Saturday, July 13, 2013

Book 130, Greenland: "The Vinland Sagas"

Apologies to the one (1!!!) person who voted on the blog poll – I’m not doing Eskimo Poems from Canada and Greenland after all. When I surveyed my friends on Facebook, the overwhelming majority of them wanted to hear about the Vinland Sagas.

And why wouldn’t they? I remember hearing about Leif Eiriksson as a kid back in the early 1990s, watching an American edu-tainment program called Encyclopedia: a bunch of Vikings singing about how one of them had discovered America in 1001 CE; a land he’d called Vinland because of the clusters of wild grapevines he found there.

Since then I’ve seen this theme explored in science writing, genealogical studies, speculative fiction. Philip Pullman even references it in His Dark Materials: in his parallel universe, Native Americans are called skraelings, suggesting that the Viking colony succeeded in creating a lasting Euro-American connection there, whereas in actual fact the settlement lasted only 200 years, colonists driven out by worsening weather conditions and angry natives and the general impossibility of managing an overseas empire like that from the reaches of teeny little Iceland.

But the topic of my investigations here is Greenland: discovered by Eirik the Red (Leif’s father) in 981 while fleeing blood debts in Norway, then Iceland. The Icelanders – famously literary folks, both in the past and the present - were fascinated by the notion of this wild western island, which yielded exports of walrus ivory, skins and furs: a snowy frostbitten land where the very act of survival was heroic. They therefore composed several sagas about the lives of people of Greenland. The two in this volume, Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, are only two of them.

There isn’t actually much detail about Greenland here – Eirik’s discovery is described in an oddly perfunctory manner, and many of the scenes taking place here are honestly rather dry compared to the tales of battling the skraelings in Vinland. Still, what does come across are characters and odd anecdotes. Eirik, for instance, is invited by his son to lead the expediton for Vinland, but he protests that he’s too old, and when he gets thrown off his horse on the way to the port he decides it’s a terrible omen, and stays put. Then there’s Bjarni Herjolfsson, who gets blown off course and spies Vinland (or at least Baffin Island and its environs) but is so uncurious that he decides not to check it out, even when urged to do so by his crewmen.

And get this: this is herstory as much as history, as the most vivid and intriguing characters are the women, not the men. Viking women are portrayed as more than just daughters and mothers: there’s Aud the Deep-Minded, an early settler of Iceland and a renowned ancestress; the prophetess Thorbjorg, dressed in a blue mantle and a black lambskin hood lined with white cat’s fur, who leads a circle of women in a ritual singing warlock-songs and is rewarded when she foretells the end of a famine.

And of course Gudrid, sometimes celebrated as the most widely-travelled woman of medieval Europe, who witnesses her first husband’s corpse rise and prophesy her good fortune (Viking zombies are freaky, but relatively benevolent), then goes with her second husband to Vinland and interacts with a mysterious dark-haired shadow woman during a skraeling trading encounter that ends in bloodshed, then finally comes back to Europe and does a pilgrimage to Rome and ends her days as an esteemed anchoress.

And perhaps most infamously, Freydis Eiriksdóttir (Leif’s only sister) who leads a colonization mission to Vinland, hogging the huts and resources for her men while edging out her brothers, then pretending to have been abused at their hands and ordering her husband to have her brothers and their men slaughtered or else she’ll divorce him. When all the men have been killed, her followers won’t kill the women and children, so she does this herself. She also faces down the skraelings by ripping her dress open and smacking the face of a sword against her bare breasts, freaking them out utterly. Did I mention she happened to be pregnant at the time? Why doesn’t every schoolkid learn about this lady?

Of course, the reason why these biographies are important is because of ancestry: the descendants of these pioneers were sponsors of the sagas, both in their composition and their retranscription. The introduction notes that the Icelanders were unique because they formed a republic, not a kingdom – it was they who pioneered the idea that a saga could describe the deeds of common men, not just of gods and kings.

One final note on Greenland - ironically, the Norse colony here would die out in 1500, just after Columbus’s more southerly discovery of the Americas. Now it’s a Danish colony, but it’s trending towards independence, since global warming is allowing the Inuit-Danish native population to finally grow their own damn food. Thank god someone’s going to benefit from the devastation.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Then they put to sea, and Karlsefni accompanied them as far as the island. Before they hoisted sail, Thorhall said:

‘Let us head back
To our countrymen at home;
Let our ocean-striding ship
Explore the broad tracts of the sea
While these eager swordsmen
Who laud these lands
Settle in Furudustrands
And boil up whales.’

With that they parted company. Thorhall and his crew sailed northward past Furdustrands and Kjalarness, and tried to beat westward from there. But they ran into fierce headwinds and were driven right across to Ireland. There they were brutally beaten and enslaved; and there Thorhall died.

Next book: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People, from Iceland.

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