In March, Keith Ruiter wrote a Conversation article contending that, although Trump has “Viking” ancestry, he would not have fared well in Norse society, because his temperament lacks the Norse virtue of hóf (moderation or restraint). This is certainly behaviour we’ve seen time and time again from Trump, most recently in his public criticisms of Sadiq Khan in the wake of terror attacks in London. Many responses on social media to his comments support Ruiter’s appraisal of Trump’s character.
It's called 'leadership', Donald. The terrorists were dead 8 minutes after police got the call. If we need an alarmist blowhard, we'll call. https://t.co/NUiy9j4fBt
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 4, 2017
PM clearly being advised, quite accurately, that Trump is an irrational, petulant bully who will never forgive the mildest criticism.
— James O'Brien (@mrjamesob) June 5, 2017
While I agree Trump would have been considered as an ójafnaðarmaðr (immoderate or overbearing man) in Norse society, I do not agree this would have doomed him to failure. Icelandic sagas include so-called “immoderate men” who prove successful. It is written of the chieftain Hrafnkell freysgoða (priest of Frey), from eastern Iceland:
“He placed under himself the men of Jökulsdalr as his [supporters], was kind and friendly with his own men, but aggressive and stubborn with the men of Jökulsdalr, and they did not get equal treatment from him. Hrafnkell engaged in single-combat often and would not pay compensation for the men [he killed] because no one could force him to, whatever he did.”
Hrafnkell achieves greatness in his district despite his bullying. His eventual fall from grace though was a consequence of his overbearing nature – supporting Ruiter’s thoughts on how Trump might have fared in early Iceland. Hrafnkell later learned his lesson, acquired the virtue of hóf and restored the status quo by ousting Sámr, who had usurped him.
Although Trump shares traits with antagonistic characters like Hrafnkell, Trump’s success in becoming president is distinctly different from the immoderate failures of early Icelandic history. I think the best comparison to be made between Trump and early Icelandic chieftains is with the literary version of the famous warrior-poet Egill Skallagrímsson.
Both are the sons of second-generation exiles: Trump’s grandfather escaped to America, whilst Egill’s grandfather Kveld-Úlfr’s coffin guided the fleeing Skallagrím to Iceland. Trump and Egill are second sons, whose older brothers had been marked for leadership. They are large men, and displayed aggressive streaks when they were young. Each of their older brothers also fell short of their parents’ expectations by dying prematurely, thus allowing for the second sons to emerge from their brothers’ shadows.
Trump and Egill both use protracted and complex sentence structures to convey provocative ideas when speaking, with Trump garnering huge crowds at his rallies and Egill acquiring a reputation abroad as a famous but controversial poet. Despite having high socio-economic ranks, they both feuded with what they consider “the establishment”; Egill participated in the feud between his family and the kings of Norway, and Trump berating the mainstream media, Sadiq Khan, the Clinton dynasty, and the Bush dynasty, along with many others.
We should remember the Egill we read about today is partly fictionalised, so we cannot be certain whether the historical Egill was really Trump-like. His saga was probably written by the infamous poet and politician Snorri Sturluson at the start of the thirteenth-century. Iceland’s thirteenth-century saw the flowering of ríki (regional powers) and a destructive civil war, the Sturlunga Age. It is possible that the literary Egill was not inspired by oral tradition, but reflected the newly emerged class of stórgoðar (big chieftains) battling it out for island-wide dominance during this troubled period.
The stórgoðar acted differently to earlier chieftains who relied on support from wealthy farmers. Power no longer depended on popular appeal and moderation: by the thirteenth-century authority came from one’s ability to assert rights over territory and to destroy enemies.
These “keys to the kingdom” favoured leaders who behaved in an overbearing manner. The ójafnaðarmaðr bashing found in some sagas, including Hrafnkels saga, can be interpreted as a social commentary on this new style of leadership, criticising overbearing men and their destruction of the old order.
This clash between old and new political ways in thirteenth-century Iceland mirrors the 2016 presidential race, when Trump’s temperament led him to wage an unconventional campaign. Trump eschewed political correctness, and support from the establishment and the media. As a result other candidates looked on with horror and distaste, anticipating his imminent failure. Trump was prepared to use any means necessary to eliminate his opponents from the crowded Republican primary field and in the presidential race itself. Moreover, Trump maintained throughout he would win, refusing to commit to accept the election result if he lost.
America’s current political system and thirteenth-century Iceland are structurally very different. It is Trump’s modus operandi, his supplantation of conciliatory policy and choreographed, orthodox, debating styles with grandiose self-branding, vicious attacks and tribalism, which are the timeless qualities of successful magnates in broken systems of government.
Speaking on Twitter with Ruiter about his article, I suggested Trump may have fitted in well during the death-throes of the Viking Age. I agree that Trump would have made an abysmal chieftain in early Norse society, but I do think he would be well equipped to successfully play Iceland’s thirteenth-century Game of Thrones.
Daniel White is currently completing his MA dissertation, an analysis of the diaconate in Íslendinga saga at The University of Birmingham. He is due to start his PhD at UCL in September. You can find Daniel on Twitter @danmwhi.
Header Image: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. [Gage Skidmore via Flikr]