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SPOILER ALERT!

More fun to think about than to actually read

The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America: "Graenlendinga Saga" and "Eirik's Saga" (Classics) - PENGUIN GROUP (UK), Hermann Pálsson, Magnus Magnusson
 
From 790 A.D. (the Viking sacking of Lindisfarne) to 1500 (the last of the Norse colonies in Greenland die out) was a period of tremendous historical activity in the North Atlantic. During  this time, Iceland was discovered (860) and permanently settled, Greenland was discovered (950?) and settled, Christianity was adopted by the king of Norway (~1000) and spread rapidly through Scandinavia, and Europeans (Vikings) first set foot on North America.  Fortunately, there was widespread literacy in Iceland, and no royal court to centralize and dominate cultural activities. These conditions led to the popularity of written "sagas" to memorialize folk stories, ancestries, legends, and history. These were the earliest European form of a novel, and they were written on vellum (animal hide parchments) and bound in leather before the first Bibles appeared in Scandinavia.

 

 

These Vinland Sagas were written (to best estimates) in the latter half of the 1100's- a good 100 years after Leif Eriksson explored the territories he called "Helluland" (granite land), "Markland" (forest land) and "Vinland" (wine/grape land) -which correspond to modern day Baffin Island, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, respectively.

 

Most of the tale relates to the hardships of transoceanic travel in the Arctic, and then of the wonder and bounty of Vinland... where the days are long, even in winter; where wild wheat and grapes can be found; where trees grow large enough to build an entire ship or house from a single log. Being Vikings, there is also some bloodshed along the way, and a bit of supernatural folklore as well... zombies, believe it or not.  At least animated corpses. These ones don't want to eat your brains or turn you into one of them; they mostly involve stories of people who die in their beds, and then sit upright a few hours later, telling onlookers what the Great Beyond looks like, and leaves everybody with a few predictions, before slumping back into death (permanent, this time). One story is pretty funny, because a husband comes back from the dead to give his wife a fairly elaborate prophecy, which involves travel back and forth between Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, a conversion to Christianity, a pilgrimage to Rome, and spending her last years as a Christian nun. The wife replies "Yes! I believe you!" and then proceeds to go out and do these things, and then years later on her deathbed reflects "Wow! He was really right! The prophecy came true!"

 

 

Those diversions aside, the most interesting thing to me was that the Vikings- tough as they were- never inhabited Vinland in large enough numbers to successfully defend themselves from hostile North American Indians (whom they called "Skraelings"). After sacking most of the civilized world, the Vikings can't quite project sufficient power all the way into Canada, to be able to hold Vinland. The Indians send Eriksson and his demoralized party back to Greenland after three years.

 

It's amazing stuff, and easy enough to read, but a bit repetitive, and honestly: I really could never keep most of the names straight. I got Leif Eriksson, his tough-as-nails sister-in-law Gudrid, his father Erik the Red, and the wealthy merchant/explorer Bjarni Herjolfsson all down, but the rest of them kind of blur into one another. 

 

 

 

The first 1/3 of the book is a very worthwhile introduction by Icelandic scholar/historian Magnus Magnusson, which cites modern archeological evidence (including Norse runes inscribed in a cave on Baffin Island, and excavation sites in Newfoundland) which support the factual basis of the text.