Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

234 × 156 × 27 mm
368 pages
5 illustrations
14 Sep 2020

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. 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.

‘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 a mark of our Age of Sensitivity that scholars have tried to turn the murderous Vikings into hygge-loving Scandinavian traders (with no trigger warning for those who don’t care for revisionist history). It is an approach that has no currency with Tom Shippey . . . he gives us a remarkable account of the robbers and raiders that bear more resemblance to a medieval biker gang than to maritime merchants. And for those of us that still go in for a good bit of that old-time masculinity, Shippey enthralls . . . We shall not see their kind again, nor are we likely have a book that helps us see them so well.’ — Kirk Center Reviews

‘[Shippey's] text maintains an entertaining and approachable tone that would not overwhelm a novice to the field. He effectively shares his knowledge of the content area in a way that avoids dwelling on minutiae.’ — Folklore

Show all

Tom Shippey is Professor Emeritus of Saint Louis University, Missouri. His books include J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2001), The Road to Middle Earth (4th revd edn, 2004), and Hard Reading: Learning from Science Fiction (2016).


Part I: Dying Hard
1 The Viking Mindset: Three Case Studies
2 Hygelac and Hrolf: False Dawn for the Vikings
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 Viking 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