Assassins Creed: Valhalla – What to read while waiting

A while back, Ubisoft finally announced Assassins Creed: Valhalla, the next installment in their long-running Assassins Creed video-game series. 

I didn’t find my way to the series until they switched to an RPG style game-play with AC: Origins and AC: Odyssey. Since I love RPGs, ancient history, and mythology; it was a match made in heaven.  

Assassins Creed: Valhalla, means Vikings. The setting will be Norway and England during the second half of the ninth century. 

Playing the two previous games, set in ancient Egypt and Greece, I felt that my interest in history and mythology really heightened the experience for me.

So, I thought I’d give some general tips and book recommendations if you want to learn about the Viking age and Norse mythology in anticipation of this game. 

NON-FICTION

I haven’t read this specific book. Unfortunately the non-fiction books I have read and could recommend are not available in English.

But it represents the type of title you should look for if you want to learn about the actual real-life Vikings.

The history of the people known as Vikings and the Viking age have been written and rewritten many times: none of them by the actual Vikings themselves. 

Once their history began to be written down, Scandinavia had already been Christianized.

This “history” was recorded either by Nordic Christians, monks, or foreign people the Vikings came in contact with.

In modern times the Vikings have grown in popularity; unfortunately, their depiction is rarely based on facts or archaeological evidence.  

Most of it is popular culture, myths and legends confused as facts, and a shit load of bullshit dreamed up by romantic nationalists during the late nineteenth century, and more recently, Nazis, and white supremacists. 

That’s why we have all these romantic images of horned helmets, kings buried at sea on burning ships (if they were all buried at sea, why do we continue to find their graves on land) and invincible, “pure-blooded” Germanic warriors. 

The Vikings were fascinating, that’s why their lives make such good stories. But that’s what most of it is, stories. 

If you want to learn about them, you need to read a book written by a historian or archaeologist. One based on facts and impartial, critical examination of the available written sources and archaeological findings.  

In my first university history class, while discussing how to judge the credibility of historically themed literature, my professor gave some excellent advice. 

She said, “a real historian knows that they don’t know. We weren’t there, so all we can do is guess. Some guesses and assumptions are more plausible than others.

If you come across historical non-fiction books where the authors present his or her opinions as absolute facts, it’s probably a hobby historian.

They can write entertaining books about history, often a lot more engaging than actual historians (who can be rather dry); unfortunately, they often allow themselves a lot of creative freedom. Something they can do since their book will not be subject to an academic peer review.  

NORSE MYTHOLOGY

That’s quite enough critical thinking for one post. Let’s get to the really good stuff: Norse Mythology. One of my favorite things about the previous two Assassins Creed titles was the heavy influence of mythology.

Since Norse mythology is equally as outrageous and entertaining as Greek mythology, I hope there will be a strong presence in AC: Valhalla as well. 

Norse mythology can be as straightforward or as complicated as you like. For this post, I’m going to recommend a beginner book, one that will give you a light introduction and basic insight into the Norse myths. 

Reading the Poetic Edda is fun and all, but it’s in verse and quite challenging to understand, especially without any context or previous knowledge.

I’ve loved Norse mythology since childhood, but I’m still very much a beginner. I’m not really interested in the academic side of mythology, I just think they’re great stories with entertaining characters that I like to revisit every so often.

You don’t need to be a scholar to enjoy mythology.

Norse Gods or Nordiska Gudar, is a recent favorite of mine, and it was one of my favorite reads of 2019. 

Out of all the illustrated books I’ve seen on Norse mythology, this really captures the tone of the stories.

At least the way I see them.

This book is an introduction. In it, Swedish author and illustrator Johan Egerkrans, starts at the beginning with the Norse creation myth.

He then continues to introduce the readers to the world of Norse mythology.

He combines informative texts with some of the more well-known myths all the way to the end, Ragnarok. 

In this book, you’ll learn that clouds are actually pieces of a primordial giants brain.

Odin is not really a good guy. Thor is mighty but kind of dumb. What the actual relationship is between Loki and Hela, and how on earth Loki could be the mother of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipner.

It’s an excellent, informative, and approachable book. 

You’ll get a basic overview of the world, the gods, and other essential creatures and characters without feeling like you’re being stuffed with information.

All this is accompanied by fantastic illustrations that heighten the experience.

My next recommendation isn’t a “mythology book” but one based on Scandinavian folklore.

If Assassins Creed: Valhalla continues with the supernatural themes present in Origins and Odyssey, there is a fair chance we’ll see some monsters and creatures native to Scandinavian folklore and myths.

Vaesen or Väsen, as it’s called in Swedish, is another of Johan Egerkran’s brilliant books.

In it, you’re introduced to the basics of Scandinavian folklore and the creatures that inhabit it.

You’ll meet well-known monsters like The Kraken (no he’s not Greek, he’s Norwegian) dragons, Grimm’s, a multitude of nature spirits, trolls, and giants.

Like with Norse Gods, this book is full of beautiful and creative illustrations.

As for other, more meaty books, again, unfortunately, my favorites are not available in English. 

There’s plenty of books out there, and I’m sure many are quite good. My general tip is the same as with the history books;

1. Make sure the person who wrote it is an actual expert on Norse mythology.

2.  Stay away from covers with horned helmets. If it sports an image of Thor with flowing blond hair, choose something else; Thor is a ginger, not a blond. If the book can’t even get that right, you’ll know it’s not going to be accurate.

3. There are many versions of these stories, how they’re told depends on which source-material the author chose. If you read more than one book on Norse mythology, it’s relatively plausible that the retellings are going differ.

FICTION

As for fiction, personally, I find it kind of hard to find good stories set in this period, mostly because so many of them relies on cliches and historical inaccuracies.

Periodically I try to read a “Viking novel” but, it usually ends with me losing interest and abandoning them.

If all you want are hack and slash adventures built on pop-culture Vikings pillaging their way across Europe, there’s plenty. 

Novels based on the Norse myths like Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman or The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris are entertaining, but they offer nothing new or original.

There’s nothing wrong about that, and if you enjoy their type of storytelling, it might make these stories more approachable. But, you’ll get the same basic stories as in any other book about Norse mythology.

My favorite fiction book, influenced by Norse mythology, is American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

It might seem a strange choice since it’s set in a (somewhat) present-day America.

But this book is so clever. It incorporates many of the Norse myths into a modern world in such an engaging way.

It’s also one of my favorite versions of Odin, much more like him than the wise, benevolent ruler pop-culture insists on turning him into.

Odin is as much a trickster God as Loki. He’s a conniving, treacherous son of a bitch; but a charming one.

And there you have it, a few general tips and some of my favorite books to get you started in learning about the actual Vikings and their myths while you wait for Assassins Creed: Valhalla. 

Personally, I’m very excited and really looking forward to this game, even if they did name their character Eivor

For all you non-Scandinavians out there, in Sweden, the name Eivor conjures up a mental image of an elderly lady in a pleated skirt, with a handbag slung over one arm and sensible shoes. 

But, who knows, maybe Assassins Creed: Valhalla will be just the thing this underappreciated name needs to see a revival. 

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