National view: Think Vikings, think ... laughter?
Sometimes our view of the world is completely shaken by new theories. That has happened to me with the Vikings.
Much given to pillage and murder, they were. Had suspect table manners. Spoke Old Norse in which they said many uncouth things. Felt that if they died in battle they were going to Valhalla, an exclusive resort destination in the hereafter. Made themselves unpopular for a couple of hundred years. Wore horns on their helmets.
Except now I find in my research that they didn’t have horns on their helmets. No horned helmets? Well, that spoils the image. I always assumed that they used the horns to impale rawhide notes to themselves, as newspaper copy editors used to do with their metal spikes for rejected stories (usually mine, alas, back in the day).
In the Vikings’ case, the message would be something like: “Reminder to Self, Eric the Forgetful, to tell Olaf to repair the longboat.” But no, the Vikings did not have horned helmets, according to the experts, and many a longboat was no doubt lost because of the lack of primitive Post-It notes to remind the crew to make repairs.
But something more disturbing has come to my attention. By odd chance I came to read a story in a London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, that suggested the Vikings had a sense of humor and influenced British humor by introducing the concepts of sarcasm, understatement and irony.
What? The Vikings were a humorous bunch of ruffians? British humor, the only thing that makes life bearable in those damp isles, was influenced by the Vikings? Pull my other leather-strapped leg, it’s got a bell on it.
Yet the person who suggested this was no less an authority than Claus Grube, the Danish ambassador in London. He told the paper that sarcasm, irony and understatement are part of the “common heritage” between Denmark and Britain. In support of his theory he noted that the later Old Norse sagas had examples of laconic humor.
As one who has fallen a bit behind on his Old Norse reading list, I must take the ambassador’s word on the subject, but humorous Vikings using understatement and sarcasm like a sword is a challenging concept. The mind struggles to form a mental picture:
It is a typical summer’s day off the coast of early Britain — rain, sleet, gale-force winds. Sven says to Olaf: “Perfect weather for pillaging, eh Olaf?”
“Yes,” Olaf, says, “time to give the Britons a little spot of bother.”
And they both have an ironic laugh that would rattle the horns on their helmets if they had any.
I am not buying it. The chronicles of the period speak of the invaders’ crimes but say nothing about cutting remarks that hurt the locals’ feelings. Next it will be suggested that the Vikings gave each other supportive group hugs.
To be fair to the ambassador, he did say that the “extreme popularity” of Monty Python in Denmark is evidence of this shared bond of humor today. But then one doesn’t have to be descended from pillaging or pillaged ancestors to like Monty Python. A fondness for funny walks or dead parrots is enough.
Of course, it could have been much worse. What if the Vikings had employed slapstick on their raids, assaulting villagers’ faces with cream pies?
Or how galling would it have been for the victims if Norse satirists had descended on them to make fun of their local customs while carrying off their women and livestock? There’s nothing worse than to lose a cow you love and be satirized at the same time.
All these conjectures do raise an interesting question about how a people form a collective sense of humor. More likely is that oppressed people embrace humor as a defense mechanism. It’s the oppressed people — not the oppressors — who have the last laugh, because the choice we have in this life is to laugh or cry, and crying only makes your sandwiches soggy.
Reg Henry is deputy editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.