- The Vikings on Film: Essays on Depictions of the Nordic Middle Ages by Kevin J. Harty, ed.
Vikings on Film, as it promises, is a book of essays explicitly concerned with the cinematic depiction of Vikings. With the inclusion of an extensive filmography, it turns into an important sourcebook for this fertile realm at the intersection of popular culture and medievalism.
However, while the filmography, along with the last essay chapter dealing with animated/cartoon Vikings in television and film, provide a useful [End Page 239] bibliographic source for further research, the book as a whole is a mixed bag. Any editor would be strained to produce a coherent and cohesive volume from such a wide array of contributors, topics, and theoretical approaches; and without an overarching methodology, or disciplinary approach to the subject matter, the collection as a whole suffers.
There are fourteen essays in toto (in addition to the filmography), all of varying quality and varying length – the shortest is barely five and a half pages of text. This variability overall exposes the volume to a lack of cohesion, and even undermines its ostensible status as an academic production. In fact, read as an academic text, the most prominent failing throughout this volume is the awkward tendency, apparent in a number of these essays, to slip into an affected or journalistic style of expression; a style that seems to imply an ‘in’ group of imagined readers, those for whom such quirky, non-standard, or non-academic usage is standard and therefore cool. Or perhaps the book is trying to increase its readership by pitching to a wider non-academic readership.
But notwithstanding these reservations, there are indeed a good number of very sound academic works in this volume, works that would not be out of place in an undergraduate literary/media/cultural curriculum. Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s contribution, which sees her dip into the waters of French poststructuralist theory, is one such example. Articles by Alan Lupack, and Laurie Finke and Martin Schichtman are useful reminders of social and cultural context, the political constraints on Hollywood, and the implications for representation, the viewer, and the gaze. The paper by David W. Marshall also deals neatly with positioning of narrative in a political context, in this case critiquing the colonialism explored in that film, and turning that ethical consideration back onto ‘source’ texts, like Beowulf. And Andrew B. R. Elliott’s article shines among a number of other papers that consider the notion of ‘viking’ in popular culture, and the influence of postmodern intertextuality, pastiche, and destabilization of ‘history’ in understanding the place of the category ‘viking’ more broadly.
However, partly due to the nature of the object of study, there often runs through many of these essays a tendency for a simplistic descriptive style that recites the plot structures and the visual aspects of scene developments, in order to establish a basis for discussion. The underlying assumption, at variance to that found in most literary analyses, is that the reader probably has not seen the film being discussed. Often these are just the key visual plot or cinematographic characteristics in a descriptive ‘film opens … cut to …’ format, with little more than observations about inferred meanings, and while an argument can be made that this type of writing may be necessary, [End Page 240] it often results in a laboured style that impedes the development of more engaging critical analyses.
There are also a good number of examples of journalistic, even glib expression throughout the book, which deter the academic, but perhaps encourage the non-academic reader. These examples often bring common sense notions to the fore, without critique, such as notions of ‘silly’: ‘Without getting too Freudian (i.e., too silly) …’ (p. 34); ‘Such silliness, in ample supply …’ (p. 58); ‘the rather silly vikingness’ (p. 61); and ‘it is this silliness …’ (p. 62). Nowhere is ‘silly’ analysed, contextualized, or considered as anything other...