The Hobbit and History: Viking Vengeance and Dwarvish Destiny

The Hobbit and History is out. Do you have your copy yet?

In the second chapter of the collection – “From Oakenshield to Bloodaxe: The Viking Roots of Tolkien’s Dwarves”, you learn about the thirst for vengeance in Tolkien’s dwarves and in historical Viking culture. Thorin Oakenshield was hardly unique in holding a grudge against those who had brought his family down. Medieval leaders waged bloody and devastating wars to right wrongs against their families. Consider the case of Ívarr the Boneless, a ninth century Dane who led a massive army to seek vengeance for his father’s death.

Ívarr the Boneless was a Viking warrior. His epithet may seem odd and has inspired furious debate. Did he have a degenerative bone condition, perhaps osteogenesis imperfecta? Was he extraordinarily limber and the byname a sort of joke about his flexible maneuvering? Or maybe the story began in some great act of daring, just as Thorin Oakenshield takes his epithet from his quick thinking on the field of battle.

Historically, Danes invading England by sea Vikings weren’t only concerned with warfare and vengeance. They were also great traders, explorers and ambitious settlers. Some ventured as far afield as Newfoundland and Istanbul, and Viking hoards have been found to contain such exotic treasures as Arabic coins and a statue of Buddha. As a recent exhibition at the British Museum reminded us, the Vikings were more than bloodthirsty marauders, they were poets, artisans and adventurers. But the Vikings were also devoted to their families and friends. Insults against a friend could spark a bitter rivalry. Attacks against a relative often spurred the Vikings onto war.

As Colin Gibbons notes in The Hobbit and History, Ívarr lost his father, Ragnar Lodbrok to a cruel and vindictive opponent, King Ælla of Northumberland. The Scandinavian king was reportedly executed by being cast into a snakepit. His sons were incensed at their father’s ill-treatment and mounted an invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms at the head of what is sometimes know as the “Great Heathen Army”. From 865-869, Ívarr rained ruin upon his English enemies. He and his brothers saw Ælla pay the final, horrific price for his execution of Ragnar. After conquering much of the Anglo-Saxon lands, Ívarr turned to Ireland, conquering there. By the time of his death, likely around 873, he and his brothers had triumphed over their enemies.

So, too, Thorin Oakenshield seeks vengeance against those who have wronged his family – Smaug who seized their royal stronghold and others as well. His thirst for vengeance is as strong as that of any of these historical Vikings. Learn more about the parallels between the Vikings and the dwarves when you read The Hobbit and History!

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