readable and eminently enjoyable history of the Vikings, The Children of Ash and Elm?