It is a well-known secret that I am one of the 204 million people around the world who enjoys watching Eurovision. I print out a scorecard, order Chinese food and fail restraining my mass spamming commentary on Twitter during the competition. I sneer at the political/cultural voting and get insulted when the other Nordic countries don’t vote (high enough) for the Icelandic entry.
Research into the Eurovision song contest has shown that expert panels are most likely to vote based on aesthetic and expert knowledge while the public votes based on more personal/emotional reasons, such as nationalistic tendencies, cultural compatibility and ‘bandwagoning’ (Stockemer, et al 2007, Ginsburgh and Noury 2007). In this context, this year’s Danish entry is extremely timely.
The song Higher Ground by Rasmussen is an epic tale about Viking warriors who ‘face their fear’ and choose peace over fighting. It is inspired by the legend of Saint Magnús Erlendsson, whose story has been preserved in Orkneyinga saga, Magnús saga skemmri, Magnús saga lengri and a Latin Legenda de sancto (Antonsson 2007). Magnús, described in Peter Brent’s The Viking Saga (1975, 124) as “sainted but ineffectual”, chose to stay on board the ship during the Battle of Anglesey, Wales, because his religious convictions would not allow him to take part in the violence. Magnús ‘Barelegs’, King of Norway led the battle to victory, after Hugh of Montgomery was shot through the eye with an arrow. Brent’s description is not unfair; Magnús’ refusal to take part in the battle did not affect the outcome, rather, it was taken as a sign of cowardice. He was forced to flee to Scotland and did not visit Orkney during the life of King Magnús (Antonsson, 2007, 16). After his death he sought help from King Eystein I of Norway and was granted joint rule of Orkney along with his cousin Hákon. The peaceful resolution Magnús previously showed was (temporarily) set aside when he and Hákon kill two men in the effort to take charge (Waugh, 2003, 169-170). Magnús, in other words, much like all Viking heroes, is a rather changeable saint. He sings psalms in the midst of a bloody battle, yet does not hesitate to plot and kill when it suits his own means.
Eurovision demonstrates present political discussions, social and pop culture trends and cultural debates. It has a long history of overt political undertones in lyric compositions and voting trends. It is also a feast for the eyes, costumes, glitter, glam, dance and extravagant backdrops. Rasmussen’s song is therefore a very appropriate entry for Eurovision. It falls in the same category as the Striking Viking, because it mixes traditional elements (the Sagas) and modern ‘kitsch culture’ elements to form a new political narrative: Choosing peace over war is real rebellion. This is a rather interesting message in relation to Vikings, as they are frequently shown in popular culture as the rebel barbarians. It rings true that a rebel among Vikings would reject that lifestyle.
The connection to popular culture is also clear. Vikings are trending right now, due to shows such as Game of Thrones, The Last Kingdom, Vikings and Norseman (the last being a comedic response to the popularity of the previous three). Jeanette Varberg, National Museum of Denmark has also jokingly commented that Rasmussen is a ‘modern Viking’, raiding Lisbon on behalf of Denmark.
Of course, we are no strangers to the idea of modern Vikings here in Iceland, útrásavíkingar (which was frequently associated with the Icelandic bankers) being a modern term which quickly turned sour after the economic crash. The association with Eurovision however, is much less likely to end in national shame and anger. A further worthy mention is Scandinavia and the World’s brilliant twist on the ‘fun and harmless’ pillage and plunder aspect of Viking age life:
It also reminds me of David Mitchell’s comedic rant on the reality of the phrase ‘Rape and Pillage’. “What history tells us, is if you want to get away with an atrocity, try to commit it a millennium ago and if at possible spread the rumor you were wearing a funny hat.”
How true. Rape, pillage, plunder and slavery are all fun, acceptable and exciting aspects of Viking life. Except, of course in the case of Rasmussen’s song, where the opposite is true.
This is a fascinating turn. The media has dubbed it ‘the Viking song’ and as I have shown above, people are gleefully linking it to Viking raids of old. Yet in reality, the song glorifies the one man that stood opposed to these acts of violence. It is a powerful image, one which resonates with current cultural and political climates. Is war, gun violence and invasions ever justifiable? The answer according the song is no, a strong Viking is one that turns his back to violence. From the perspective of the original saga, well, that depends on the benefits. If you gain rule of Orkney, some death may be justifiable.
Thinking about this song I was also reminded of the Jante Law. In a blog, Canadian therapist Lindsey Dupuis writes that the happiness of Danes could be attributed to the fact that they grow up being told that they are neither better or worse than anyone else. Striving for extraordinary or unique would be setting yourself up for disappointment and depression. If life hands you something extraordinary, well, that’s going to be a pleasant surprise.
The Jante Laws are pretty clear; you are not better than we are. You can’t teach us anything. It’s undeniable that setting your expectations low means a higher probability of a happy life. Yet, I also find it a somewhat unsettling sentiment, as it intimates that standing out from the crowd is bad. Perhaps then this is exactly why I will be rooting for Rasmussen; whether for political gain over a Scottish island or personal conviction, he risked mockery and outlaw from one of the fiercest, most notorious group in history, the Vikings. Perhaps he deserves Orkney for that effort. He defied the monotony of Danish Jante Law life, yet at the same time, manages to tap into the worldwide fandom of that violence in the presence. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.