Vikings and the Origin of the Musical

Cover imageMuch as evolutionary biologists are shocked and gratified when they discover the teeth of an unknown primate, I was amazed yesterday to discover that the Vikings liked musicals.  I was listening to the Librivox version of The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald, and noticed that there were clear signs of it being a musical. To remind those of you not into musical theater, a key premise of musicals is that when a character is overwhelmed with emotion, that tension is released in song, but no-one nearby things this odd, or acts to the character’s detriment during the distraction. It was, in viking culture, apparently completely normal for poets to just randomly burst into verse when moved to, and the people around them thought that was a laudable thing.

This saga demonstrates a cultural change, actually, because some of the kings are non-plussed by this. They know they are meant to be impressed. They know that a generous reward is meant to be offered. In several examples, though, the king is either not actually impressed, or is unable to judge the worthiness of the song, and so needs help to choose an appropriate gift.

The story itself is about two poets who fall for the most beautiful girl in the history of Iceland. They duel in a series of inconclusive ways. Eventually they agree to smite each other’s shields for hate of each other, and this ends inconclusively but excellently. The local althing (parliament of men) then decides this is a silly way of comporting yourself, and bans it, making their the final legal duel fought in Iceland. Presaging the duelists of England taking a trip to France to shoot each other, the men then decamp to Norway, for a final confrontation.

The link above also gives sources for free pdf, html, and epub versions of the saga.

I really enjoyed this book. It captured the cultural concerns of these people in a vivid way, and highlighted the alienness of the past. I recommend it for those interested i the medieval period. I’d also suggest it to fans of musicals, so that they can see the bones of this distant art-form and ponder : progenitor or convergent evolution?