Operatic & Literary Vikings

Archetypal Vikings? 

by Michael Djordjevitch


Well, in point of fact, yes, they are indeed archetypal, Archetypal Northerners.  

This striking image by N.C. Wyeth (“Queen Astrid,” from The World Of Music - Song Programs for Youth, 1939) is composed of a conflation of surviving elements of the Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian cultural iconography.  

The ship, though, is (of course) quintessential Viking.

Music is the key here.  Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) Music Drama’s were the artistic crucible for creating this imaginative synthesis and the main vehicle for propagating it.

Wagner’s goal was to re-create Ancient Greek Drama, in all its cultural fullness, for the modern era.  Interestingly, in this he returned to the original impetus for the creation of Opera, which also gave us the first masterpieces in that genre, the Operas of Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Wagner’s primordial Germans have much Viking and even some Celt in them.  The Winged Helmets come from the Celts.  But whether winged or horned, in their original context they belonged to the headgear of the Shaman/ Priests rather than to that of the warriors.

For a glimpse of the Wagnerian warrior-women of the skies at work, with their, here appropriately winged helmets, “The Ride of the Valkyrie,” by Cesare Viazzi (1857-1943):  

And for an image of an Operatic Warrior God from 19th century New York, Emil Fischer in the role of Wotan in Wagner's opera 'Das Rheingold' at its 1889 New York Premiere:    

Richard Wagner's Liturgy for a Disenchanted Age still speaks with considerable power and fascination.  Roger Scruton offers us an accessible and compelling introduction to its mysteries and abiding truths.  

A few decades after Wagner astonished and captivated the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), published a short story, "The First Cargo," (Scribner's Magazine, 1910) of a more straightforward historical bent.  Here we meet an earlier set of historical actors, Saxons (proto-Germans), who prefigure, on the Late Roman stage (the fifth century A.D.), the role that the Future Vikings would play in the Carolingian World in the ninth and tenth centuries.  

For the story's first, publication, N.C. Wyeth conjured up an illustration strait off the operatic stage, of the soon-to-be new rulers of late-antique England, where once again a perennial drama was playing out, when a people who are very good at one thing encounter a people who were good at many things (Lectures on Roman History, Henry Paolucci (channeling Hegel), page one, 1962/2004).  

Many decades earlier, by 1825 a Swedish poet, Esaias Tegnér (1782 - 1846), would achieve for his Scandinavian countrymen what Goethe (1749 - 1832) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785 - 1873) would realize for their respective peoples, forging a contemporary literary common language out of the multiplicity of their linguistic/cultural inheritance.  

Tegnér’s vehicle would become the Swedish National Epic, Frithiof's Saga, which emerged out of the translation, expansion and elaboration of an old Icelandic Epic, The Saga of Thorstein Víkingsson.  

In 1888, Johan August Malmström (1829 - 1901) published a series of paintings for a late nineteenth century edition of Tegnér’s Epic Poem.

In these haunting images we encounter a convergence between the prevailing freewheeling operatic approach to our Norsemen and the desire to see this elusive world, on the edge of history, as it might have been, mediated by the artistry of a very fine artist, where each illustration is conceived of and composed as a fully realized painting.   

Elements such as stele, wooden statues, carved columns, and runic inscriptions in these paintings stand out to those familiar with the material evidence for this world.  In our next posting we shall look more closely at some of these ancient elements and their survival into the High Middle Ages.   


For a few more images from this set, visit this blog.

And, for more on the art of painting apropos the above, watch: