Saturday, 28 September 2013

Vikings: the boat, the battle, the book, the show

The above shows the 1,000-year-old remains of a Viking ship fitted to a steel frame that recreates the ship’s original length of 37 metres. It will be coming to the British Museum’s forthcoming Vikings exhibition. The ship was a ‘troop carrier’, says Gareth Williams, curator at the BM; it carried 100 warriors, and ‘there are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships, so you could be talking about an army of up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land.’

Mr Williams is excited. ‘It's essentially an enormous Meccano set which can be put together … As you might expect of a Scandinavian-designed ship, it comes flat-packed.’ The exhibition will also include skeletons excavated from a mass grave in Dorset and coins, arm bands, etc, found in a field near Harrogate in 2007. The Vikings’ ‘most favourite means of expressing power and wealth and status was basically bling,’ says Mr Williams in a BBC report.

I’ve a feeling that Gareth Williams might enjoy At Maldon, J. O. Morgan’s version of the Anglo-Saxon poem recording a 10th-century battle between a Viking raiding party and a rag-tag army of Anglo-Saxons. Morgan’s poem retains the narrative structure of the surviving section of the poem but doesn’t shy away from present-day imagery and vocabulary. A Viking spokesman attempts negotiation: ‘Our land expands, we’d like/ to cut you in upon the deal. This is/ a great investment opportunity’. After diplomacy fails, both sides prepare for conflict: ‘It begins with crows,/ black flecks against the blue,/ like bits of bin-liner flapping in the wind … It begins with an increase in noise,/ as at the start of an orchesteral interval:/ the slow surge of coughing and audience chatter …’ Battle is engaged, weapons find their targets: ‘How grapeskin splits/ with such little force;/ its dark flesh bulging/ outward through the tears.’ There are changes of perspective: a survivor of the battle is questioned by his grandchildren years later (‘And the nurse brings his food tray,/ empties the bedpan, changes the sheets’); a farm boy wanders alone at low tide (‘washing the whelks, wetting the bag,/ rubbing out the crust of mud built up between his toes’).

Click here to order the book from the website. Morgan will be reading from At Maldon at Looking Glass Books, Edinburgh EH3 9GG, on Tuesday, 8 October at 6.30 p.m.: all welcome. For the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum you’ll have to wait until March next year.

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