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The Viking Renaissance

Leif Johnson | 12 Dec 2011 16:00
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Skyrim doesn't just rely on Viking clich├ęs such as horned helmets. In fact, far from ignoring the thorny issues associated with the celebration of Viking culture, Bethesda seems to weave them into game's narrative. The nationalistic and often racist ramblings of Ulfric Stormcloak occasionally leave him sounding like a fur-clad Himmler, and the Nords who support him sometimes seem eager to inflict their own version of Kristallnacht on the maligned Dark Elves. But these aren't the only Nords we see. Half of the region still allies itself with the wider Empire, and these citizens maintain pride in their culture while espousing a more cosmopolitan view of their world. In some ways, it's tempting to see their loyalty as a parallel to the many Norwegians who resisted the German occupation in the 1940s. At the risk of reading too much into Bethesda's narrative, I suggest that such parallels render Skyrim's story a worthy metaphor of the struggle that Viking and Nordic themes have had to overcome since World War II.

The nationalistic and often racist ramblings of Ulfric Stormcloak occasionally leave him sounding like a fur-clad Himmler.

But does Skyrim's success mean that we'll see an outpouring of Viking-based settings in future fantasy games and literature? Joe Abercrombie doesn't think so. While Abercrombie has toyed with Viking elements in his own novels, he finds a Viking mindset more useful than the actual setting. If the Vikings have any attraction for contemporary audiences, he says, it's because their themes mirror those of the contemporary zeitgeist. "Lately a lot of the savagery, sex, treachery and moral ambiguity that is so much a hallmark of genuine Norse myth (and a lot of other myth, for that matter), and that Tolkien tended to minimize in his work, is leaching more and more into mainstream fantasy," he said.

Ted Halsted, however, believes that videogame developers have only tapped the surface of what Viking settings can offer. "The possibilities of the subject matter are limitless," he says. "It covers all the aspects of the human condition, from love, to treachery, to betrayal, not to mention serpents so big that they encircle the world." Arnold suspects that the fascination might have a far deeper source. "These are the myths of origin for North Europe audiences and for much of North America as well," he said, while cautioning against the excesses the enthusiasm led to in the last century. "They provide a sense of who we are and what we derive from."

Perhaps, then, the recent renaissance of Viking lore in videogames signals a new direction for fantasy, one grounded as much in history as in imagination. Perhaps the Viking mindset can affect the world of videogames as surely as it affected the political climate of early medieval Europe. Perhaps the saga of the Vikings never truly ends.

Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who confuses people by saying he's from Chicago while speaking in a Texas accent. Yes, his name really is Leif and it rhymes with "safe." See what he does when he's not playing Skyrim at http://leifjohnson.co

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