david lindsley FIET; Hon Fellow, Kingston  University

… communicating engineering

How the Vikings lost the plot

Centuries ago, Lars and Erik were brothers who led a small community that scraped a meagre existence from a scrubby Scandinavian landscape that had no sunlight for six months of the year and was usually covered by snow and ice. Life was pretty hard and the brothers finally decided to do something about it.

‘Look,’ said Lars one day when the wind had blown with particular ferocity and taken away half the turf roof from their longhouse. ‘This might have been all right for our father, Lief the Terrible, but this sort of thing happens every winter and I’m getting really fed up with it. Besides, I’d like to see what goes on in the world outside our village.’

‘I know how you feel, brother,’ Erik growled. ‘In fact I’ve been getting quite worried about it. And about the shortage of women hereabouts. In-breeding is a dangerous risk.’

He didn’t explain that the latter problem had been weighing heavily on his mind ever since he had caught himself looking down his sister’s ample cleavage as she bent forward to serve him a steaming ladle of elk-horn soup the other evening. (Well, he thought it was an evening, but since it was always so dark he couldn’t really be sure.) He was living the life of a monk: his girlfriend had gone off with her own brother and he hadn’t had any feminine company now for many months – in fact, far too many months, he had decided.

‘But what do you suggest?’ he asked.

‘I’ve been thinking about it,’ Lars replied as he battled against the wind while trying to tie down his favourite reindeer, who had nearly been blown away by a particularly savage gust. ‘I reckon that I can build a boat and sail off to warmer climes. I’ve heard stories about lands where they have sunshine all year round, where the men are puny and the women lusty. With our strength and resilience I’m sure we could do very well there.’

‘A boat?’ Erik shouted against the roar of the wind.

‘Yes, a boat – perhaps even two … or even more.’

Erik considered this for a long time while he nailed the roof back on his hut. Then he said, ‘All right, brother. You do that while I try to keep things going round here. You come back in a few months and we’ll see if it was worth doing.’

So Lars gathered together a band of stocky villains and they trooped off to the huge fir forest bordering the village. They chopped down a few trees and built a sturdy longboat with sails and ports for their oars. When they had finished, they pushed the boat down the steep sloping sides of the fjord. They filled the storage lockers with food and water together with an ample stock of akevitt. All of this was packed in with piles of spare clothes into sturdy reindeer-skin bags.

Then they clambered aboard and with a few mighty pulls at their oars they were off, sailing to the unknown dangers of the heaving seas that lay ahead of them.

* * * *

Many months later, the adventurers returned in triumph. Their beards and moustaches were crusted with salt and their skin was deeply tanned. They had raped, burned and pillaged their way through many of Europe’s costal settlements and now they disembarked from their weather-beaten longboats, hefting sacks of precious gold and silver over their shoulders and hauling beautiful buxom women behind them.

Everybody was delighted (well, nearly everybody – the wives had some misgivings over the beautiful young women who had suddenly joined their community). But, leaving that aside, there was little doubt that their village was now rich and in spite of the few jealous doubters the village benefitted from the plentiful breeding stock of new women.

And so it continued, the raiding parties setting out each winter as the nights started to draw in, to return in the spring with even more riches and women. It was a terrible time for everybody else anywhere near the coasts of Europe, but the Vikings undoubtedly had a ball.

News of these exploits spread through the whole land and one day a stranger arrived to see for himself what it was all about. After looking around for a while, he summed up the situation in his avaricious little mind. This stranger was called Olaf and he wondered how he could gain from the situation (he was a rotten sailor, so joining the expeditions was out of the question). But he saw an opportunity when he realized that Erik was getting a tad jealous of his famous brother, so he approached him one evening and asked if he was interested in playing a round of the national game of gølf (which involved punting rocks across the heather with long walrus tusks). At the end of the game the two men retired to the warmth and comfort of the bar and sipped thoughtfully at their pale Viking lagers.

Finally, Olaf leant forward and whispered to Erik. ‘Everybody is talking about Lars and all the things he has done,’ he said.

‘I know,’ Erik grimaced. ‘He’s a fine fellow, and everybody looks up to him.’

‘Does it worry you?’ Olaf asked, with a crafty sneer.

‘Worry me? Why should it?’ Erik wasn’t happy about telling this stranger about his true feelings – his deepening jealousy.

‘Well, just look at it,’ Olaf whispered conspiratorially. ‘It’s all very wonderful having this surge of wealth and women, but is it worth it?’

‘Worth it?’ Erik exclaimed. He had never thought about these voyages in that way before.

‘Yes. Do you know what these voyages cost? And have you ever added up the value of the treasures they bring?’

‘I suppose not,’ Erik answered. ‘Nobody has ever looked at the costs …’

‘And another thing,’ Olaf whispered as Erik’s voice tailed off and a bewildered look came into his eyes. Olaf saw that he had caught Erik’s attention, so he pushed his argument forward. ‘They chop down all those trees every year. Are you re-planting them so that you don’t run out?’

‘Run out!’ Erik laughed. ‘There are millions of trees out there.’

‘Ah yes! But all the surrounding settlements are starting to copy what Lars has done. They too are chopping down trees faster than they can grow again. Soon there will be none left.’


‘Yes really. And then what will you do?’

‘I never thought about it,’ Erik admitted.

‘Well I think you should. And I can help you.’

* * * *

Within a few weeks, a spanking new longhouse had been built and was filled with earnest young men, pale of complexion and very, very studious. Olaf told Lars and Erik about these people, explaining that they were called Fachberater and that they would enable the Vikings to build better boats at lower costs, reduce deforestation and increase income.

Lars was less easily persuaded than his brother had been and he looked on in horror as the Fachberater set to work.

‘Why do you make your longboats out of such thick planks?’ one asked Lars.

‘Because they have to be sturdy to face the mountainous waves out there.’

‘You can make them just as strong if you use thinner planks,’ the young man smiled, looking over the calm waters of the fjord. He had never been to sea and his best imagining was far from the horrible realities that Lars had met. ‘That means they will be lighter to take down to the water,’ he continues, ‘and so they will be much easier to launch. What’s more, you will have used less wood so that the forests will be less threatened.’

Lars growled in frustration, but he was not very articulate and so couldn’t counter these arguments. Beside, his brother was now fully sold on the idea.

And so they continued. Now the spoils of the annual raiding parties had to pay for the small army of Fachberater that Olaf had brought in and the benefits of the raids became less obvious to the original inhabitants of the settlement. The womenfolk began to grumble about their husbands’ long periods of absence, the reduced value of the booty they brought back and the competition from the beautiful young women that were being introduced to the community.

After a while the husbands began to wonder if it was really worthwhile. Many of the longboats – now cheaply built and very fragile – had been smashed by the fierce waves, their crews lying with their treasures at the bottom of the ocean. The adventurers resented the fact that much of what they brought back from their adventures had gone on paying for the many Fachberater who were now living in the town (and living it up indeed: they were highly paid, dined in the best restaurants and often made off with the most beautiful women).

* * * *

And that was how the Vikings lost their way in conquering the world through terror ….. and instead gave us management consultants.

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