Six Damn Fine Degrees #76: Tales From Viking Times

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

As a kid, I was a massive fan of listening to stories on cassettes. Far more so than music. Music cassettes inevitably had those tracks you wanted to skip past, leading to fiddling attempts to fast forward the right amount (…and miss it and go back and overly compensate going back and so try to jump forward and – uh-oh, I think the tape is chewed up now). Whereas a good story tape was immersive. You were there for the ride for at least the rest of the side.

In the pre-Walkman days, you could still enjoy portable sounds with a small enough tape player. And if you had trouble sleeping, even the absence of any headphones wouldn’t be a bar. Just turn the player down as low as possible and lie under the duvet with your ear placed right by the speaker. At such low volumes, you could hear the slight bud…bud…bud…bud…bud transition from transparent to magnetic tape, or even the slight hiss that came when the original performer’s microphone was first turned on. The only drawback with this method was that your ear would become attuned to the tiny speech noise coming from the speaker, making the almighty CLICK! when the side ended a deafening thunderclap in comparison.

For me there is no Proustian rush of remembrance that comes close to hearing the voices from my favourite story tapes. The multi-layered brilliance of Kenneth Williams reading The Wind In The Willows, the avuncular warmth of Michael Hordern’s The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. But away from the classics, there was one definite oddity I recall returning to over and over again: Tales From Viking Times, read by a familiar TV voice at the time, Magnus Magnusson.

Magnus Magnusson was Icelandic, but being the son of the Icelandic Consul in Scotland had grown up in Edinburgh. With a rich Edinburgh accent, he moved into British media, becoming most famous as the host of the BBC quiz show Mastermind. But throughout his life, he never lost interest in the stories and sagas of his Icelandic roots. If you look up his name in most online booksellers, you’ll find a number of well-regarded books about the Vikings, their tales, and their impact on his adopted homeland of Scotland.

There is one that is surprisingly hard to find these days. Tales From Viking Times is a rather freewheeling anecdotal audiobook where Magnusson recollects Icelandic tales from his childhood and retells Viking ghost stories and folk legends about the Elves. And, best of all for young me, truncated by evocative retellings of the sagas of the Viking gods.

The likes of Odin and Freya, Thor and Loki fascinated me. And here they were, in the Viking creation myth and, even more gripping, the end of the world. Magnusson taught me the word “Ragnarok” long before Hollywood. As well as the dangers of giants, wolves, tricksy deities and it was this man who first blew my mind with the revelation that the Norse gods were all still very much alive in our days of the week. Thursday was never the same for me after I learnt of its connection to Thor. Young me just did not understand how nobody else saw the day named after the God of Thunder as the coolest day of the week. I mean, we still have to go to school on it, which can’t possibly be right?

Maybe it was its less serious and more anecdotal nature that meant this one-off audio adventure by Magnusson passed out of print. My own original cassette tapes met their Ragnarok during my teen years, chewed up by an ageing tape player and when some years later I tried to find a replacement it seemed impossible to locate. I could still recall whole sections of the books in my head, in Magnus Magnusson’s beautiful voice, when required but the memory was maybe getting hazy, the accuracy maybe completely slowly getting corrupted over time.

And then the internet came to my salvation. The US army were selling off their audio cassette archive on eBay, including this particular slice of my childhood. I outbid any potential rivals for this treasure (there were in reality none) and ended up paying five times the actual price to get the thing posted to the UK. Acquiring a cassette player that would convert tapes it played into MP3s I finally acquired my own version of this audio memory.

Blissfully it did not disappoint. Listening to it again after so many decades was like walking an old path you used to amble along daily. There were the passages I still remembered, and then so many more that I recalled the moment I heard them again. And stuff I had forgotten, including a whole selection on phrases of Viking wisdom that Magnusson breezily passes through, as if “never judge a maid till she’s bedded” is perfectly normal stuff. The Vikings would likely have found a home on the dodgy Seventies stand-up circuit.

Nowadays the Viking gods are big business again, thanks in part to the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I enjoy these films but there is still part of me that reflects the anger I know that my younger self, addicted to Magnus Magnusson’s retelling of the original Thor, would have felt. “He’s not got RED HAIR! Nor a RED BEARD, NOR RED EYES. NOT CANON!”

P.S.: Of course, shortly after buying a cassette and converting it to MP3, I discovered that it was also available on YouTube. Which would have been cheaper and easier.

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