The Far Traveler: Nancy Marie Brown

★★★½

Voyages of a Viking Woman

I realised that I was going to get along rather well with Nancy Marie Brown when I read the opening sentence of her first chapter: ‘The first time I saw a Viking ship in the water, I was struck with the desire to stow away on it‘. I was immediately charmed. Brown started out as a science writer, but she’s recently had the chance to return to her first love: Norse culture and mythology. Her writing is consequently an appealing blend of specialist and enthusiast.

This is the first of her books I’ve read although, earlier this year, I spotted a copy of her Song of the Vikings in the Strand bookshop in New York. Foolishly I didn’t buy it at the time – that was before King Hereafter and my current fascination with all things Viking – but it meant that her name rang a bell when I discovered this. The Far Traveler was her first book on the Vikings, and it offers a rather different perspective than most. Brown’s focus is not on the Scandinavian Viking heartlands, but on the more remote settlements in Iceland and Greenland; and, more specifically, on a Viking woman: Gudrid the Far-Traveller.

Gudrid appears as a character in the two ‘Vinland’ sagas: The Saga of Eirik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders (both included in The Sagas of Icelanders, which Heloise reviewed here). She married Thorstein, the younger brother of Leif Eiriksson and, shortly after her marriage, seems to have persuaded her husband to make a first attempt to reach Vinland, the luxuriant land in the west that Leif himself had discovered some years earlier. Nothing came of that, and Thorstein soon died; but Gudrid presently married again. Her second husband was Thorfinn Karlsefni (sadly not ‘our’ Thorfinn, although Gudrid, born in about 985, was a near-contemporary of his). Karlsefni and Gudrid made another attempt to reach Vinland and this time they were successful, settling into Leif’s colony at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, where their son Snorri was born (not the Norse poet; another Snorri). They remained there until it became clear that they couldn’t coexist peacefully with the ‘Skraelings’ (the native tribes) and then returned to Iceland. Many years later, with her husband dead and her sons grown, Gudrid would leave her home for another long journey: as a lifelong Christian, she made a pilgrimage to Rome in about 1025 (just imagine how much of an adventure that must have been then!).

This remarkable woman serves as the lynchpin of Brown’s book, although I should point out that this isn’t – strictly speaking – a biography. Instead, Brown uses Gudrid’s life as a lens through which to examine wider questions of settlement and lifestyle in Viking-era Iceland, while adding a parallel story of her own experiences, as part of a team excavating what may well be Gudrid’s house on the farm of Glaumbaer in northern Iceland. We learn not only about the diet, daily chores and history of the Icelandic Vikings but also about the modern archaeological equipment which allows us to understand more about the way they built their houses, the date of their settlements and the kind of food that they ate. (For anyone who grew up watching Time Team, there’s something rather cosily familiar about the archaeological sections.) Brown also talks to craftsmen who continue to use Viking techniques, whether that’s in ship-building, turf-cutting or weaving, and whose experiments have given us a better understanding of what it actually felt like to live in this world.

Brown’s enthusiasm and the impression she gives of being very hands-on are both appealing qualities. She offers beautiful descriptions of the bleak but imposing landscapes of Iceland and Greenland, and the book is stuffed full of little pieces of random information: the kind I hoard in the futile hope that one day they’ll come up in a pub quiz. For example, I never knew before that until about 1300 (when elephant ivory became more widely available) all the ivory used in European reliquaries, chess pieces, portable altarpieces and other luxury goods was actually whale-ivory that came from Greenland. It was an amazingly lucrative trade and perhaps it was only just that, having so few natural resources, the Greenlanders had some way to make ends meet. So, next time you’re looking at an early medieval ivory, don’t just think about the exquisite craftsmanship: think about where the ivory itself actually came from. Remarkable. Another little gem was Brown’s translation from The Book of the Icelanders in which she explains Eirik the Red’s choice of the name ‘Greenland’ for his newly discovered country. Apparently, ‘he said people would be more inclined to go there if it had a nice name’. I give you Eirik the Red: father of the PR marketing campaign.

There were also some interesting theories about why the Vikings took so easily to Christianity, which reminded me of topics that came up in The King in the North. Permeated with a belief in local spirits, who lived in stones and rivers and trees, the Vikings found it natural to worship crosses or relics, in which they understood powerful forces to reside. It was not so much a question of consciously turning from paganism to the light of God: it was more a case of the priests convincing them that the spirits who inhabited the crosses and the relics were more efficacious than those they’d previously been worshipping. As ever, it was a question of interpreting Christianity in ways that conveniently fitted into existing practises of worship. Brown also makes the point that the Christ offered to the Vikings wasn’t the suffering Christ dying on the Cross (which came across as too blauður – too weak and soft – for the Norse to admire); instead, they were presented with the triumphant, conquering Christ of the Resurrection, who better embodied the hvatur or manly qualities they looked for in a god. She also makes the perfectly valid point that Christianity offered better prospects in the afterlife to women, farmers and anyone else who wasn’t eligible for the raucous feasting of the warriors’ hall of Valhalla. No wonder many of the earliest converts were women.

However, there were a few small things that prevented the book from being perfect. Brown does an excellent job of combining allusions in the sagas with archaeological evidence in order to create a very convincing picture of life in medieval Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. But there are times when she makes assertions, particularly about Gudrid, that feel more like wishful thinking than history: for example, the fact that ‘when I heard about the buried house at Glaumbaer in August 2002, I knew Steinberg had found the house Karlsefni had built for Gudrid when they returned from their Vinland adventure‘. It strikes me as being just a tiny bit risky to say that it must be the same house, especially when dealing with a saga character, and even more so when some scholars doubt that Gudrid even lived at Glaumbaer. The same goes for tracing Gudrid’s ancestry, for example, when the two sagas that mention her give entirely different accounts of her background.

I’m being picky, of course, and I’m not expert enough to judge the veracity of the sagas as Brown can; but it just seems that sometimes imagination triumphs over historical proof, just by a whisker. As long as you bear in mind that maybe some connections should be taken with a pinch of salt, it’s still immensely entertaining; and who wouldn’t be tempted to stand on an Icelandic hillside and imagine their saga role model staring out over her domain? On a more technical note, there were some sections – such as that about weaving – which were a little too thorough for me, and which I began to scan-read; but that may be a fault in the reader rather than the book. Overall the style may not always be rigorously historical, but it’s full of energy and adventure, and Brown carries you along on the tide of her extraordinary passion for these people.

Gudrid was obviously a remarkable woman and I’m now even more keen to start reading some of the original sagas: if Brown’s translations are anything to go by, they’re irreverent, lively and full of colour. It was great to read a slightly different take on the Viking story, too: not a tale of conquest and pillage, but the story of brave men and women who kept moving and colonising ever further west, despite barren landscapes and shocking weather conditions. The Far Traveler is easy to read and definitely worth seeking out for anyone interested in the history of Iceland, or the status of Viking women (pretty good by all accounts) or the first settlements in North America.

Incidentally, I’ve just discovered that Brown writes a blog, God of Wednesday, featuring posts on Vikings, her travels in Iceland or whatever aspect of medieval history she’s currently researching. Basically, it looks like great fun. I’m interested (and glad!) to see that she recommends The Ornament of the World,  a book about medieval Al-Andalus which made its way onto my wishlist a few weeks ago. Plus, after buying The Far Traveler I found that Margaret Elphinstone used the same story as the basis of her novel The Sea Road, which I’ve also bought, so there will be more on Gudrid coming very soon…

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