Ever since a Celtic monk spotted the first Viking longships approaching from the horizon, these medieval Northmen have been associated with murder, theft, and destruction. But their greatest sin in the eyes of some is that they didn't write anything down.

Apart from a few runic inscriptions, no texts were written before the eleventh century either in Scandinavia or in most of the areas they settled. What we're left with is archaeological artifacts and the biased accounts of writers centuries after Scandinavia converted.

"In portraying this dark and illiterate age, the oral tradition is the stuff of our history," says James Reston, Jr., who "embraces" the old sagas. "We cannot discard virtually everything except the broken shards of pottery, the worm-eaten swords, the beads and horn combs of the archaeologists."

Oh no? Peter Sawyer disagrees. "Few scholars today still accept these texts as reliable sources of information about the Viking Age," he says. "Historians … now rely more on archaeology and numismatics … for they cast light on many topics about which the texts are silent."

In this issue, we've included articles by both Reston and Sawyer because we find each perspective helpful.

The saga and the sword

The most complete and readable book about Scandinavia's conversion is The Hammer and the Cross by Michael Scott Rohan and Allan J. Scott (Alder, 1980). Indeed, it remains the only book specifically about the conversion of the Vikings directed at a general, nonacademic readership. Unfortunately, it is out of print and difficult to find—but well worth the effort of seeking it out.

James Reston's The Last Apocalypse (Doubleday, 1998), just released in paperback, is the most accepting of the oral traditions (which offer a painting, ...

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