Review: The Sea Road

The Sea Road
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sea Road is an imaginative and beautifully written attempt to recreate the life of an Icelandic woman called Gudrun Thorbjarnadottir. If you have no idea who that is, that’s ok. Not many will know who she is. She is a Norse woman, who appears in the Icelandic Sagas, the wife of Karsefni, of the few Norse adventurers to have visited North America – five hundred years before Columbus.

The story begins though, in Rome in 1051 and Gudrun is at the end of a pilgrimage. She is relating her life story to a fellow Icelander, a monk, called Agnar. She is of interest to the Church, because of her travels. She is “…one of those who have gone beyond the confines of the mortal world, in the body. She has dwelt for over a year in the lands outside the material world.”

The theme, the idea, of her having been ‘outside the world’ is just one of the many layers to this wonderful book. She has, by having visited and lived in the Norse settlement in North America, been ‘outside’ the world as it was known at the time. She too was of the opinion that she had been outside the world and subscribed to the Viking view, that this was the land that ran round the edge of the world as they knew it and that if you sailed along the coast far enough south, you’d reach Africa. This feeling of being ‘outside,’ is also used to symbolise both the position of the Norse Pagan beliefs being outside those of the arrogant up-start new religion of Christianity and the flight of the old Norse beliefs, out of the ‘old world’ they once ruled. There is no room for them in the new, Old World and they, along with the remaining Norse believers, find themselves being pushed further and further west. But can the New World be a new home for an old world religion?

Despite Gudrun’s own conversion to Christianity, there is a sense of sadness, mixed with longing, for the old ways. The story she relates has it too. A sadness, a regret, that a time, a productive, sensible, well-founded, earthy, functioning culture has passed. Through no fault of its own. A connection to the world around them, now lost to the peoples of Christianity. Forced to the edges of the world and then beyond, as the story says several times. Others seem to have converted to the new religion, for more practical reasons: “”It’s all very well for a man at sea to pray to Thor, but here on land we’re overrun by demons, and more and more people are being driven off their land by the dead who refuse to lie quiet. This new power might be just the thing we need.”” They clearly saw the new god first as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the older gods. A new solution, to some old problems!

Gudrun tells of the arrival in Iceland when she was a child, of a wild, red-haired adventurer called Eirik Raudi. Regarded by most as a notorious outlaw, he convinces several Icelanders, including Gudrun’s father, to move to a new land he has found, that he has deliberately enticingly called the Green Land. Though Eirik’s wife is now a devoted Christian, he is old school Norse: “The very mention of a new god made Eirik flame. “Take away your milk-and-water gods, your gods for infants!” he used to shout. “What kind of man do you want if you fancy a god who hasn’t the guts to lift a hand to save himself? Don’t tell me stories about flocks of sheep! I want men like wolves! What kind of country do you think this is?” Life is hard in the Green Land and the eastern and western settlements struggle along, but gradually, through being blown off course by storms trying to reach the settlements, sailors come in with reports of even more lands sighted to the west. Their desire for the new land, is purely practical. Trees have been sighted and trees are a scarce to non-existant in the Green Land.

It is Eirik’s son, Leif, who first makes inroads into the new land and he builds houses (‘Leif’s Houses’) there. It seems however, like they never really intended settling in the new lands, merely using them to supply Greenland and to sell what they flound in the New World, to the Old.

Gudrun and Karsefni also travel to America and remain there for around a year, but problems with the local inhabitants – not clear if it was Inuit or ‘Indians’ – mean they have to return earlier than expected to Greenland. She refers to the final voyage that is mentioned in the sagas, though only in passing, because she wasnt a part of it and it didn’t end well. Margaret Elphinstone is obviously using the actual Viking remains found in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, as her – the Icelandic Sagas’ – ‘Leif’s Houses.’ She also has Gudrun suggesting that they sailed a lot further south from Leif’s Houses, definitely what is now the USA (material has been found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which points to other, more southerly explorations), maybe even into the St. Lawrence seaway. Gudrun does make it clear that there were other voyages, apart from the ones she mentions – the ones the sagas mention – and that is also without doubt true.

And there’s a twist in the end of the tale, so you’ll want to have kept your wits about you and have an eye for detail…I’ll say no more.

The Sea Road is based on the mentions of what we now know to be North America, in the Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas were written after the oral story-telling tradition of the Vikings. If you’re thinking ‘Chinese whispers,’ it should maybe be pointed out that they are, in that respect, at least as accurate as Homer’s tales of Ancient Greece. People were selected (or selected themselves) for their ability in story-telling. As in, remembering what they were told and how the story should be told. There was no TV, no internet, no newspapers, no radio. Telling stories in the evenings was what they did. They knew the stories by heart and loved them told in the right way. You read a child their favourite story each night, then try changing a word or a scene – see how far you get. The Vikings didn’t write that much down at the time (unfortunately), remembering was what they were good at. Stories of their gods or ancestors, or also as in The Sea Road, sailing directions to places. Get one of those wrong and you don’t sail any more. It’s interesting too , that the Danish word for ‘speak’ is ‘tale.’ As the book points out, once a story was written down, it was dead. Telling and re-telling kept the story alive, the people and the places involved alive too.

Viking AmericaI remember thinking several times, that this was not so much an idea of what it must have been like, but that this was how it was. She has surely come that close. I began thinking about it and analysing the story as if it were an actual record of what happened. Speaking of which, it was a good one to read having just come off the back of reading Robert Enterline’s Viking America. A happy accident. The Sea Road fits very well with and develops much of the conjecture, possibilities and evidence that put forth. The Sea Road would even, I think, make more sense, give even more pleasure, if you had read ‘Viking America’ first. It’s by no means essential, you’d just know that more of ‘The Sea Road’ could actually be true than you might otherwise have thought.

It doesn’t feel like reading a work of fiction. This is like reading their diary, their thoughts. It came over as if Gudrun is trying to remember what happened in her dreams. Trying to glimpse the events through the mists, through the trees. Like trying grab hold of smoke. The idea of the story being told once again to, or by, a monk did raise a few groans from me at the start. It’s been surely done to death. But as, to be fair, the only ones who could write back then were monks and because it in no way got in the way and the monk, being a fellow Icelander, understands her better than a lot of the monks do in similarly related books, it works an absolute treat.

The Sea Road is a much more ‘honest,’ moving, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying ‘Viking’ book, than ever your Giles Kristians and Robert Lows are. A beautifully written glimpse, full of longing, of regret and of happiness of a time and a people lost forever.

Me. Goodreads.

Review: Viking America. The Norse Crossings and their Legacy

Viking America


Viking America The Norse Crossings and their Legacy by Robert Enterline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s only a short book, but that’s because there isn’t very much information about the Norse exploration of North America. There are some mentions in the Icelandic Sagas and, of course, there is a Viking settlements (or way-station) that has been discovered in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, but very little else. Or is there?

From extensive work pouring over old maps, old texts and old legends, Robert Enterline worked out an interesting new theory, presented here in this book.

“First, that Leif Eiriksson’s successors in Greenland eventually vacated that land and spread throughout North America, as far as Alaska, meanwhile sending to Europe geographical information that sparked Columbus’ voyage. Second, that Leif Eiriksson’s North American “Vinland” of A.D. 1000 was not a land of grapes on the temperate eastern seaboard but a land of pastures in nearly arctic Canada.”

He does point out that his ideas that Norse exploration in America was a lot more extensive and long-lasting than the physical evidence so far might suggest, may well go against conventional thinking. “Such an idea is completely at variance with all hitherto accepted theories, which looked upon Leif’s contact with America as an isolated incident having no historical consequences.” Those theories also include the Greenland colony, from which the Norse Vinland explorers set out, died out somewhere around (if I read it right, 1400, give or take. His explanation, whie not necessarily ruling out the existing ideas, is different, logical and very interesting, leading as it does, to the first part of his theory.

The book also concentrates on Columbus and his voyage to rediscover the New World, as that tells us much about what he knew before he set out and where he knew it from. Where he got his idea that land was where he said it was, the book suggests, is those Norse explorations in northern America. It is perhaps worth saying here too, that you shouldn’t think ‘Vikings’ and have a picture from the story books (or the tv programme) in your mind. You should learn to call them ’Norse.’ And, when you see ‘America’ try not to think ‘USA’ but northern, up to the Arctic circle, Canada. In fact, attempting to remove preconceptions, is perhaps what the book tries to do. Saying we need to look at the evidence again, re-interpret, where it can be re-interpreted.

It is a little difficult sometimes, as he seems to have two competing ideas on what Columbus’ intentions (of finding) were and how he knew what he’d find and where. One is, I think, that Columbus knew there was land exactly where he found it. We think, or have built the legend that he was looking for Asia, but that knowledge of both the roundness and the size of the earth was sufficient at the time, to show that by sailing westward, with the supplies he had, there was no way he could have reached eastern Asia. Therefore, he must have known that there was something else where his supplies would run out and he only had that amount of supplies, because he knew something was there. And he knew that, thanks to the Norse explorations. “Detailed analysis of pre-Columbian maps, as well as other geographical ideas that were in the air just before the Columbian discovery of America, suggests strongly that such shadowy, frequently misunderstood information did exist, and was based on the dispersal of the Norse settlements in Greenland into America.”

The other idea is that the information coming back to Europe from the Norse explorations, was that what they had found, was the east coast of Asia. Though that that was never anything the Norse themselves claimed. This, if I read it right, would seem to be confirmed by Enterline’s stating that Columbus thought the world was actually pear shaped. The Norse themselves, thought they had discovered a new land, outside the (known) world and that if you travelled south along the coast of it long enough, you would come to Africa.

The book was published in 1972, and so I think while there is mention of the discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in the 1960’s, it seems like it was still ‘Breaking News.’ So, he doesn’t know about the nuts and the Jasper found at the site, which would seem, in essence, to compliment at the very least, his proposition.

It’s an analytic study of the actual evidence and his reasons for his theory, using both probability and possibility to construct some very convincing and intreguing arguments. So it doesnt read like a Giles Kristian or a Robert Low. It read to me, like a book trying to present a new theory, knowing there was going to be resistance from the established Archaeological and Historical community, but that Historical romantics with perhaps more open minds *raises hand* would appreciate the theory being presented. So, the tone is one in the middle of dry factual study and more appealing easy reading for Historical Fiction aficionados. You’re not going to race through it, not being able to put it down, but give it a go and see what you think. If you know something of the background, you’ll be intrigued, if you know nothing, it might just set you off on further explorations of your own.

I’m giving it 5 stars because it is so darned interesting and is a positive, up-beat alternative to Erik Wahlgren’s ‘Im right, you’re wrong’ ‘The Vikings and America.’

Click on the book cover at the top and you’ll go to a search page for the title on Abe Books. That’s where I got my copy.

Me, on Goodreads

9 October, it’s Leif Ericson Day

And who was that, by the way?

Leif EricksonIf you need to ask, or think it was the guy who played John Cannon, in High Chaparral, then you have no business here – begone!

So, yes today in the USA, the 9th of October, it is/has been, Leif Erikson Day. And yes, it does celebrate the man who possibly led the Viking seamen who became the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas. Why the 9th of October? Well, it’s called after the day when the immigrant sloop ‘Restauration’ sailing from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York harbour in 1825. The first ship of Norwegian settlers to arrive in the USA.

By the way, you can’t really say ‘discovered’, as I’m sure the Native American people who were already there, didn’t realise they needed discovering.

His actual name was Leif, Leifr, or Leifur and he is thought to have been born on Iceland, around A.D. 970. His surname, was, given it is an Icelandic name, based on his father’s first name. So his father was Eric. Eric the Red, in full.

Leif EricsonWhat we have in the way of evidence for Vikings in America, is in the Icelandic Sagas and at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. The Viking trips to America are mentioned in several sagas.

As with a lot of these sort of ‘firsts’, Leif gave his name to the achievement, but may well not have actually been the very first European to set foot on dry American land. As the Wikipedia page for Leif says:

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen‘s translation of the two sagas in the book Voyages To Vinland, Leif was not the first European to discover America, nor the first to make landfall there: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when travelling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was also blown off course, to a land that he did not expect to see, where he found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country, and went back to Greenland… Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

What I learned first, was that it wasn’t such a long journey. They were probably of Norwegian descent, these Vikings, but if you look at a globe, you can see how they could do it in fairly bite-sized trips. From Norway, to The Shetland Isles, to the Faroes (still a Danish protectorate), to Iceland, to Greenland (possibly named by one of the Eriksons to try and entice people to go live there), then to the very north east coast of what is now Canada. I’m sure I read somewhere, that it is possible, if you stand on a hill high enough, close enough to the coastline and on a clear day, to see your next landfall, from the previous land, all the way over to Canada. I’ve never tried it (unfortunately), so I can’t say if it’s true or not. But instead of thinking what a long way it must have been to sail all the way from Norway to Canada in a trading boat from the Viking era, think more of a series of short island hops. Nearly.

So, where did they set foot in America?

The lands the sagas say they discovered, they named Helluland, which the Old Norse-speakers amongst you will of course recognise as meaning ‘Flat-Rock Land’ and possibly a reference to Baffin Island. So that would be where you’d find the first European footprints on American soil. They also landed, the sagas say, at a place they called Markland, which may refer to the coast of Labrador. People always say Markland meant forest land and it quite probably does. Having lived in and spoken Danish, for up to 10 years now, I can only say that a ‘mark‘, to a Dane, would be a ‘field‘. I live at Havremarksvej, for example. Which means Oats Field’s Road. I’m just saying. Then they got on to the place you all know and love, Vinland. Always referred to as meaning the land of grapes, or wine. This is still disputed. As I remember partly because grapes don’t/didn’t grow as far north as the areas traditionally associated with being Vinland. They might have been just berries. And another theory is based around how you spell ‘Vin‘. I think it’s if you have the ´accent over the í, like that, as it may have been written in the sagas, it actually can mean ‘good‘, as in good land for farming.  As Graeme Davis (see below) says; “In Old Norse vin means good, fertile land – land which may be cultivated meaning emphasised by the element, land, which again means farmland.” The modern Danish for good or fine, is ‘fin‘, land is usually used to mean country, or countryside.

Vinland it would seem, may be what the Vikings called the whole of the rest of the land they discovered. The whole of north America. They were looking for good farmland and they found plenty of it.

Why write about this on a book blog?

Well, firstly, I find the whole concept of Vikings in America fascinating. Secondly, I’m using this day’s connection to point you in the direction of two books I have read, which detail pretty much what is known about the Viking voyages to the New World.

The first book you really owe it to yourself to check out if you want to gen up on Vikings and America, is the cunningly titled Vikings In America, by Graeme Davis. I have reviewed and mentioned it before, but it really is good enough to be mentioned again here. And here’s what the blurb on the back says:

When Columbus claimed to have discovered America in 1492, and the Borgia Pope claimed it as a New World for Catholic Spain, the Vatican started a 500 hundred year conspiracy to conceal the true story of Viking America. In this groundbreaking new work by the author of The Early English Settlement of Orkney and Shetland, the true extent of the Viking discovery and colonisation of the eastern seaboard of America is fully examined, taking into account the new archaeological, linguistic and DNA evidence which supplements the historic account. For four centuries or more, from their first visits around AD 1000 to the eve of the Columbus voyages, the Vikings explored and settled thousands of miles of the coasts and rivers of North America. From New York’s Long Island to the Canadian High Arctic the New World was a playground for Viking adventurers. And the name the Vikings gave to this New World – America.

The Vikings In America - Erik WahlgrenThe other, is a bit more straight-laced shall we say, than Graeme Davis’ book, it’s The Vikings and America, Ancient Peoples and Places, by Erik Wahlgren. He doesn’t stand for no messing about with ‘evidence’ of Vikings’ travels further inland, like the Kensington runestone and this is perhaps more of a thorough investigation of the evidence so far. Or, as it was when it was published. As things have moved on a little, with more evidence emerging of further possible sites for Viking landings further south of L’Anse Aux Meadows and even of hints they might have travelled/explored further inland.

Here’s what Amazon says about this one:

Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland have revealed the presence of the Vikings around AD 1000. But was this the mysterious Vinland (“land of grapevines”) which, according to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Eriksson discovered almost one thousand years ago? In his account Wahlgren argues for a location farther south and also suggests Viking exploration far to the North. He also answers the question: “Why did the Vikings eventually leave the New World?” with his theory that a worsening climate and attacks by native Eskimos and Indians put paid to the first European presence in North America.

L'Anse aux MeadowsAnd what is L’Anse aux Meadows? Well, it’s the only – so far – verified place we know the Vikings were in North America. At L’Anse aux Meadows we can say, with certainty, the Vikings landed on American soil. It was discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad. You can see it on Google Maps (the ‘A’). You can read and see more on the Parks Canada website. The photo I’ve used here, is of one of the reconstructed Viking dwellings they have there, is from their website and doesn’t say who it was taken by.

That’s it. Go read more about the Vikings and America. Go celebrate Leif Ericson Day (maybe next year for those of you in Europe, or east thereof). But definitely go say “Columbus? Who?!”

Review: The Vikings and America

The Vikings and America by Erik Wahlgren

I learned from this book; that the author is a bit of a know-it-all. He’s clearly a very educated, and educated in all things Norse and Viking, man. He clearly knows his Viking onions. He has his opinions and his opinions are the right ones. His opinions are in fact, fact. There are of course, other theories concerning the Viking presence in north America, but he doesn’t vare for them and is dismissive of the majority of them. And this ‘I’m right, they/everyone else is wrong’ attitude, whilst being able to back the vast majority of it up with facts, does grate. I would have liked him to have at least written as if he was a little bit more ‘open’.The best section of the book, in my opinion, was where he presents his theories on where Leif Eriksson’s ‘Vinland’ settlement could well have been (given that whilst L’Anse aux Meadows does show (continued) Viking presence in America, it isn’t Leif’s ‘Vinland’). This was very interesting and well presented. I’d certainly have liked him to have developed it a lot more.For a much more well-rounded (and up-to-date) presentation of the Vikings in America, you should read the aptly titled ‘Vikings in America’, by Graeme Davis.

View all my reviews >>

Review: Vikings in America – Graeme Davis

If you only read one book on Vikings this year…

Now that I’m living in Denmark, for some reason I’m finding the Viking period of history more and more interesting. Must be something in the air.

Anyway, I recently read this one. As it says on the cover, it is about the Vikings in America. About how they came to ‘discover’ America (via Scotland, Iceland, then Greenland), how they without doubt traded, explored and lived there for a hell of a lot longer than is generally thought, and how they may well have even given the (northern) continent its name.

The author certainly knows his stuff and approaches the topic form a wide variety of angles. From the theoretical, to the archiological, to the linguistic. It is bang up-to-date and mentions most of the most recent scientific, DNA research and theories.

It is in fact, the theoretical ideas he poses, that give the book a special edge. He poses questions, suggests ways forward for research and suggests ideas and areas that future scientists, archiologists and generations might explore and further confirm the ideas he puts forward. It really gives the book an extra something special and made me both misty-eyed imagining all possible scenarios – and desperate, not to say impatient, to find out more.

I can absolutely and thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the Viking period. I now want to find out more about their east-ward journeys into what is now Russia – a(nother) country named after them. Remarkable stuff.