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Justice for Magnus Barelegs

Magnus Magnusson, who speaks the King's English with just a hint of a Scottish brogue, has embarked on a crusade to correct what he thinks is a thousand years of bad press about his Viking ancestors -- among them the proud Magnus Barelegs, the first Viking to wear a kilt.

Born of Icelandic parents and raised in Edinburgh, Mr. Magnusson is, among other things, a well-known broadcaster on British TV, an archaelogist, and a translator of Icelandic sagas. Most people think of the Vikings, he feels, as blood- thirsty warriors who periodically invaded other lands, raping, pillaging, and plundering and then taking the loot back to Scandinavia. The warrior label is justified but not complete.

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"They were men of violence in an age of violence," he concedes, "but more than that they were settlers and especially entrepreneurs."

The primary purpose of the Viking excursions out of the north was trade and settlement, he maintains. The Scandinavians were looking for new markets to peddle their superior technology, and "95 percent of them were settlers looking for new land because theirs was overcrowded."

He theorizes that their principal reason for leaving Scandinavia was the success of their ironworks.

"They became very good at working with iron, much better than the Europeans were. They made better weapons and better tools." Since they were merchants, "capitalists, pure and simple," he says, they needed a new market for their iron and the technologies that employed them.

Their knowledge also included the art of shipbuilding. They built the best ships and the best weapons, and they needed to do something with them.

"There is also some new evidence that the climate in Scandinavia was turning warm," Mr. Magnusson says. "The warm weather, combined with better farming tools, may have produced an abundance of people."

The Viking Age, from AD 793 to 1066, had an enormous impact on Europe aside from the violence and destruction. He chronicles the age in a new book, "Vikings!" (published by E. P. Dutton), a book that is in turn the basis for a 10-part PBS-TV series. THe series, which began airing in October, is coproduced by KTCA in Minneapolis and the BBC and financed with $300,000 from the Lutheran Brotherhood.

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The Vikings owe their unsavory reputation to the writings of the time, notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. The monks of the day felt little affection for the Scandinavians (little wonder -- the first Viking raid in 793 was on the monastery at the island of Lindisfarne off the north coast of England, and they did not hesitate to torch others during the next three centuries), and the clerics wrote about them, as Mr. Magnusson says, with "their goose quill pens sharpened with alarm, their glossy ink dyed bright with indignation. The Vikings were cast in the role of the Antichrist."

One can't blame the monks. The sight of a Viking dragon ship heralded killings, and the first troops ashore were elite shock troops, called "berserks, " who had worked themselves into a frenzy, either by autosuggestion or with drugs.

But archaelogy has uncovered a significant amount of evidence in recent years that adds another dimension to the picture. "They built the city of York [ England] into the second-largest mercantile center in Europe," Mr. Magnusson says, as well as making Normandy (from "Norseman," or "Northman") into the strongest state in France as well as one of the continent's great trading centers. There is also evidence that Vikings are responsible for the crucible of Russian civilization, a concept that runs counter to official Soviet history.

They pretty much had the run of England, and for a time, from 1015 to 1035, England was actually a Danish colony, ruled by King Knute of Denmark as part of the short-lived Viking Empire (Denmark, Norway, and England). In 867, Northumbria, one of the major kingdoms in England, became a Viking possession. Every other kingdom followed.

"An important thing to remember about the Vikings, though," Mr. Magnusson points out, "is that in addition to being settlers, they were assimilators. Once they conquered a city and settled into it, they assimilated the local culture.They influenced it tremendously, but they became part of what had been there before them."

The english, under Alfred the Great, did eventually reconquer the Viking-held east and north of England in 878.

Popular history has it that Alfred drove the Norsemen away, but according to Mr. Magnusson, "Alfred had not so much defeated the Danish invaders as come to an understanding with them. His treaty with them accepted their presence in England as a political fact of life," and England was formally divided into two sections, one Anglo and the other Saxon.

Although England, France, and Russia felt the brunt of the Viking invasions, the Norsemen's range took them much farther. Mr. Magnusson recalls seeing a runic inscription on the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The letters A-L-F- F-A-N are decipherable, and he likes to imagine they were part of "graffiti which translated: 'Halfdan [half Dane] was here,' proving that a Viking had actually been there."

Mr. Magnusson joins those who believe the Norsemen also discovered Greenland and America, possibly establishing a small colony on the New England coast until they were driven off by Indians. Mr. Magnusson traces his lineage, in fact, back to Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first white child born in America, according to Norse accounts. He points to the building of impressive cities -- trading centers like Kiev, Novgorod, and Dublin. "Where a place was empty when they came, they created a state or a city," Mr. Magnusson says. "When there were already people there, they would assimilate."

War was what the Vikings did best, and the high point of their art, the beautifully designed and masterfully crafted warship, was also their most effective weapon. The skill evident in these ships certainly spilled over into the rest of the Scandinavian craft, particularly into woodcarving and jewelry. Most of the woodcarving, probably the artistic strong point, is lost, but the jewelry and ornamentation remain.

But battle remained all-important, as did the warrior code that went with it. His desire to polish up the image of his ancestors notwithstanding, Mr. Magnusson makes no secret of his admiration for their Spartanlike concepts of honor.

His favorite among the tales his mother used to tell him from the Icelandic sagas is that of a 16-year-old who had injured his leg. The Viking king or lord asked the boy why he wasn't limping. The boy's reply: "Men do not limp when their legs are the same length."

"I think we can't help but have a subconscious admiration for that kind of heroism," Mr. Magnusson comments.

The PBS series, the book it is based on, and the New York Metropolitan Museum's recently opened Viking exhibition all reflect a reviving interest in the Vikings on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, Mr. Magnusson's part in the TV "Vikings!" dates back to the first show of another BBC series he had put together, on the history of archaeology. The subject of that show was, of course, Vikings, and the air date coincided with a Viking exhibition at the British Museum. Both exhibition and TV show proved immensely popular, drawing far more attention than expected, and the BBC and KTCA jumped on the bandwagon.

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