Longfellow’s Tragic Viking Warrior – The Skeleton in Armor

We’ve reviewed extensively the Viking age and the stories of the Eddas through the lens of the artwork of Romanticism – so far, predominantly northern Europeans who took a passionate interest in their ancestors, their folk tales, and their outlook on life. While some of the artwork we’ve seen has been brilliant, we also know that some of the interest sparked in the 18th and 19th century resulted in some of the foolish pseudoscientific racialist theories that would eventually lead to Hitler’s National Socialism and the Holocaust.

During this same period in the United States, as awareness of the Viking sagas became more widespread, so, too, did interest in just how accurate their depictions of trips west of Greenland were. Immigrants to the United States were not merely from the British Isles (though of course English, Scots, and Irish are all closely related to the Germanic peoples), but from Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, among nations the world over – these new Americans weren’t just sowing their own seeds in new lands, they were following in the footsteps of legends. 

Interest in the travels of Erik the Red, Leif the Lucky, and the Vikings of the 11th Century was perhaps most intense in New England, an area believed by many to be the site called Vinland spoken of in the Saga of the Greenlanders (Viking settlement outside of L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland has not yet been proven). One of the chief believers in this theory throughout the 19th Century was a poet and scholar from Portland, Maine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

A daguerrotype of Longfellow from 1850, a few years after the publication of The Skeleton in Armor
A daguerrotype of Longfellow from 1850, a few years after the publication of The Skeleton in Armor

Longfellow was a poet and scholar of modern languages and during a tour to Europe was a student of Danish antiquarian Carl Christian Rafn*, one of the leading early proponents of the theory of Scandinavian expeditions to North America. Longfellow learned Old Norse and became familiar with the Eddas and Sagas and was particularly fond of Heimskringla, perhaps Snorri’s most thorough narrative of Norse mythology and the early kings of Norway.

Of course, Longfellow was one of the most famous American poets of the 19th Century, though his influence has since waned, in part because his work is often criticized (famously by Edgar Allan Poe) as derivative of European works. However, that work’s popularity derives in part from its readability and tendency toward a musical sound.

Longfellow was one of the “Fireside Poets“, the first group that rivaled British poets in popularity. He was not the only one of this group known for publishing poetry focusing on Norse culture and mythology: John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell are the others. However, Longfellow in particular was tied personally to the fascination with Norse culture, through his travels and proximity to many of the now-discounted archaeological finds that were constantly in the popular consciousness.

The poem shared here is about one of those bogus finds.

In 1843 a skeleton was unearthed in Fall River, Massachusetts, that had some unexpected accoutrements:

On the breast was a plate of brass, thirteen inches long, six broad at the upper end and five at the lower. This plate appears to have been cast, and is from one-eighth to three thirty-seconds of an inch in thickness. It is so much corroded that whether or not anything was ever engraved upon it has not yet been ascertained. It is oval in form, the edges being irregular, apparently made so by corrosion.
Below the breastplate, and entirely encircling the body, was a belt composed of brass tubes,each four and a half inches in length and three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, arranged longitudinally and close together, the length of the tube being the width of the belt. The tubes are of thin brass, cast upon hollow reeds, and were fastened together by pieces of sinew. This belt was so placed as to protect the lower parts of the body below the breastplate. The arrows are of brass, thin, flat, and triangular in shape, with a round hole cut through near the base.

A sketch of the skeleton in armor. It was destroyed in a fire in 1843, though the bronze armor pieces survived.
A sketch of the skeleton in armor. It was destroyed in a fire in 1843, though the bronze armor pieces survived.

The obvious assumption would be that these remains were Native American, or perhaps from an early settler from the British expeditions to the area. But one popular theory held that this man must have been one of the Viking warriors who braved the treacherous Atlantic to come to America.

And so Longfellow joined in this speculation and wrote a poem about this man, imagining him to be a refugee from Norway who made his way to America in the name of love, liberty, and adventure. The poem is below in full, twenty stanzas of eight lines each. As stated before, the style is readable, and the poem is worth your time. It’s a tale about a Viking, and it’s about America, too. More after the poem.

The Skeleton in Armor

SPEAK! speak! thou fearful guest,
Who, with thy hollow breast
Still in rude armor drest,
Comest to daunt me!
Wrapt not in Eastern balms,
But with thy fleshless palms
Stretched, as if asking alms,
Why dost thou haunt me?”

Then, from those cavernous eyes
Pale flashes seemed to rise,
As when the Northern skies
Gleam in December;
And, like the water’s flow
Under December’s snow,
Came a dull voice of woe
From the heart’s chamber.

“I was a Viking old!
My deeds, though manifold,
No Skald in song has told,
No Saga taught thee!
Take heed, that in thy verse
Thou dost the tale rehearse,
Else dread a dead man’s curse
For this I sought thee.

“Far in the Northern Land,
By the wild Baltic’s strand,
I, with my childish hand,
Tamed the gerfalcon;
And, with my skates fast-bound,
Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,
That the poor whimpering hound
Trembled to walk on.

“Oft to his frozen lair
Tracked I the grisly bear,
While from my path the hare
Fled like a shadow;
Oft through the forest dark
Followed the were-wolf’s bark,
Until the soaring lark
Sang from the meadow.

“But when I older grew,
Joining a corsair’s crew,
O’er the dark sea I flew
With the marauders.
Wild was the life we led;
Many the souls that sped,
Many the hearts that bled
By our stern orders.

“Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
Filled to o’erflowing.

“Once as I told in glee
Tales of the stormy sea,
Soft eyes did gaze on me,
Burning yet tender;
And as the white stars shine
On the dark Norway pine,
On that dark heart of mine
Fell their soft splendor.

“I wooed the blue-eyed maid,
Yielding, yet half afraid,
And in the forest’s shade
Our vows were plighted.
Under its loosened vest
Fluttered her little breast,
Like birds within their nest
By the hawk frighted.

“Bright in her father’s hall
Shields gleamed upon the wall,
Loud sang the minstrels all,
Chaunting his glory;
When of old Hildebrand
I asked his daughter’s hand,
Mute did the minstrels stand
To hear my story.

“While the brown ale he quaffed,
Loud then the champion laughed.
And as the wind gusts waft
The sea-foam brightly,
So the loud laugh of scorn,
Out of those lips unshorn,
From the deep drinking-horn
Blew the foam lightly.

“She was a Prince’s child,
I but a Viking wild,
And though she blushed and smiled,
I was discarded!
Should not the dove so white
Follow the sea-mew’s flight
Why did they leave that night
Her nest unguarded?

“Scarce had I put to sea,
Bearing the maid with me,–
Fairest of all was she
Among the Norsemen!–
When on the white sea-strand,
Waving his armèd hand,
Saw we old Hildebrand,
With twenty horsemen.

“Then launched they to the blast,
Bent like a reed each mast,
Yet we were gaining fast,
When the wind failed us,
And with a sudden flaw
Came round the gusty Skaw,
So that our foe we saw
Laugh as he hailed us.

“And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
Death! was the helmsman’s hail,
Death without quarter!
Mid-ships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel;
Down her black hulk did reel
Through the black water!

“As with his wings aslant,
Sails the fierce cormorant,
Seeking some rocky haunt,
With his prey laden,
So toward the open main,
Beating to sea again,
Through the wild hurricane
Bore I the maiden.

“Three weeks we westward bore,
And when the storm was o’er,
Cloud-like we saw the shore
Stretching to lee-ward;
There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
Stands looking seaward.

“There lived we many years;
Time dried the maiden’s tears;
She had forgot her fears,
She was a mother;
Death closed her mild blue eyes,
Under that tower she lies;
Ne’er shall the sun arise
On such another!

“Still grew my bosom then,
Still as a stagnant fen!
Hateful to me were men
The sunlight hateful!
In the vast forest here,
Clad in my warlike gear,
Fell I upon my spear,
O, death was grateful!

“Thus, seamed with many scars
Bursting these prison bars,
Up to its native stars
My soul ascended!
There from the flowing bowl
Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,
Skoal! to the Northland! Skoal! ”

–Thus the tale ended.

The Old Stone Mill in Newport, Rhode Island, as it appears today.
The Old Stone Mill in Newport, Rhode Island, as it appears today.

The tower of the tale is mentioned by Longfellow in a prose annotation to the poem to be a reference to an old stone tower in Newport, Rhode Island. Longfellow’s teacher, the Danish scholar Rafn, was convinced the tower was of Viking origin, and so were many scholars and Viking enthusiasts. Longfellow made the connection between these two artifacts and the story of the poem is an explanation of how a man might come from Norway to build a tower so far from home, then die 20 miles away.

The specific references used in the tale can today be straightforwardly shown to be false. While we can hold out some belief that expeditions may have made their way from northern Europe to just about anywhere in North America, we are quite certain that the old stone mill in Newport is not of Viking design or construction. Carbon dating shows it was not built during the time of the Vikings; similar buildings were constructed in England in the 17th Century, and so on. There are some really awesome crazy theories out there if you want to look into it, though.

And the armored skeleton was not a Viking, either. Vikings didn’t use bronze for armor. In fact, it was pretty rare for any metal to be used for armor. The word “Viking” is a reference to raiders of the period from CE 793 to CE 1066, and those raiders were seafarers who weren’t interested in sinking to the bottom of the North Sea. I’ll share a couple of links on how arms and armor worked in the Viking age, but because of practical considerations and the expense of mail armor (plate armor didn’t happen), protection depended more on shields and well-woven clothing made of tough fabrics. This guy was not a Viking.

But… in poetry, truth isn’t about literal truth, getting facts and dates and names to line up the way they do in a history book (not that that’s really what history is about, either). Poetry’s about a different kind of truth. So what’s “The Skeleton in Armor” saying?

The answer’s going to be different for everybody. You might see a tragic love story that tore two people from their homeland, or a tale of the lost culture of the Vikings that tried to expand westward with Erik and Leif only to die in its own violent traditions.

I think an interpretation that sees it as a tale of immigrants moving off to a new land to escape an oppressive king is relatively straightforward, too, an attempt at retelling the basic American creation myth through the eyes of the Scandinavian peoples, no less potent because the details don’t quite line up with reality. In fact, you might find the poem interesting specifically because Longfellow and others read so much into the skeleton and the tower – the poem’s meaning for you might be that Americans are always trying to inscribe their agendas onto things that have nothing to do with them.

Of course, the bulk of the poem has little to do with the warrior’s time in America, and until he falls in love with the king’s daughter, he’s certainly not oppressed in Norway. Instead, it serves more as a celebration of Norway, of Norse culture, and of the Eddas, sagas, and histories that Longfellow and his Scandinavian readers treasured. In this way, the poem, like much of Longfellow’s work, was a yearning for an earlier, more heroic age and thus quite appropriate in the context of the broader movement among scholars, artists, and other literary figures to see the past, particularly the past of the Germanic cultures, as inspirational and worth reviving.

Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860); Haakon the Good, King of Norway from 934 to 961 CE
Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860); Haakon the Good, King of Norway from CE 934 to 961

* Discussion of the history surrounding Longfellow’s interest in Norse culture derived mostly from Martin Arnold’s Thor: Myth to Marvel.

5 comments on “Longfellow’s Tragic Viking Warrior – The Skeleton in Armor

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