What is the most famous ‘Viking funeral’ in Western popular culture?
There are actually only a handful of contenders, from Einar’s funeral in The Vikings (1958) to the ship-cremation in The 13th Warrior (1999). More recently, there are many funerary scenes in the Norse societies featuring in the popular TV shows The Last Kingdom and Vikings. However, I would like to propose one that might be far more important and better known than any of these. I concede that it might have escaped film fans, but this example will be well-known to graphic novel readers: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982-1985). Subsequently the Viking funeral appears in the 2005 film of the same name, starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, but the overt Norse associations are written out for those who might not be looking and thinking carefully.
In life, V is born nameless and faceless following torture and experimentation at Larkhill Detention Centre. He is set on a vendetta against a post-apocalyptic Orwellian far-right government of homophobes, Islamophobes and white supremacists. He is born from fire, escaping from the inferno of Larkhill. In death, V dies in the knowledge that he will live on as a new V takes up his mask, and as his ‘funeral barge’ destroys the heart of the Norsefire government.
In Chapter 9 – The Vigil – V is dying and opaquely requests of Evie: ‘… also… the Victoria Line is blocked… twixt Whitehall and St James… give me a Viking funeral’ (Moore and Lloyd 1985: 245). In chapter 11 – Valhalla – Evie carries V’s body onto the underground train on 10th November 1998 at 2am. ‘”Give me a Viking funeral,” you said. It’s yours, my love… it’s yours’. She lays him on the train as an act of love and devotion, to fulfil his wishes and consign his body to a journey to an unknown destination. Surrounded by Scarlet Carson roses and explosives, she lays him in a glass coffin, revealing that V has carefully prepared the train as simultaneously his method of attack against Norsefire, and his death-ship. She reflects on how she has sent his corpse ‘speeding on your funeral barge along dry subterranean canals down through the dark towards your destination’.
V’s death doesn’t kill his idea, his funeral is the mechanism of his victory over his enemies and the fulfilment of his vendetta. Moreover, through Evie and his mask, his dream lives on and a new world can grow again from the ashes of the Norsefire government’s destruction.
In the film version, the glass coffin is dispensed with, and a garland of roses is around V’s neck and the flowers surround him. The explosives are there too, but the dialogue removes the Viking allusions – presumably too confusing, obscure, or problematic for an American audience. His destination is also changed: not Downing Street but the Houses of Parliament. Yet for those aware of the popular culture appreciation of a ‘Viking funeral’ as a death on a journey – a mash up of Snorri’s Edda and the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, then V really does die like a Germanic hero of old: like Scyld Scefing set out across the waves towards an unknown destination. In both comic and film, V’s death and destination – like his ‘birth’ at Larkhill – is a fiery and explosive one: a cremation through obliteration from which a new world can begin: it is a funeral operating as a social, political and cosmogenic transformation.
This is a striking example of the pervasive 20th-century idea that Viking funerals were transformative journeys. Yet there is a more specific set of reasons why I post this now. This is because it is particularly important at a time where medievalists are repeatedly writing about the international far-right’s appropriation of the Middle Ages, specifically Viking images, material culture and monuments, in the support of white supremacist causes. They are even deployed to justify committing acts of terrorism. From Charlottesville to Christchurch, the horrific appropriation of the Viking past continues to haunt us. In this context, academics are working harder than ever to explain the complex story of the ‘Vikings’ through written sources, place-names, visual and material evidence, and also increasingly through genomic (aDNA) evidence. White supremacist fantasies about a ‘Viking race’ can be shown to be laughably inaccurate.
In this context, therefore, it is important to remember that popular culture has long been populated with narratives that counter and critique these extremist fantasies, equally inspired by Norse myths and material culture. Indeed, we must recall and reflect that the most famous fictional terrorist to ‘die like a Viking’ was actually a vigilante who single-handed pursued a defence of all world cultures from all times, creating a treasure hoard of artefacts and art (the shadow gallery). During his twenty-year vendetta against a white supremacist regime in a futuristic Britain, he deploys the past to take revenge on the present. Apposite for today, he won through computer hacking as well as through assassinations of evil doers and destroying key government buildings. Also, it is important to reflect on the fact that Moore’s fascist regime was a Christian one, called ‘Norsefire’, a useful foil to the repeated assertions that Heathen communities are particularly tarred with association with white supremacists.
In other words, Alan Moore deploys Viking allusions to embody white supremacists but also to resist them: fire to fight fire.
The lessons I gain from this fictional story, first comic, then major Hollywood epic, are as follows:
- the fascination with the ultimate barbarians of the early medieval north – the Vikings – is no new thing, and neither is its mobilisation by the far-right to promote white supremacism. Moore’s comic reminds us that we can fight fire with fire: he plays with the fascist associations of the Norse and also deploys a Viking hero to exact revenge against them – the fulfilment of a feud fit for any saga.
- V for Vendetta inspires me to think that we should stop claiming the far-right have stolen a ‘real history’ that is benign. The ‘real’ history and archaeology of the 8th-11th centuries AD in northern Europe was grim and violent. This doesn’t stop the Vikings being deployed in positive fictional ways even as violent killers – heroes, anti-heroes and villains. This is fiction and should not inspire real acts of violence. Indeed, stories like this can forward the cause of peace, peaceful protest and shared understandings between communities of different origins and backgrounds against violent extremists who wish to claim the Vikings to foster divisions in the modern world.
- we must therefore end the ultimately self-defeating strategy of denouncing and fact-checking those with an enthusiasm for Viking history, mythology, archaeology and heritage, including those that find elements of a neo-Pagan faith in the Norse sagas. Let’s not scoff at reeanctors and cosplayers, Jorvik festival goers, Minnesota Vikings fans, Marvel superhero obsessives and Skyrim players. These are forces for real, positive fantasy, fable and craft, not ‘fake’ histories. Equally though, let’s not fall into the trap of implying those with a passion for Viking metal or Wardruna, skaldic poetry and runestones must inevitably harbour white supremacist leanings. This misses the point that the Vikings are fun and fascinating, terrifying and challenging, sometimes familiar, sometimes uncanny, and they operate across popular culture far beyond far-right loners in basements and racists at rallies. As such, they are everybody’s, not the exclusive territory of the few extremists and lunatics who regard the early medieval Norse as a model for how society today should operate. V is all of us, not a named individual;
- finally, let’s focus our energies on how we write responsibly and engagingly about the ‘Vikings’, the problems and complexities, and their evolving and shifting relationships with other early medieval communities, drawing on our expert knowledge of the human past, but deploying it in association with popular culture as a resource to engage and explain, to challenge and critique.
We can do this too if we stop thinking the Viking past as a battleground of symbols and tropes, race and religion, which extremists have already ‘stolen’ away from us. Instead, let’s remind ourselves that idiots and radicals cannot fully appropriate and control such a complex and diverse intellectual and creative space in popular culture as the Vikings, with its manifold groundings in many academic disciplines and popular stories – many fantastical, some rooted firmly in the human past. Academics must hold their nerve in exploring and celebrating the ‘Viking Age’, as well as challenging those that attempt to appropriate it. In doing so, we must seek out positive ways forward, not denounce and fact-check away the Vikings and thus abandon them to a far-right fantasist fate.
In conclusion, before academics write again about equating the popular culture of the Vikings with the far-right, let’s remember the verisimilitude and valour of V in V for Vendetta. The Victoria Line Viking funeral leads to a Valhalla for V, but simultaneously it affords a victorious vengeance against vicious and venal vermin in Downing Street. Rather than abandon or denounce those that love the Vikings and thus abandon Norse history and archaeology to the violent hate of the far-right, let’s remember the power of Vikings as a cluster of ideas, and how they can change the world: Vikings are venial, not always vice. While varied and varmint, valiant and violent, vagabonds and vagrant, the widespread global popularity of the Vikings has already a verdant vanguard of vivid visuals, verse ventures, and vellum vectors, with which to venture forth and both veto and vanquish white supremacists’ vulgarity with veracity, vindication and verve. Let’s use our venerable verbiage and visuals as a visor to protect and promote an inclusive society from extremism. V reminds us that together we can send white supremacist ideas to their doom, not to Valhalla, but to vomit them verily on a voyage to a vacuous and vile vortex.
V is for vendetta, but V is also for Viking.