Land Under the Pole Star
The Vinland Sagas
The Viking Explorers
The Vikings and their Western voyages have been more in the news recently than at any time since the eleventh century. The main quickeners of public interest have been the announcement by the Norwegian Helge Ingstad that evidence of Norse occupation around the year 1000 has been found at L’Anse-aux-Meadows, in northern Newfoundland, and the acquisition and publication by Yale University of the Vinland Map, the first known map (pre-Columbian at that) to delineate any part of the American continent. But these two events and the sometimes heated discussion they have provoked are not the whole of the story. The poignant drama of the life and death of the Norse settlements in Greenland is receiving increased attention, sometimes for its own sake, sometimes as a preliminary to the Norse voyages to America. The tumbled houses and mouldering bones of Eirik the Red’s settlement at Brattahild in Tunugdliarfik in southwest Greenland are a tourist attraction; and rare is the traveler who hasn’t, almost literally, dropped in at the excavation of the first Christian church to be built anywhere in the world west of Iceland, i.e., Thjodhild’s turf-walled church at Qagssiarssuk. And something is happening all the time. At one end of the time-scale the Danes have raised five ships of the period 1000-1050 from the shallow waters of Roskilde Fjord; at the other the Icelanders have secured a twelve-mile fishing limit, a new volcanic island, and a much-challenged promise that they will receive from the Royal Library and the Arnamagnaean Collection in Copenhagen the most precious of their ancient literary and historical manuscripts. The year which marks the nine-hundredth birthday of the Norman Conquest has naturally drawn attention to the Norwegians who lost at Stamford Bridge and those ex-Danes, Nordmanni, Northmen, who won at Hastings. As I write, the exhibition of Swedish Gold at the British Museum, alongside the treasures of Sutton Hoo, shows on one level the close relationship between even the remotest Scandinavian nation and the English kingdom of East Anglia, and on another reminds us that the Vikings were not only sailors, soldiers, pirates, and destroyers, but splendid artists and craftsmen. And, not least significant, the Vikings are in paperback.
BUT L’ANSE-AUX-MEADOWS and the Vinland Map are not only less than the whole story. They are not even a closed chapter. To take L’Anse-aux-Meadows first: We need to know a lot more than has yet been revealed before we can fully subscribe to Mr. Ingstad’s claim that “Here on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland, we had discovered the first proven remains of a Norse settlement in the Americas.” The last thing any one wants to do is throw doubt on that word “proven”—one longs to see it substantiated, which means we long for a scientific report, and more particularly for a preliminary report that will settle questions nagging many scholars. The walls of the so-called “Long House,” for example, according to at least one trained archaeologist who cut sections there, contain no stone at all, either in their foundations or as part of a facade. This is hard to understand for anyone who has studied comparable ruins in Greenland; yet there is said to be plenty of suitable stone near at hand. The same sections are reported to reveal no trace of the patterned courses we associate with Norse turf-built houses, and one hears that there is no sign of the wide lateral base without which a four-foot wall of turf cannot prosper. Again, there appears to be a sharp difference of opinion as to the extent and termination of one of the side walls and the very existence of an end wall. And it is disturbing to read (in Farley Mowat’s Westviking, p. 453) that buried in the ground around the “Long House” there were wooden sills, discovered not by the Ingstad expedition but by the contractors engaged by the Newfoundland Government to put a protective wooden shelter over the site. One refrains from explanations of what such wooden sills may indicate, but certainly they do not indicate Norsemen.
No doubt Mr. Ingstad’s scientific report will deal with all these matters, and allay our anxieties. May it then come soon?
Nor has the Vinland Map had an untroubled voyage to fame. This is right and proper. The matter is too important for placid acceptance. And if there is one thing the publishers and editors of the Map cannot be accused of it is placid acceptance. We still need to know where the Map came from in Europe, and personally I hope that it will be subjected to scientific tests that will put its authenticity beyond question. No one wants to see the Map damaged, but apparently there are tests that can avoid this—though I do not know what they are. Otherwise Mr. Skelton and his fellow-editors appear to be repelling boarders the full length of the gunwales and committing their critics to the briny deep.
Before leaving these two disputed pieces of Vinland evidence, let me restate my conviction that whether we accept or reject them the case for the Norse voyages of discovery and attempted settlement stands firm. L’Anse-aux-Meadows and the Vinland Map would provide welcome corroborative evidence, but the case in no way depends on them.
MR. INGSTAD’S Land Under the Pole Star appeared in the Norwegian language in 1959, and on Norse Greenland is the book, of value to scholars and absorbing to the general reader. The author covers the historical narrative from the first sighting of Greenland by the Norsemen in the tenth century to the mysterious disappearance of the last settlers soon after 1500. He sees this last mainly in terms of emigration, whether to Vinland or, what is surely less likely, to England. Other possible, and to my mind more cogent, explanations are the encroaching Eskimo, the deteriorating climate, and increased isolation from Iceland, Norway, and the rest of sea-going Europe. The original work was spiritedly written, with a sure touch for evocative detail as well as the inclusive view; the English translation does it justice. It is deservedly considered a Greenland classic, and for good measure Mr. Ingstad deals in considerable detail with the Vinland voyages which started from Greenland and with the North American locations mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. The illustrations and maps are numerous and of high quality.
The Vinland Sagas appeared as a Penguin in the Spring of 1965. It consists of a new translation of The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik the Red’s Saga, our most important sources of information about the Greenland and Vinland voyages, and a valuable Introduction, which in addition to restating the Vinland problem assesses the character, provenance, and importance of the texts upon which the translation is based. This would seem a first requirement for anyone presuming to discuss the Vinland voyages, but it is surprising how many have been happy to sail in Leif Eiriksson’s wake without an inkling of what reliance their saga sources merit. What for instance are we to make of Mr. Pohl’s bland statement that “both [sagas] are invaluable,” and that “since both were copied from earlier manuscripts, the question of priority between them can have no significance”?
I must confess to a prejudice. If a man does not believe in the significance of manuscript priority but does believe in the Kensington and Yarmouth Stones, Newport Tower, and the Beardmore Find; if he accepts Holand and Strandwold as more reliable runologists than Moltke and Jansson; if he sprinkles his pages with misspelled saga names, and from his Selected Bibliography leaves out almost everything he should put in, and puts in almost everything he could well leave out; and if he shows no sign of acquaintance with the indispensable and not very hard to come by recent literature concerning Vinland in the four Scandinavian languages; then I place no faith in either his demonstration or his conclusions. The Viking Explorers displays all these errors, and does so with confidence.
Messrs. Magnusson and Pálsson offer respectable reasons for placing Vinland not “very far from New England”; Mr. Phol takes Leif Eiriksson to Cape Cod; Mr. Ingstad argues skillfully and fairly for two Vinlands, one in northern Newfoundland, the other in Rhode Island. That the Helluland of the Sagas was southern Baffin Island, and Markland coastal Labrador south of the medieval treeline, satisfies Ingstad and the Icelanders, and satisfies me. Mr. Pohl thinks Helluland was Newfoundland and Markland Nova Scotia. Myself, I think that northern Newfoundland was the Promontorium Winlandiae of Sigurdur Stefansson’s well-known map, Vinland’s northern extremity; and while admitting the possibility, and in genial mood the likelihood, of voyages farther south, am of the opinion that we must wait on reliable archaeological evidence before there can be any certainty.
THIS BRINGS ME TO “VIKING ART,” and an excellent book it is. For a start it is the first general survey of its kind to be made for the English reader; it is the joint product of an Englishman and a Dane, both experts in the subject; and it offers a view of the Vikings strikingly different from most people’s picture of them. Yet no one should be surprised to learn that the northern nations had a love of beautiful things, or that they were strongly influenced by the art of the various peoples they came in contact with as pirates and traders, more particularly Insular and Carolingian art, and the Eastern artifacts they encountered on the Volga bend and in the Caliphate of the Muslims with its capital at Baghdad. They were themselves craftsmen of a very high order, as we see from the famous ship-burials at Oseberg and Gokstad, with their varied and superb wood-carving, from the pictured stones of Gotland, with their carvings (once colored) of ships, animals, gods and heroes, and from the memorial-complex at Jelling in Jutland. It is unlikely that they made much if any distinction between craftsman and artist, but viewed this issue as pragmatically as they viewed religion, law, and the practice of war and commerce. It is our authors’ contention that Scandinavian artists were freer of foreign influence than is generally supposed.
Professor Klindt-Jensen is responsible for the first half of the book, which deals with pre-Viking art and the earliest Viking styles. Dr. Wilson continues the story by way of the styles known as Borre, Jelling, Mammen, and Ringerike, to the elaborate Urnes style of the twelfth century, after which Viking art was superseded by Romanesque. It is difficult to see how the job could be done better. It is at once a history of changing styles and underlying unity and an essay about things that are beautiful and well made, and worthy of attention particularly because of their artistic excellence and the pleasure this gives us. The volume is illustrated with eighty pages of plates, which of necessity include the best-known things—Oseberg, Jelling, the horse collars and axe from Mammen, pictured stones and rune stones, and the stave-church-portals of Urnes—but it offers in addition many delightful surprises. Here is evidence of a vigorous plastic art, rooted in a native conservatism, but receptive of foreign influence, and capable of export, characterized in particular by the strength and ingenuity of its animal forms and restless patterning. A considerable amount of it has perished, but enough remains to win our admiration. Viking art is among the most telling evidence for a Viking civilization—as telling in its way as the technical proficiency which led to the discovery of America.