Review: The Children of Ash and Elm

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Summary: A history based in archaeological research of the rise of the Vikings, their ways and beliefs, and their development as a trading, raiding, and invading power.

The story is that the gods, as they were creating, found two pieces of wood, out of which they fashioned the first man and first woman. The man was of Ash, the woman of Elm, and from these the people that became known to us as the “Vikings” sprang. Or so the Norse legends say.

Beginning with this story, Neil Price renders a history of the people known to us as Vikings. It is a story of a people who emerge from the fjords of Norway and the fastnesses of Sweden, from a collection of locally powerful lords of halls to invade and settle as far as Uzbekistan, Kabul, and Baghdad in the east and Iceland, Greenland, and the eastern shores of North America to the west. They contributed to the founding of Russia and their blood runs through William the Conqueror.

Price draws deeply on archaeological research to reconstruct the rise of these peoples in a time of volcanically-induced extended winter. The first part of this work traces their roots amid a Europe reconstituting itself after the fall of the Roman empire and the spread of Christianity, including to isolated monasteries in England that fell to early raids. Price uses archaeology to reconstruct their life, their beliefs (the Norse gods were a violent and promiscuous bunch) their burial customs (a most fascinating part of the book, including the boat burials, the rites and sacrifices, and what they were interred with), their social organization, including the employment of slaves, and their gender and sexuality.

The second part of the book traces the rise of the Vikings as a maritime culture from trading to raiding (“why trade for it when we can just take it.”) to their full scale invasions. What drives all of this is growing economic power and the needs to sustain and expand it. Price is unsparing in his accounts of the violence of these raids and invasions, and especially the consequences for women.

The third part of the book then builds upon this expansion to trace the extent of their dispersion throughout northern and eastern Europe, Russia, Constantinople and the trade routes to the east. We also learn of their dispersion from Scandinavian countries to Iceland and the attempts to settle in Greenland and North America (Vinland). Price traces the wars in England, the back and forth struggles of alternating Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings until the death of Knut in 1035 and the invasion of William, who as mentioned, was a Viking descendent.

In addition to this sweeping history, Price offers us a glimpse of the avalanche of data coming from archaeological work, from excavations, to artifacts, to DNA samples. We learn of the excavation of a warrior burial site that the warrior was a woman, from DNA evidence. Price offers evidence of fluidity in both gender roles and sexuality which might be explored further in terms of whether contemporary constructs are being read into the record, or whether the record bears out the existence of gender and sexual expression that parallel contemporary experience.

The work helps the reader enter into the worldview of these people, their maritime and military prowess, the sheer breadth of their advances and influences, and, in the end, their assimilation into Christendom. We see both the glories of the hall and the ugliness of their violence and some of their rites. The work offers maps that should be referenced to track the movements of the Vikings and a variety of illustrations of sites and artifacts referenced in the text. The references also offer extensive additional readings, as well as references for each chapter in the text.

All of this comes in a highly readable account, seasoned with Price’s wit from time to time. While there may be matters for continued scholarly debate in Price’s account, he offers an account that separates myth from fact in our understanding of these people–for example, there were no horned helmets but rather head pieces of armor and mail! This is a “go to” resource for those interested in the current research on the Vikings and their history and ways.

Review: Across A Billion Years

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago.

Tom Rice is a graduate archaeology researcher part of a team drawn from several different races from different planets on an expedition excavating a site on one of the planets occupied by an incredibly advanced and ancient civilization, The High Ones. Tom, in his youthful enthusiasm, is the narrator of this story. The chapters are recorded messages to his telepath sister, Lorie, whose mind can communicate across the galaxy while her invalid body is confined to a hospital bed.

The dig, like most, is tediously routine at first, allowing us to get to know the expedition’s characters–the android Kelly, the rhino-like Mirrick, Dr. Horkk from Thhh, Steen Steen, a hermaphroditic creature, Saul the stamp collector, Leroy Chang, who turns out to be kind of creepy, Pilazinool, who loves to remove and replace his robotic limbs, Dr Shein, who heads the expedition, 408b, an octopoid creature, and Tom’s love interest, Jan, who at first is more interested in the stamp collector.

The expedition shifts from tedium to intrigue when Tom discovers a sphere that is kind of a projector, that plays back scenes from The High One’s civilization. Nothing like this has ever been discovered. More than that, it puts them on a trail of discovery leading first to an asteroid where a robot has been entombed in a cave, it turns out over 800 years ago. They find the asteroid, and the robot intact, who conveniently is a universal translator. The robot in turn takes them to a home planet, abandoned “just” 275 million year ago by the Mirt Korp Ahm, as the High Ones call themselves. The planet continues to be inhabited by a fantastic assemblage of self-maintaining robots, much like Dihn Ruu, their interpreter.

It is here that Dihn Ruu learns why the aging home star of the Mirt Korp Ahm cannot any longer be seen. The planetary system has been enclosed by a Dyson sphere to conserve energy. And with this news, the explorers lay plans to head there, only to face arrest from Galaxy Central!

Will they make it to the home planet of the Mirt Korp Ahm? If they do, what will they find? Will they be received or destroyed? And how will these discoveries change them? These are interesting questions that I cannot answer without spoiling the conclusion.

Perhaps as interesting as this adventure from planet to asteroid to planet are the relationships between the members of the team. Silverberg explores the human-android relationship–are humans from a vat really different from those conceived the old-fashioned way? And why do humans inherently suspect other species?

Equally intriguing is Tom’s perception of his sister. He pities her physical disabilities and “guards” her from aspects of his life that highlight her disabilities. Silverberg gives us an interesting portrayal of how the “abled” view those “differently abled” and how the “differently abled” see things.

Oddly, it seemed to me that what Silverberg considers the least is the encounter between species, and how such contact, particularly if one is far advanced, would change the explorers civilization. Nor does there seem to be much interest in the highly advanced robotic civilization, other than as stepping stones to learn what has become of the Mirt Korp Ahm.

Nevertheless, he raises the interesting question of what a race a billion years old might be like, for humans who reckon the advance of modern civilization over less than 50,000 years. Silverberg presents us with this interesting thought experiment clothed in a chase across a galaxy.