Weighing the evidence of Viking sagas and poems against the accounts of the Vikings’ victims, Tom Shippey plumbs the complexities of Viking psychology and recounts tales from Old Norse literature to evoke a medieval culture of war, marauding, and storytelling.
Writing for a popular audience has clearly punched up Shippey’s prose, which is lively, friendly and occasionally barbed (mostly when alluding to academic stodginess) ... Though its many Norse names may seem off-putting, Shippey’s magnum opus provides not only an exhilarating, mind-expanding appraisal and retelling of Viking history but also an invitation to discover the cold-iron poetry and prose of the medieval North. Take up that invitation. Most adult readers only occasionally feel the wonder and enchantment that books so easily, so regularly evoked in us when we were young.
Tom Shippey's irresistible new book Laughing Shall I Die is a densely-detailed excavation of the lives, battles, and deaths of the towering figures from the Norse sagas and poems ... Shippey's inquiries are bracing and vivid; his forensic readings of the sagas and poems are consistently fascinating ... Flinty, argumentative, bristling with energy—Laughing Shall I Die is not only entertaining and challenging … it's also the most Viking Viking book we'll likely see all year.
To summarize his side of the spat [with Vikings scholars], Shippey believes that modern academia finds its delicate sensibilities affronted by the less culturally refined aspects of the marauding Vikings, and has worked to ignore, bowdlerize, explain away, and generally discount what it sees as a cartoon version of the Viking ethos. These academics compare Viking legend with the overblown mythology of America’s Wild West. Shippey works to dismantle that view. To do so, he draws heavily upon the great sagas, from which we derive much of our knowledge of the ancient Norse traditions, culture, and religion ... And therein lies the larger problem: This material begs for a narrative-nonfiction approach, to get blood pumping through the descriptions and perhaps engage the readers’ imaginations more successfully. Though Shippey tries to keep things jaunty with some of his descriptions, many details are too pedantically academic; it feels as though he’s still playing to his old tutor.