Tuesday, March 13, 2012


     Viking is an overused term, but figure collectors and wargamers love it anyways.  The people of Njal's Saga were mostly landowners and farmers concerned with earning a living from their land.  Young men, such as Njal's sons Grim and Helgi, spent a few seasons as crew on a boat, presumably raiding.  However, most of the Icelanders were settlers seeking cheap land far from the increasingly centralized and autocratic rulers of Norway and Denmark in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Njal was a prominent landowner, lawyer and judge who over the course of fifty years gets entangled in a web of vengeance and violence that proved inescapable.  His oldest son, Skarphedin, was a renowned fighter, and supposedly capable of jumping 18 feet across a river with his battleaxe.  These next two figures are Gripping Beast's character figures of Njal and Skarphedin. 

Njal's Saga is set exactly at the time in which Icelanders voted to convert to Christianity from paganism.  This was accomplished somewhat peacefully, though a few killings did occur in both directions.  Wizards, seers and berserkers make their appearances in Njal's Saga.   

One weapon often described in the Sagas, but rarely depicted on miniatures, is the rock.  During sea-borne battles, rocks are frequently mentioned, presumably obtained from the bottom of the ship where some were probably stored as ballast.  Among the Icelanders, swords and armor were expensive and less frequent so rocks were a ready made missile weapon.  These are Wargames Factory unarmored Bondi converted to rock throwers with a few bits from my backyard. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Viking Warrior, The Strongbow Saga Volume 1

     Judson Roberts' first volume in the Strongbow saga is an appropriate follow-up to my photos of thrall archers.  The Norse, like most Medieval societies, were heavily stratified, but not entirely inflexible.  Slavery endured longer in the lands of the north, having given way to serfdom much centuries earlier in the Christian kingdoms of Western Europe.  Furthermore, the Vikings developed a thriving slave trade.  Slavery was not intensive as in Sparta or the Antebellum American South, but slaves were a tradeable commodity.  Viking raids took Irish, Saxon and Frankish slaves to work farmsteads in Iceland, Norway and Denmark and on to eastern markets in Baghdad and Constantinople.  The Viking sagas give a detailed look at the workings of Norse society, including the role of slaves.  However, with few exceptions, slaves in the sagas are depicted as dumb, cowardly and untrustworthy.  Such would be the opinion of the warrior elite whose perspective dominates the sagas. After all, with such low qualities thought the masters, the slaves then deserve their lot in life.
    Viking Warrior is the story of Halfdan, the thrall son of a slave and her Viking master.  A teenager by our standards, but a man in what was harsher times. Halfdan's rise to freedom is both plausible and tragic, and  Roberts' deserves credit for depicting numerous details of the Norse underclass' daily life. Of course, one of the requirements (cliches) of the hero's journey tale is that the hero must be of low origins until his potential greatness is recognized by someone with power to elevate the protagonist's status.  So, Halfdan does not long remain a slave, but retains the worldview of one who had been rejected by elite society.
      Roberts keeps the pace brisk writing with a modern voice rather than the faux-saga style employed by many of the modern authors of Viking fiction.  and soon introduces the villain that will bring tragedy to hisnewly fortunate life.  The villain is brutal and merciless, but ultimately colorless.  For a four book series, new and better written antagonists is a must for one to keep coming back.
     The Strongbow Saga has potential and I will pickup at least one more volume. The nuanced point of view and interesting origin of the hero overcomes the plot's reliance on heroic cliches.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Month of Vikings

After a month without posting, March should bring in regular updates featuring a variety of Vikings and Viking related literature.  First, the often maligned Wargames Factory's Dark Ages offerings.  The Viking Bondi differ from the Anglo-Saxon unarmored set in only the head and accessory sprue.  Otherwise, both sets offer the same unarmored/lightly armored bodies in a standing or awkwardly walking pose.  To its main credit, this is the only plastic set currently available that one can use to fill out their ranks of Viking thralls/archers.  It can be difficult to get natural poses from the figures, but with a little shaving of the arms and a willingness to create some lefty archers, some good results can be achieved.

These painted fairly well, at least by my middling standards.  The Norse preference for axes and sword permeates popular history and media, but the bow was a prized weapon by even the best warriors.  In The Icelandic Njal's Saga, the ever feuding Gunnar, armed with a bow and spear, fights off thirteen enemies, slaying many before they even approach him.

My biggest gripe with this line of figures are the heads.  It can take a lot of work to get them to sit naturally.   Here's a group shot of a point's worth of Saga thralls.  A few wear chain, but maybe they were lucky scavengers.  

Njal's Saga may be my favorite Icelandic saga.  Set at the turn of the eleventh century, it is a violent and darkly humorous account of the blood feuds among the self-governing Icelandic settlers.  There are no epic battles or king-making moments of glory in this account.  It does have more premeditated murder and domestic violence than a hard-boiled mystery novel.

Njal's Saga at Amazon.