The third act of Robert Zemeckis’s underrated Beowulf adaptation begins with a dour meditation. “We men are the monsters now,” the aging hero rumbles. “The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf—the Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame.”
Some version of Beowulf’s sentiments here—penned by screenwriter and acclaimed novelist Neil Gaiman, author of the legendary-America fantasy novel American Gods—often pervades contemporary stories about the old Norse culture. And indeed, as far as pagan traditions go, there is something uniquely arresting about the old Norse faith, depicting as it does a world of blood and sex and fire and ice, haunted by terrifying monsters. The tradition’s metaphysics were defined by conflict—with the valiant destined for a Valhalla of perpetual warring, and the universe itself hurtling inexorably towards a final, fateful Ragnarök. Such a Steel Age Mindset offers not merely the thrill of honor in battle, but cosmic stakes. It should surprise no one that Ásatrú, a contemporary repristination of this tradition, attracts adherents today.
More important, though, is the stark reality that the Scandinavian lands, for all their secularity today, were Christianized. In the waning decades of the ninth century A.D., the Viking lord Guthrum was baptized, with King Alfred the Great serving as his sponsor. The destiny of the North was forever altered, and Odin, Loki, and the rest mostly faded into folklore.
Modern storytellers contemplating this historical moment often find themselves at a loss. They must somehow make sense of the strange truth that, when confronted with pagan vitalism in its fiercest form, the Christian faith still carried the day. Many find it hard to square that circle.
To take just one example, historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell devotes page after page of his bestselling Saxon Chronicles to critiquing this triumph of Christianity over paganism. His own sympathies are clear enough. For Cornwell, the Christian faith is “a woman’s creed” that “doesn’t ennoble men, it makes them into worms.” It is “a religion that sucks joy from this world like dusk swallowing daylight,” promising only “Valhalla without any of the amusements.” As Cornwell’s hero Uhtred repeatedly pronounces, this rival tradition is even an enemy of life:
“And I like the Danes,” I said. “You do? So why do you kill them?” “I like them,” I said, ignoring his question, “because they’re not frightened of life.” “They’re not Christians, you mean.” “They’re not Christians,” I agreed.
For Uhtred (and Cornwell, clearly), Christianity is nothing but an ossified legalism: “the Christian god has nothing better to do than to make rules for us. He makes rules, more rules, prohibitions and commandments, and he needs hundreds of black-robed priests and monks to make sure we obey those laws.”
By contrast, the pagan life-way promises something far more exhilarating than the sterile Christian eschaton: “A heaven for men! A heaven for warriors! A heaven where swords shine! A heaven for brave men! A heaven of savagery! A heaven of corpse-gods! A heaven of death!” Not that Uhtred has much choice in the matter. On his cosmology, the real power behind things is essentially deterministic: “Fate is inexorable. Fate cannot be changed. Fate rules us.”
That is about as deep as Cornwell’s religious musings go (which is to say, not very). But beneath the surface, they perhaps suggest a subtler explanation for the transformation of the Norse—an explanation opaque even to Cornwell himself, and so many other contemporary storytellers like him.
Robert Eggers’s 2022 film The Northman is notable for how wholeheartedly it invites its viewer into an alien ethical world. Without a trace of irony or self-consciousness, berserkers drive themselves into a frenzy by yelping like wolves around a bonfire. Protagonist Amleth joins a horde of marauders as they raid a village, slaughtering men and children alike and enslaving the women. There is no trace of shame or regret here, no specter of an anachronistic Christian moralism. That wild abandon, though, comes at a price—a price bound up with Amleth’s sense of Fate as the power guiding his steps.
Late in the film, Amleth and his lover, Olga, win their freedom from the evil Fjölnir and set sail for a new land. Once safely aboard, Olga announces excitedly that she is carrying Amleth’s twins. Thus arises the story’s tragic choice: will Amleth leave with Olga, or return to confront Fjölnir and meet his foretold fate? It is indeed a crisis for Amleth. As he hesitates before declaring his plan, the inner conflict is written on his features: live with family, or die for destiny. In Eggers’s stark vision, though, there is only one right answer. Amleth returns, and Amleth dies.
This is a narratively satisfying conclusion—true to the moral universe of The Northman, that is. But it is an existentially dispiriting one. Though Amleth wins for himself a kind of “honor,” and Valkyries shepherd his soul to Valhalla, he will never see his children come of age. And all for the sake of a vengeance lacking any real necessity.
In setting up such a dilemma, Eggers captures something he perhaps did not intend: the freedom that exists under the shadow of an intractable Fate is, in fact, no real freedom at all. Nor is there any freedom beyond death’s gates: the perpetually recurring battlefield of Valhalla looks less like paradise than the horror of saṃsāra.
Against that backdrop, the Norse may well have seen the Christian promise as less a straitjacket than an invitation—an invitation to experience new goods, goods of peace and wonder and human affection, that the logic of the old paths foreclosed. The primal goods of valor and loyalty need not be forsaken: in place of a Ragnarök that would end in chaos, the new faith promised an Armageddon that would end in restoration.
So too with honor. The crowning honor that is distinctively Christian is not merely martial prowess, but something much fuller-orbed than that. The honor that crowns the Christian is found in both action (1 Peter 5:4) and contemplation (2 Timothy 4:8), in both self-denial (1 Corinthians 9:25) and the building of an eternal Kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:19). This is not the stuff of a paler life, but a more vibrant one, suffused with infinite creative possibilities.
Gaiman, Cornwell, and others depict the Norse as essentially irrational, selling their spiritual birthright away for a mess of dogmatic pottage. But this is chronological snobbery at its most blatant. It is to neglect altogether the possibility that the goods internal to the Norse tradition might be more perfectly realized in the light of a new horizon. Perhaps the coming of Christianity was not a disintegration of ancient yearnings, but rather something capable of taking up and transforming them, offering a freedom and glory beyond Fate’s iron hand.
Perhaps, even if Cornwell and Gaiman have forgotten it, the old Viking vitalism was not so fulfilling after all.
Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Paramount Pictures, 2007), DVD. ↑
Eleanor Shipley Duckett, Alfred the Great: The King and His England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), 79–80. ↑
Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 84. ↑
Bernard Cornwell, Sword Song: The Battle for London (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 63. ↑