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‘Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’ has forced me to reinterpret some of my favorite literature

It turns out that even a video game version of history can help you see ancient art through a fresh perspective.

I’m still playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, although I’m getting perilously close to running out of things to do. And yes, I’m still having a lot of fun. Recently I ran into a quest which disconcerted me a little bit because it felt so formulaic, the sort of pointless, petty nonsense one might have found at the beginning of Oblivion, but the ending of this little vignette was subversive and funny enough to legitimately crack me up.

Valhalla is the most lore-heavy of the Assassin’s Creed games I’ve played, integrating Norse mythology in big, bold fashion. Naturally this spurred me to go back and polish up my somewhat frayed subject knowledge; I’ve had a good time catching up by browsing through the Poetic Edda and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths. But I don’t think there’s any shock that Valhalla players will find out about Odin, Loki and the Viking God gang. What has really surprised, however, me is how it’s changed how I related to one of my favorite pieces of non-Norse literature.

The Ruin is an Old English poem found in the manuscript of the Exeter Riddle Book, which was written in the 8th or 9th century, about the same time as the Viking invasions of England which Valhalla uses as its setting. Here’s the beginning from Michael Alexander’s translation:

Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst ...
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,

Rime scoureth gatetowers
rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them. And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them — gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.

The ghosts of a forgotten age, of time eroding away the foundations of certainty, is a familiar motif, evoked perhaps most famously by Percy Shelley in his Ozymandias. I was lucky enough to grow up within easy walking distance of the ruins of a Roman villa, and I can still remember the look at feel of its stub walls, the empty ghosts of lives. And indeed, it’s that villa which always came to mind whenever I thought of this poem.

What Valhalla has done, however, is made me understand on a visceral level how the poet behind The Ruin would have seen the Romans. As a child of modernity, the Romans are a historical curiosity. Their ghosts are interesting in a number of ways, but at best they’re faint, fleeting impressions. To the early medieval English, they would have appeared very different. As an example, here’s a (bad, sorry) screenshot from the Valhalla version of Colchester:

A screenshot of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Until I played through this game I didn’t properly appreciate the degree to which these people would have been living in the shadow of those who came before (i.e. ‘the work of the Giants’). Even in their absence, the Romans would have dominated the country, and the Germanic tribes from whom the English descend had displaced the only people on the island with any real claim to that heritage, the Romanized British.

The early English* had, in effect, invaded an almost post-apocalyptic country, one which constantly reminded them of their marked inferiority relative to the ancients. While we might interpret the ruins as sad ghosts, the poem has more resonance if it’s understood as standing in the blasted remains of the giants and angels of antiquity, that powers beyond their comprehension had been overthrown and destroyed and that their towns were built upon their mouldering bones. I knew all of this, of course, but playing (indeed, living) through a world where the fact is inescapable makes it much, much more real.

*I’m trying to move away from the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in light of recent scholarship, which suggests it’s far more often used as a racial signifier than as a specific English time/cultural one.

There’s a contempt in my initial response to The Ruin. The works of those who went before, claiming immortality, is nothing compared to what modernity can achieve. We live, in a material sense, at the apex of human civilization. The past cannot touch us, and thus we are, as a whole, a little bit drunk on our own power. If we lived on the ruins of a people we could only barely imitate (the castle didn’t properly reach English shores until after the Norman conquest), on the other hand, if the past loomed above us, eclipsing our hopes and dreams ... well, I think the work takes on a markedly different flavor when their original context is more easily grasped.

I didn’t expect Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla to have me re-interpreting poetry. This game is full of nice surprises!