Monday, February 5, 2018

The Thrall of Leif the Lucky

Last night (well, this morning for me), the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the dreaded New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. You may be wondering if we watched it! Could we stomach another Patriots Super Bowl win? I did watch part of the first quarter. Instead of staying up until 3:30AM, however, I decided to do something productive and finish Ottilie Liljencrantz's novel, The Thrall of Leif the Lucky. Liljencrantz was a first generation Swedish immigrant who lived in Chicago. She began writing historical fiction as a young woman, publishing about five books before her untimely death at the age of 34. A number of these books were Viking-themed. The best-known of these Viking novels is The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, which follows the voyage of Leif Ericsson to Vinland (North America). 

The novel itself is rather...blah. BUT WE ARE READING BETWEEN THE LINES!

You see, Liljencrantz acknowledges a number of heavy hitters prior to the beginning of the story. She includes our very own dear Carl Christian Rafn, Rasmus B. Anderson, Tegner, John Fisk, Vigfusson, and Mallet. So she knew her stuff! All these names were the movers and shakers in the Norse field within the English-speaking world. At the end of this list of names, she gives credit to Muscular Christian and all around kook Charles Kingsley (she also thanks disgraced Minnesota justice and anti-abolitionist Aaron Goodrich, but that's another story!). 

There's no better way of saying this: Kingsley was a nut. Before we dive deeper into how he thought, it is important to note that it is nearly impossible to discuss Charles Kingsley without mentioning Thomas Carlyle. The impact Carlyle has had on Norse studies is difficult to gauge. His lecture series in the 1840s on Hero Worship was eventually turned into a book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic In History. Although Carlyle does discuss Norse mythology and Norse culture, the lectures were not specifically about Vikings or Norse. In classic nineteenth-century subtle racism, he lent instead on terms like Teutonic. Like his protege Emerson, Carlyle was prone to lump Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian into a wider racial group, either Teutonic or Germanic or something else made up. His ideas about Hero Worship were important for Charles Kingsley, which I will get to in a moment. I want to first point out some of his ideas that stuck to the Norse field.

Carlyle insisted that Odin (and thereby the gods in general) was actually a man. This argument had the opposite effect of Snorri's euhemerism found at the beginning of the Edda or Heimskringla. Snorri wanted to downplay the gods, suggesting that Odin and Thor were just really talented and powerful men that somewhat hoodwinked his ancestors into believing that they were gods. Carlyle, on the other hand, argued that this talent and power made them all the more impressive as men. He focused more on that fact that Odin must have been one of the most impressive men of all time, showcasing an unbelievable amount of masculinity (Varty 62). Exactly what was so manly about Odin is a little vague. Even now, classmates of mine are investigating the ambiguity of Odin's gender. And this is where Charles Kingsley comes in.

A more refined Kingsley. 

Charles Kingsley is probably best known for his children's book The Water Babies, which to my knowledge does NOT contain any kind of racist worldview. The rest of his novels, however, generally have-if not outright racism-a racist undertone. Kingsley not only agreed with Carlyle that the Teutonic branch of race were far superior, he took things one step further: for Kingsley, there was a certain Teutonic energy that can be felt through the Vikings in Ottilie Liljencrantz's novel--an energy that he described as the "life force of manliness." (Barnes 135-136). His thoughts on race, as Stanwood Walker has expressed, are difficult to really pin point, but here is the gist: Races were a part of God's natural world (Walker 341). With the British empire stretching out to touch new and different types of people, as well as the modern industrialized cities that spread so much pollution and misery, people like Kingsley began to look to the past for a "golden age" when men were more chivalric. During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, not only were immigrants and Others a threat, but women were emerging onto the work scene, taking jobs from men (Tosh 190). These threats doubled Kingsley's radical views: Men had become more passive over the years, which is a feminine virtue (Tozer 37). Action and activity were manly virtues, and ones that had proved in the past to be connected to the Teutonic (i.e. Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon) race(s). Thus, Kingsley developed muscular Christianity- a term which he hated, by the way. In this mode of thinking, manly action and a healthy lifestyle of sport and exercise was key to returning to a more full life that was enjoyed by the British forefathers before industrialization and before people of other color became a true threat. Because in the past, British was of one national identity - white Anglo-Saxon. 

So what does this have to do with Ottilie? Just because she thanks Charles Kingsley does not mean that she was racist or a muscular Christian or a total kook as well. 

Except, at the end of her acknowledgements, she gives this little nugget: "And to the works of these eminent writers, first and foremost, I owe also the love that I have come to bear the heroic Viking-age,--rough and brutal, if you will, yet instinct with such purity and truth and power as befits the boyhood of the might Anglo-Saxon race."

Okay, so maybe a little nationalistic but surely not racist. 

Except that she describes the Native Americans in Vinland as small and bestial, claiming they had "manes like wild horses," their language was made up of "grunts and growls and guttural noises" that sounded like animals, and they had the "fierce beast mouth and small tricky eyes" of animals. 

But she is writing from the Northmen's perspective, of course! 

Throughout the novel, you pick up on some of Carlyle's and Kingsley's ideologies. Again, this does not give us anything concrete except that there was some influence. According to John Tosh, manliness was concerned first with man's inner character, especially his self control. It was secondly to do with man's chivalric protection of women. In The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, we meet Alwin--an Anglo-Saxon noble-turned-slave who accompanies the Northmen to Greenland and eventually to Vinland. Alwin is naturally pissed about his lowered status and has some trouble in controlling his anger. Not until he meets Leif Ericcson, who is a master at controlling his emotions, does Alwin realize the true value of this virtue and we begin to see his character's turnaround. Leif also has a duty to protect Helga, Alwin's true love. Even though Helga is said to be a shield maiden, she is utterly useless, prone to tears and tantrums, and depends heavily on her male comrades in her plans and schemes. This also plays into Kingsley's ideas of how women are not equal but are complementary to men. Helga fights against her traditional place inside the home but when it is all boiled down, she is woefully feminine. 

A great example of this complementary relationship is when Alwin feels defeated and is ready to give up. Helga urges him not to talk with such disparity, trying to shake him out of his stupor. When she finishes, Alwin agrees to shape up and says, "Never again shall you have cause to shame my manhood with such words." Tosh says that part of manliness is to repress the feminine inside. And here you have the protagonist of the story showing signs of weakness. His female counterpart shames his manhood, as any good woman should, and Alwin pushes down his "womanly" doubts. 

If this isn't Kingsley, then I don't know what is!

Here's what is interesting: 

There are a number of parallels running between this novel and Edison Marshall's The Viking, and between Carlyle's and Kingsley's anxieties and the anxieties of modern-day white supremacists. 


In The Viking, we also see an Anglo-Saxon slave who was originally of high birth join his Norse captors as an equal. In both stories, the slaves betray their captors' trust and are badly injured. In The Viking, the slave goes to England to save his lover's freedom, fighting off the Vikings along the way. In The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, the slave works his way up to Leif Ericsson's side and eventually wins his lover through honesty and heroic deeds (in this case, the art of writing!). The books are written 50 years apart, and one can see the distancing of religion in the stories. For Liljencrantz, the whole story of Vinland's discovery was an act of Christian heroics. For Marshall, however, Christianity had lost its place and was being put on the same level playing field as the Norse paganism. And this is partly why it had such a huge impact on Steve McNallen, the Asatru Folk Assembly leader in California. 

What does this all mean? Well, for starters, the Anglo-Saxon is the underdog. Both stories venerate the Norse, but both stories also make us root for the Anglo-Saxon slave. And, both slaves were snatched away from their royal or higher status birthrights. This, I think, is an essential point. When looking at how Carlyle, Kingsley, and even the modern day Odinists and Asatru folks develop their worldview, it is with a striking urgency that they are losing their place. They all prop up a golden age of chivalric heroism that has slowly been dying due to industrialization, ruining the earth, and mixing with other races. In this way, Kingsley's obsession with masculinity easily translates into anxiety about race, especially when it is clear that he worked underneath Carlyle. (Harrington 73) White racists putting to use Norse mythology and Norse imagery is simply the next logical step. Both Carlyle and Kingsley were afraid of losing touch with the masculine Anglo-Saxon past; white racists simply took the next step by solidifying a connection to a Teutonic past. What is incredibly interesting, however, is that so far, I have yet to see a single white racist group give any credit to Carlyle, Kingsley, or any of these Victorian forebears. 

The world is a dark and mysterious place. 

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