The Norse colony in North America always fascinated me. Why not go right to the source? These documents were once thought legendary, then proved to be (at least partially) true by the archaeological record. Included in this collection of “Vinland Sagas” are the Book of the Icelanders and the Book of the Settlements, which chronicle of the colonization of Iceland; and the Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik the Red’s Saga, which chronicle the colonization of Greenland and subsequent excursions to North America.
Written in 13th century, I was afraid these would be dry and boring, but boy was I wrong. They are full of personal details and fascinating anecdotes, only occasionally bleeding into the fantastical. There’s a lot killing and a lot ice. The texts are rich enough that we are transported into another world. A world that existed a millennium ago. We learn about what the Norse wore, ate, and worshiped. Most fascinating are the tensions between the traditional religion and Christianity. The conversion of Europe to Christianity happened so long ago, it is often just a line or two in a school book, but in these sagas we have records of what that conversion was like, the tensions it caused, and how communities dealt with said tension. Did I mention the killings and the ice?
Another surprise was that the Iceland sagas we’re often more interesting than the Greenland ones. In these we find majority of material about the pagan-Christian problem. Did you know there were people (not the Inuit) on Iceland before the Norse? Did you know Iceland had a parliamentary government centuries before other European countries? This is not to take anything away from the Greenland sagas. As is pointed out in the brief notes which accompany it, the Eirik the Red’s Saga is a masterpiece of European literature.
If you have a library card, Vinland Sagas is downloadable for free from Netlibrary with no DRM-restrictions. They are read by Norman Dietz and the inimitable George Guidall.
I can recommend two novelizations of the same material. The first, William Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt, focuses on Eirik the Red’s daughter Freydis and her role in founding of the North American colony. This is the first of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams sequence which explores the European conquest of the North American continent. It includes ink drawings by the author and contemporary accounts of his travels through Greenland.
The second is the award winning Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard de Boucheron which imagines what the dwindling Norse colony on Greenland must have been like in the 14th century. You can read my original review here.
For those not book oriented there is Severed Ways, Tony Stone’s dreamy yet realistic portrayal of two Vikings stranded in Newfoundland. Even if your not interested in the Norse, this is one of the best, truly independent, American films I have seen in recent years.
None of these titles are for the squeamish.