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234 × 156 mm
368 pages
5 illustrations
16 Apr 2018

Laughing Shall I Die Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings Tom Shippey

In this robust new account of the Vikings, Tom Shippey explores their mindset, and in particular their fascination with scenes of heroic death. Laughing Shall I Die considers Viking psychology by weighing the evidence of the sagas against the accounts of the Vikings’ victims. The book recounts many of the great bravura scenes of Old Norse literature, including the Fall of the House of the Skjoldungs, the clash between the two great longships Ironbeard and Long Serpent, and the death of Thormod the skald.

The most exciting book on Vikings for a generation, Laughing Shall I Die presents them for what they were: not peaceful explorers and traders, but bloodthirsty warriors and marauders.

EXTRACT: to read and download the introduction from the book please click here.

‘Tom Shippey’s magnificent Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings explores the adventures and mind-set of these heroes and heroines, many of whom were actual historical figures who flourished during the Viking heyday of roughly 750 to 1100 AD. Their exploits were passed down orally and given literary form only as prose narratives in the 13th and 14th centuries . . . 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) . . . 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.’ – Michael Dirda, Washington Post

‘Shippey has accumulated an impressive body of knowledge about medieval literary sources relating to Northern European history. This is a fast-paced, exhilarating account of the psychology of the marauding Vikings . . . We will always speculate about the why of the past – this is what fuels our investigation and imagination. Mr. Shippey shows us that both literary and archaeological evidence can help to bring us closer to the Old Norse mindset, providing fascinating proof of the Vikings’ own intellectual examination of their place in the world.’ – Wall Street Journal

‘fascinating . . . Spirited, engaging and frequently very funny, this book is as memorable and enjoyable as the medieval stories it explores – an unmissable read for anyone interested in the Vikings.’ – BBC History Magazine

‘Today, much of the popular discourse on the Vikings tends to be directed towards the rehabilitation of medieval Europe’s northerly inhabitants as respectable people. In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey blows this longship out of the water with a thought-provoking and entertaining exploration of the Viking mind-set, which he describes variously as “psychopathic” and a “death cult” . . . Fittingly for an author concerned with tales told centuries ago, Shippey reveals a talent for telling stories of his own, bringing these scarred and shattered bones back to life through his own interpretations and source analysis. Throughout, Shippey’s distinctive voice comes across loud and clear: conversational, intelligent, irreverent, darkly comic – not unlike the Old Norse sagas and poems he explores. Psychopathic death cult or otherwise, I suspect the Vikings themselves would have approved of both the tone and the content.’ – Literary Review

‘Shippey has chosen some great stories to retell, and much of the general public at whom this book is aimed will enjoy both those and his frequent references to modern popular culture (he is best known as an expert on Tolkien).’ – TLS

‘it is not possible in any review to do justice to all that Shippey has gathered together for us.  His study is a richly detailed, imaginative, and deeply learned account of Viking conquests and mentality. Shippey’s study will interest and perhaps upset specialists in Old Norse, Old English, Celtic and Old Germanic language, literature, history, archaeology and culture.’ – Heroic Age

‘As a sprawling guide to Viking history, Laughing Shall I Die makes compelling reading. Shippey’s wide-ranging survey of the literature is lucid and engaging, presenting his view in a way that’s revealing even for readers already familiar with the subject material, and accessible for those who aren’t . . . The author’s voice is memorable and idiosyncratic, making this an easy and enjoyable read despite its scholarship. Laughing Shall I Die is an informative and entertaining read for anyone interested in the Viking age’ – Fortean Times

‘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 . . . 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.’ – Open Letters Review

‘Shippey wants us to grasp [the Vikings'] sheer otherness. Shippey is a medievalist, Tolkien expert, and scholar of science fiction, an excellent writer whatever hat he happens to be wearing at the moment, with shelves of books and articles to his credit.’ – John Wilson, Favourite Books of 2018, First Things

‘Here are two take-aways from Shippey’s latest book: One, “Viking” was a job description, not a racial or ethnic designation; and two, a quality demanded of those Vikings was a finely honed, mordant sense of humor that perhaps we modern nine-to-five cubicle-dwellers would find difficult to understand. That sense of humor includes composing, on the spot, even as the composer is being bitten to death by a pit-full of adders, a beautiful song that will be handed down through the ages. The song concludes with the line, “Laughing shall I die,” primarily because the dying Viking knows his sons are coming to wreak vengeance on the king who put him in the pit and will subject said king to a longer, slower, far grislier demise. It’s pretty funny, apparently, if you’re a Viking.’ – Washington Independent Review of Books

‘As tough and uncompromising as the Viking heroes whose lives and deaths it recounts, Tom Shippey’s book also shares their dark sense of humour . . . Shippey upsets entrenched positions, dissects legend from history, and reveals how the Vikings were able to dominate in the North for more than three centuries.’ – Carolyne Larrington, Professor of Medieval European Literature, University of Oxford

‘This new book will become a classic. For me it was a must-read, and a very pleasant one at that. Shippey takes the reader deep into the world and thought of the Vikings. Along with exploring their violence, travels, and technology, he asks: "what gave them their edge?", and "how did they get away with it for so long?" His answers often focus on the strange (if I may say) amusements of Old Norse heroes . . . a fine read written by someone who understands Old Norse sagas, myths and legends.’ – Jesse Byock, Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and author of Viking Age Iceland and Viking Language: Learn Old Norse

‘With his usual erudition and insight, Tom Shippey has shed some light on an always interesting question: how different from us can a strange people (the Vikings) be and still be considered human? Put another way: what does the difference between how those people see themselves and how we see them say about our capacity for sympathy and understanding? In Shippey’s hands the Vikings are a challenging subject, but an illuminating one.’ – Stephen R. Donaldson, author of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

‘Shippey’s account of the mindset and motives of Vikings offers a judicious challenge to scholarly orthodoxies, while reaching out to a much broader readership. The horned helmets may have been banished, but the tough-minded and rapacious marauder now reappears in ways that deserve serious attention . . . a tour de force. Its author has done Viking studies a memorable service.’ – Andrew Wawn, Emeritus Professor of Anglo-Icelandic Studies, University of Leeds

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Tom Shippey is Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Missouri. His books include J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2010), The Road to Middle Earth (4th revd edn, 2004), and Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (2017).


Part i
1 The Viking Mindset: Three Case Studies
2 Hrolf and Hygelac: False Dawn for the Viking
3 Volsungs and Nibelungs: Avenging Female Furies
4 Ragnar and the Ragnarssons: Snakebite and Success
5 Egil the Ugly and King Blood-axe: Poetry and the Psychopath

Part ii: Moving to the Bigger Picture
6 Weaving the Web of War: The Road to Clontarf
7 Two Big Winners: The Road to Normandy
8 Furs and Slaves, Wealth and Death: The Road to Miklagard

Part iii: The Tale in the North
9 The Jarls and the Jomsvikings: A Study in Drengskapr
10 A Tale of Two Olafs; or, The Tales People Tell
11 A Tale of Two Haralds: Viking Endgame
12 Aftermath: The Nine Grins of Skarphedin Njalsson

Appendix A: On Poetry: Types, Texts, Translations
Appendix B: On Sagas: Types, Texts, Translations
Appendix C: Snorri Sturluson

Photo Acknowledgements