By Warwick Cairns
What life might be like today if the Vikings had won?
The problem, I think, is that we are suckers for novelty.
It gives us a frisson of cosmopolitanism to use words like frisson. We are suckers for words like suckers. It gives us an air of imagined sophistication to walk boldly into the local coffee-shop and demand a grande decaf skinny latte to go, if you please, and to look confidently about us as we do so, defying anyone to laugh at us for spouting what we ourselves, at an earlier time, might have thought of as so much gibberish and nonsense.
And this, I think, is behind the way that we have turned out, as a nation. And it has a bearing, I think, on the way we deal with all sorts of things, and on the way we live our lives and organise our world.
It is perhaps a little too soon to call, but one wonders how things might have been if, a little over a thousand years ago, we had resisted the temptations of the missionaries coming over from Ireland or what have you with their Johnny-come-lately foreign religion, and if we had stuck, instead, to the familiarity of what we had at the time.
This month I have mostly been reading AS Byatt’s Ragnarok, her re-telling of the Norse myths that were, before Christianity came along, a living part of the life and culture of our islands.
Things have changed beyond recognition since then – though some things have endured. We had, and still have, Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day. We had Yule in the winter with its logs and gifts and decorated trees, and we had Eostre in the spring, with its eggs and bunnies (well, hares). And we still have those today, though in Christianised form. So far so similar.
But what we also had, back then, which we don’t have now, was a way of thinking that encompassed a collection of gods and goddesses whose attitude to humanity was very, very different to that of the Christian and post-Christian world that followed. The Saxon and Viking gods and goddesses did not even pretend to ‘love’ their people: they were so caught up in their own feuds, their own plots and their own affairs that they were positively indifferent to us – except from time to time if we amused them. Even then they could be capricious at best, and at times downright cruel.
Which seemed to make sense to people at the time, and seemed to explain a lot about the way the world was and is.
There was no sense that, on being wronged, one should turn the other cheek, or forbear from action to allow the higher authorities to take the appropriate measures, because the higher authorities really didn’t give a damn.
More than this, the gods positively disliked and discouraged people they saw as milksops and pedants and sent them, on death, to the freezing half-world of Niflheim as pale and ineffectual shadows, there to eat the shadows of food and drink the shadows of drink. A bit like the Liberal Democrat conference would be, I should imagine, if they’d held it in an ice-cave in Antarctica. Meanwhile the ‘top’ heaven, Valhalla, was reserved only for those who died fighting, whence their souls were whisked off by the Valkyries for an eternity of drunkenness, fighting, carnal lust and general bellowing at each other through their beards. Not everyone’s cup of mead, of course, and the novelty would probably wear off even for those whose it was; and yet I suspect that it would be immeasurably preferable to the alternatives.
Now let us imagine a parallel Britain, today. Let us imagine that the Vikings put paid to Alfred the Great, as they so nearly did in the 9th Century, and that they continued to spread outwards from their camps at Reading and Maidenhead, overpowering the defences at Cookham and taking control of the whole of Alfred’s Wessex. Imagine that as a consequence of this the conversion to Christianity that Alfred helped bring about never happened.
I read, recently, about a man – a man in once-Pagan Maidenhead, as it happens – who had his bicycle stolen. Some days later he saw it chained to a railing outside the local McDonald’s, and he approached a Police Community Support Officer to say that he was planning to go home and get some bolt-cutters to remove the lock, and would they like to come and arrest the thief? ‘Oh no,’ he was told, ‘You can’t do that: you see if you damage the lock, you can be sued.’ Instead, he was told to leave matters to the police, who would monitor the situation using CCTV cameras. Which they then failed to do. What happened was that the thief wandered along, unlocked the bike and rode off on it, and no-one ever saw it again.
Now imagine the situation under an Odinist (or indeed Post-Odinist) Police Force. The area would no doubt have been sealed off, and a ring of officers formed, so that the thief could be called out to take on the owner in single combat. Which might have had unfortunate consequences if the owner had been a bespectacled geek, and the thief a six-foot-four bruiser. Perhaps the regulations would allow the wronged party to select a champion?
Or imagine the case of the home-owner in Manchester who, at the time of writing, was on Police bail on suspicion of murder after stabbing to death one of two burglars who had forced their way into his house. Imagine the court case that would have followed, and the judge looking down his half-moon spectacles at the defendant in the dock.
“You are charged,” he would say, “With the wilful murder of Raymond Stanley Jacob, a burglar on your property. How do you plead?”
“Excellent. But you are further charged with not murdering his accomplice, and allowing him to escape with his life despite the most grievous provocation. What kind of a man are you?”
“I know. I’m sorry. It was the heat of the moment and I didn’t realise what I was doing.”
“Well, make sure you don’t do it again. Case dismissed.”
It would be different, is what I’ll say. I can’t say that it would necessarily be better: in many ways it would be quite a lot worse. It would certainly be a crueller world. And yet there is a balance to be struck, in these things.
And I think, sometimes, that the balance has swung too far the other way.
A few months ago I was at a local park, where a boy of about fourteen was showing off to his friends by throwing chips into the path of passers-by. This irritated me and I told him so. I told him to pick up the chips he had thrown. His response was to throw more in my direction.
“Look,” I said, changing tack a little, “You pick them up or I’ll make you.”
“Oh yeah?” he said, “How’s that, then?”
Well, what did he expect?
I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and twisted his arm up behind his back with the other, forcing his head down so that his nose was a few inches above the ground. Then I led him over, still twisting his arm back, until he was staring at the chips.
“Like this,” I said, “Now pick them up.”
Which he did.
But the interesting thing was how surprised he was, and how resentful both he and his friends were, and how keen they were, after the event, that I should apologise.
Nor did they seem to appreciate my restraint in not flattening the boy.
They seemed to live in a world in which, if you go out of your way to infuriate someone bigger and older than you, there are no painful consequences.
I can’t say that I altogether understand this new way of things.
But then again it’s still fairly new.
Perhaps in another thousand years it will all make sense.
More about Warwick Cairns can be found here
Warwick Cairns’ latest book, In Praise of Savagery, is available now: the true story of a journey into uncharted land inhabited by murderous tribal warriors and ruled over by a bloodthirsty sultan – and the man, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived to tell the tale.