Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Earth Avails: Poems by Mark Wunderlich

"At summer's end, I traveled north, / crossed the sea, to the salted rim of the Arctic." So writes the poet Mark Wunderlich about his pilgrimage to Iceland. He "breakfasted on liver paste." He saw the "spidery manuscripts chilled under glass."

And he rode--as I rode, in imagination, alongside him--the "horses muscled like athletes / on paths cut through knee-high grass, / over lava and hill crest ... Hours went by and no one spoke ..."

In Song of the Vikings, my biography of the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, I list some writers Iceland has inspired:

Thomas Gray, William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Henrik Ibsen, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Stephen King, Alice Munro, Ivan Doig, Michael Chabon, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman.

These writers are just a beginning. There are many, many more--every day, I find more literary Icelandophiles. Some, like Tolkien, never went to Iceland--just learned about it from books.

Others, like the Victorian writer and designer William Morris, share an attitude toward the island that's more like Wunderlich's and mine. Asked once if he was going on a trip to Iceland, Morris replied, "No, I am going on a pilgrimage to Iceland." Quoting Morris, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges said, "This is also my answer. Any specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature is sooner or later drawn to Icelandic literature. It is like admiring a sunset or falling in love."

Shortly after Song of the Vikings came out in 2012, I received a note over Facebook from Wunderlich asking if I'd ever been to Siglufjord in the north of Iceland. "I will be there for about three weeks at an artist's residency," he said, "and I was just curious if anyone had been there, knew anyone there, or could tell me anything about it. It is off the beaten path, but the world is sometimes very small." It would be his seventh trip to Iceland--like Borges and I, Wunderlich had fallen in love--and Siglufjord was "the furthest from Reykjavik" that he had ventured. He described it, lovingly, as "remote" and its weather as "frightful."

Earlier this year, Mark Wunderlich's collection The Earth Avails won the 2015 UNT Rilke Prize for a book of poetry that "demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision." It includes--alas--only one poem directly inspired by that pilgrimage to Iceland, the eloquent "Prayer in a Time of Sickness," in which he admits, "I yearned to be cast up on an arctic island, bare of trees, / ... the air dry and howling, cliffs exposed, the wind / stirring its cauldron of birds ..."

What is it about Iceland that calls to us? What is it about desolation and frightful weather, wind and birds and half-wild horses, that makes us fall in love?

According to a review in The New Yorker, Wunderlich's poetry "reminds us how fully the spirit can illuminate the depths."

"Prayer in a Time of Sickness" reminds me how much the Iceland I love is woven of words. "Here I stand at the estuary / My horse cropping grass" when it happens. When I see, like Wunderlich, what I've been missing.

The Earth Avails was published by Graywolf Press in 2014. See

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gudrid's Voyage to Sandnes

As I wrote last week, I did much of the research for my new novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, several years ago when I was writing my nonfiction book about Gudrid, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

One research trip that became a crucial scene in the novel was an actual voyage. I went by boat down the Lysufjord from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, to Sandnes, the farm Gudrid and her husband Thorstein Eiriksson returned to after their failed voyage to Vinland--and the farm where Thorstein subsequently died, so spookily.

The boat was owned by my friend Kristjana Motzfeldt and piloted by her friend Tobias, since Kristjana was on her way to Denmark.

"You have a map, you know where you want to go, good, good," she said, brushing away my doubts. "Tobias will get you there"--despite the fact that he spoke no English (or Icelandic) and I spoke no Greenlandic (or Danish). His wife Rusina would be going, too, I learned as we reached the boat at 8:00 Saturday morning. "Beautiful!" she said, with an expansive wave of one hand, as we passed the dramatic mountains that marked the harbor mouth. It was her favorite (and almost her only) English word.

The Motzfeldts' boat was a seal-hunting boat, half enclosed. It had two seats, for pilot and copilot, a two-sleeper cabin in the bow, and an open rear deck large enough for landing a seal or two. It had two engines and a large gas tank. Cruising along at about eight knots, drinking coffee and eating Danish pastries, I realized that sailing to Sandnes in a Viking ship would have taken amazing skill.

The narrow Lysufjord (named for a kind of cod) heads due east for most of its length, the ice-gray mountains falling straight into the sea, with no beaches, no harbors, no skerries, no bays, nowhere to find safety if the wind should turn contrary--or the ship should sink. The cliffs' snow-streaks and striations puzzle the mind; the eye wants to find a meaning in the pattern. I began to see huge faces as the hours passed and the view refused to change. The sky was overcast, the silver sea glassy calm. A sense of distance eluded me until I saw a boat the size of ours looking like a speck, a seabird, between us and the gray cliff face. Ahead lay endless iterations of the same humped mountain, hill upon hill: I could see no passage in.

Finally, after almost four hours, the fjord divided in two. A dome-shaped mountain lay straight ahead, a low rocky toe reached in from our left. As we turned the point into shadow, the boat began humping the waves, "swimming like a seal," as Kristjana had warned me it might if the wind turned against us.

But the sides of the fjord soon softened. The snow had disappeared. Red-brown brush clung to gentler slopes, and here and there above a narrow beach were bright yellow-gold patches of grass that looked man-made: they were straight-edged, rectangular. You could spot Norse ruins from far away, I had read, if you looked for the lushest grass.

The water grew greener, more shallow. Birds were feeding along the edge of a sandbar, seemingly in the middle of the fjord. We went slowly onward, rolling sideways and, I soon realized, hugging the wrong shore. Across to the north I could see another great swath of winter-gold grass and the landmark I’d read about: "a small round rocky hillock, … a fine vantage place for looking for scattered sheep in the valley."

Creeping along the edge of the sandbar, we had to retreat back down the fjord quite a ways before we could come close enough to shore to launch our rubber dinghy. Luckily the wind was calmer now, and by the time we scraped the white sand beach, the sun had come out.

Tobias and Rusina, each carrying a bottle of soda and a handful of plastic bags, sauntered down the beach to gather mussels. I hurried off the opposite way, knowing we had very little time before the falling tide would strand our anchored boat.

Of course I lost track of the time, wandering about Gudrid's farm, musing on her life--suddenly I saw Rusina frantically waving. I ran for the beach.

If we had been in a Viking ship, sailing or rowing, we would not have made it back to Nuuk that night--one reason no one lives at Sandnes now. We had hardly shipped our anchor when the wind turned against us again. The boat began to buck and thump; Tobias gritted his teeth and concentrated on steering her straight. Four bone-jarring hours later, we came to the mouth of the fjord, into a suddenly calm and sunny evening, an iceberg floating like a big pale-blue swan in the distance. At the foot of the beautiful! mountain, Rusina finally got a chance to throw out a fishing line.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler was published in Spring 2015 by namelos. See or order from your favorite bookseller. You'll find the fictional version of this voyage in Chapter Seven.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Eirik the Red’s Greenland

Last week I celebrated the publication of my first young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler. If you read this blog regularly, you knew Gudrid already. Search on her name  or "Far Traveler" and you'll find a dozen posts.

That's because in 2007 I published a nonfiction book about Gudrid called The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. ("Far Traveler" or "Far-Traveler"? That pesky hyphen! It's missing from the first book because the designer thought it looked ugly.)

In one way, writing the nonfiction book was a prerequisite to writing the novel. I couldn't have written The Saga of Gudrid without first having written Voyages of a Viking Woman--or at least without having experienced the actual voyaging the earlier book required.

For instance, much of The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler takes place in Greenland. When I traveled to Greenland in 2006, I learned things my exhaustive library research had missed.

Writing in the early 1100s Iceland's first historian, Ari the Learned, described the discovery of Greenland, in about 982, this way:

"The land called Greenland was discovered and settled by Icelanders. Eirik the Red was the name of a man from the Breidafjord. He sailed from there to Greenland and claimed the land around what is now called Eiriksfjord. He gave the land its name and called it 'Greenland' because he said people would be more inclined to go there if it had a nice name."

It was academe's considered opinion, when I first read Ari's Book of the Icelanders 30 years ago, that in naming Greenland Eirik the Red had perpetrated a hoax. Ari practically came out and said it: Eirik's "nice name" was salesmanship, simple bait-and-switch.

Elsewhere, the Icelandic sagas have very little nice to say about Eirik's colony. A verse addressing a traveler headed to Greenland says:

I see death
in a dread place,
yours and mine,
northwest in the waves,
with frost and cold,
and countless wonders …

Trolls and evil spirits descended on Greenland in the winter, the sagas say, breaking men's bones and destroying their ships. One poignant scene describes a girl who came to Greenland accidentally, adrift on an ice floe; she stands on the shore on a summer's day and stares out to sea, dreaming of seeing the beautiful fields of Iceland again.

Greenland is indeed "more gray than green," as a visitor approaching by sea in 1835 described it. Flying over from Denmark I found it, in fact, more white than gray.

Yet Eirik may not have actually lied. Greenland still has little pockets of green that are as lush as Iceland must have been around the year 1000.

In 2006, I spent two weeks in Greenland's capital, Nuuk, on the seaward edge of a handful of long, twisting fjords that probe eastward 60 miles to the inland ice. It was here that the Danish missionary Hans Egede came in the 1700s, 300 years after the Viking settlements had disappeared, looking for lost Christian souls. Finding the culture totally Inuit, he reintroduced Christianity, wool clothing, wood-framed houses, and, so I was told, "good Danish food."

I visited Nuuk in mid-May, a week after "spring arrived," according to my hostess, Kristjana Motzfeldt, an Icelander married to a Greenlandic statesman. Built on a rocky spit three miles from end to end, the city of 15,000—more than one-quarter of the country’s entire population—sported no trees, no flowers. Old snow piles, gray with gravel, hid behind the bright-painted houses bolted to the bare rock. The reservoir was still iced over. The mountains that overlooked the town were sheer and ice gray, streaked with snow.

Yet the sun was hot and the air held a springlike mildness as I climbed the steep wooden staircases that linked the winding streets, most of which dead-ended in water. The children certainly thought it was spring: They waded barefoot in the bay. I took off my boots and dabbled my toes. It was refreshing.

You can read more about my trip to Greenland here:
"A Visit to Greenland" (March 13, 2012)
"Lambing Time" (March 28, 2012)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler

“Well-written, thoroughly researched and adventure-filled, this story of a determined and very human young woman is timeless.”
Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 2015)

That's the first review of my first novel.

Can you tell I'm thrilled? "Timeless." It tastes on the tongue like chocolate syrup.

Then again, just being able to type "my first novel" is a thrill. Sure, it's my sixth book. Shouldn't be such a big deal, but it is. It's not even really my "first" novel. That one was written 20 years ago and resides in my closet, alongside several manuscript boxes full of more-or-less completed pieces of fiction.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is the only one that's made it out the door and through the writing workshops (two of them) and past the agent and past the desks of the dozen or so editors who turned it down and back to me and out again to Stephen Roxburgh of namelos, who believed in it from the time it appeared in his Whole Novel Workshop (organized by the Highlights Foundation) and helped me turn it into the "timeless" book it became.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler did have a substantial advantage over any other piece of fiction I've tried to write. Editors always say, "Write what you know," and I know Gudrid.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is based on 10-plus years of research into Gudrid’s life and times. Gudrid is mentioned in the two medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings’ adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. The Saga of the Greenlanders may have been written in the late 1100s—over a hundred years after Gudrid died. It was originally part of a longer, now lost, saga about Bishop Bjorn of Holar, who was Gudrid’s great-grandson. Another hundred years later, about 1295, a Saga of Gudrid was written to celebrate the founding of a nunnery by Abbess Hallbera, who was also descended from Gudrid. That saga has been lost too; all we have left is what’s now called The Saga of Eirik the Red.

These two sagas don’t agree on the particulars of Gudrid’s life, and they don’t tell us very much about her. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, and explored Wine Land; later (outside the scope of my novel, which focuses on her growing up), she visited Norway, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, and took a pilgrimage to Rome. She was beautiful, we are told, which means she was probably fair and blonde (dark hair being unattractive and red hair uncanny). She was intelligent, wise, and had a lovely singing voice.

Over the last fifty years, archaeologists have proved more and more of Gudrid’s story true. They have found the settlements where Gudrid lived in Greenland and Newfoundland; I visited both. In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in northern Iceland. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking house on the farm where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland; it most closely resembled a house in Newfoundland.

I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, a nonfiction book published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing this one.

In spite of all my research--or maybe because of it--the story in The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler doesn't follow either of the two medieval sagas that mention her. Rather, it weaves a new story using them as warp and weft. Some of the details surprised me--that's one of the most fun parts of writing fiction, when the story takes control and writes itself through you.

For example, I didn't realize until I was well into writing The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler that Leif Eiriksson was the villain of Gudrid's story. Elsewhere on this blog I've argued that Leif shouldn't get all the credit for discovering America. (See "Who Discovered America?") Leif stopped here once--possibly by mistake--and never came back. Gudrid set sail for Wine Land twice, with two different husbands, intending to settle. She was the real explorer. I'm supposing that's where I got the idea that Gudrid and Leif were enemies.

With that in mind, other parts of Gudrid's story--parts the sagas left vague--fell into place for me. In my story, Gudrid was betrothed to Leif Eiriksson at her birth. All her life she has hated Leif, even though she’s never met this handsome son of the famous Viking Eirik the Red. She has hated the idea of Leif: the idea that she has to be a good wife to this stranger because of a vow her father swore long ago.

So when a handsome merchant comes to Iceland and asks for her hand, she prays her father will say yes. He doesn’t. As the story opens, Gudrid decides to defy him, running away to Greenland with her suitor. Her impulsive act ends in shipwreck and, within three years, to the tragic deaths of everyone she loves, including her suitor, her second husband, and even her father, leaving her at the mercy of a vengeful and violent Leif.

But Gudrid never gives up. Plucky, resourceful, and always willing to learn something new, she outwits Leif and at 19 marries the man she loves. Together they set out on the greatest of all Viking adventures: sailing into the west to the fabulous new land called Wine Land. Gudrid explores Wine Land for two years, until she meets the Native American girl who will become her friend and save her life—by sending her home.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is written for young adults, ages 12 and up. I hope, indeed, it proves to be "timeless."

You can order The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler as a hardcover, paperback, or ebook directly from the publisher at or order it from your favorite bookstore.

If you would like me to come speak to your school, book club, library, bookstore, or other group about Gudrid the Far-Traveler, let me know and we'll see what we can work out.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Trolls: An Unnatural History, by John Lindow

What is a troll? That's the question answered (sort of) by the very first troll on record, a troll-woman who accosted the 9th-century Viking skáld Bragi the Old on a deserted forest track late one night and challenged him to a poetry match.

Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, she declaimed: giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale, seeress's friendly companion, guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel: what is a troll other than that?

In an earlier post I talked about how difficult it is to understand Viking poetry (see "The Viking Art of Poetry"). What do these kennings--giant's wealth-sucker, storm-sun's bale--mean? John Lindow, in his book Trolls: An Unnatural History (Reaktion Books 2014), only explains one of them: swallower of heaven wheel means "swallower of the sun or moon," which in Norse mythology is a wolf.

Is this troll a wolf? A shapeshifting werewolf? A wolf-like monster? Who knows--all that matters is, it's scary. Says Lindow, "The exchange between Bragi and the troll woman forms a paradigm that will often recur: a threatening encounter, in a place far from human habitation, between troll and human, with the human emerging unscathed in the end."

The trolls always lose. Remember that. It will help when you see how long-lived and nasty these creatures can be.

Through the Viking Age, the Saga Age, and into Iceland's Sturlung Age, when the Icelandic sagas were being written, trolls were a kind of malevolent land spirit. A woman who throws a love token away is said to have given it to the trolls. A warrior swears, "May the trolls take me if I never again redden my sword with blood." These trolls were "associated with the Other," Lindow notes: "the mysterious, inexplicable, and unknowable. … Or to put it another way," he adds later, "as the giants are to the gods in the mythology, so trolls are to humans."

Not until the later Middle Ages, will trolls take on the form familiar to us, the kind of ugly, stupid monster that appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit or J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. In Illuga saga Griðarfóstra (written as late as the 15th century), an Icelandic youth enters a cave in search of fire. He hears the heavy footsteps of the cave dweller and sees a decidedly un-wolflike troll woman:

He thought a storm or squall was blowing out of her nostrils. Mucus was hanging down in front of her mouth. She had a beard but her head was bald. Her hands were like the claws of an eagle, but both arms were singed and the baggy shirt she was wearing reached no lower than her loins in back but all the way to her toes in front. Her eyes were green and her forehead broad; her ears fell widely. No one would call her pretty.

This paragon of ugliness persists in our imagination largely due to folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published a collection of Norwegian fairy tales in the 1840s. There we read: "'under that bridge lived a big, ugly troll, with eyes like pewter plates, and a nose as long as a rake handle.' Everybody knows this story," says Lindow. It's "The Three Billy Goats Gruff."

Of the ugly troll woman in the Icelandic cave, Lindow remarks: "What I find most striking about this description is the blurring of categories: male/female (beard and bald head), animal/human (claws), immodest/chaste (her garment). Such blurring suggests powerful operation of the imagination in creating the degree of otherness as it plays with the very shiftiness of trolls."

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness--and ugliness--these are the characteristics of the trolls that populate Scandinavian folk tales. In Sweden, "The trolls could change their shape," wrote folklorist Gunnar Olof Hylten-Cavallius, "and take on any sort of form whatever, such as hollowed-out trees, stumps, animals, skeins of yarn, rolling balls, etc."

Adds Lindow, "Trolls come at night. The night belongs to them, and they belong to the night." That's why--as Tolkien taught us--trolls turn to stone if the sun hits them. Actually, Lindow points out, that's only true for Icelandic trolls. According to Hylten-Cavallius, in Sweden it's giants whom the sun turns to stone. When Swedish trolls see the sun, they burst--pop!--and disappear.

Blurring, otherness, shiftiness, ugliness, and now darkness--or invisibility--or a dread of the light of truth… It didn't take long for literary artists to seize on the metaphor of the troll. When the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1867 sent Peer Gynt into the Hall of the Mountain King, the troll-king asked, "What is the difference between trolls and humans?"

Answered Peer, "There is no difference, as far as I can tell. Big trolls want to cook me and small trolls want to claw me--same with us, if they only dared."

Norwegian author Jonas Lie said the same in his collection of stories, Trolls, published in 1891. In an introduction, he wrote: That there is something of the troll in human beings, everyone knows who has an eye for such things. It is situated inside in the personality and binds it like the immoveable mountain, the fickle sea, and violent weather...

He writes of seeing the troll inside an old lawyer: a strikingly wooden face, eyes like two dull opaque glass stones, a strangely certain power of judgment, not liable to be moved or led astray by impulses. His surroundings blew off him like weather and wind; his mind was so absolutely certain … Trolldom lives in that stage inside people as a temperament, natural will, explosive force.

Trolls in modern literature not only "threaten us from the outside," says Lindow, "but they can lurk inside, too."

Which brings us to today's trolls: Internet trolls. According to one list Lindow quotes, the wilderness of the web is populated by "plain trolls, bashing trolls, smartass trolls, non-caring trolls, opinion trolls, 12-year-old trolls, blaming trolls." They continue to be ugly, shifty, fearing the light.

"In the old tradition, people who spent time in the world of the trolls described it mostly as unpleasant," Lindow concludes, "and I cannot say that my brief visit to the world of today's trolls was in any way pleasant. Yet I experienced, ever more strongly, the fact that we cannot truly know trolls. If we could, they would not be trolls. This holds for the very first trolls, found in Viking Age poetry, through the trolls who populated the wilds of Scandinavia, to the trolls in books, films, and the Internet. Trolls are what we are not, or what we think we are not. Or was Jonas Lie right? Could there be a bit of troll in each of us?"
Trolls: An Unnatural History by John Lindow was published in 2014 by Reaktion Books.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Michael Ridpath's "Where the Shadows Lie"

"Amid Iceland's wild, volcanic landscape, rumors swirl of an ancient manuscript inscribed with a long-lost saga about a ring of terrible power..."

Whoever wrote the jacket copy for Michael Ridpath's thriller Where the Shadows Lie, number one in his Fire & Ice series, might just as well have added, "This one's for you, Nancy," because, though I've never met Ridpath, I think he had me in mind as his perfect reader.

Rarely have I read a book about Iceland by a non-Icelander in which I can find nothing to complain about. (Okay, maybe the behavior of the golden plovers.) Ridpath may have grown up in Yorkshire and live in London, but it's clear he's visited Iceland--probably as many times as I have--and he hasn't just hung around Reykjavik and seen the standard tourist spots. He's read a lot of the books I have on my shelves, from Njal's Saga to Jesse Byock's Viking Age Iceland to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and he's mashed them all up inside a wholly believeable crime novel that has real people bumbling around in a real Iceland.

Here is an example. Our hero, Magnus, an Icelander who has grown up in Boston and is now a Boston police officer, and an Icelandic woman named Ingileif are driving through south Iceland, in the shadow of Mount Hekla:

At Ingileif's direction, Magnus turned off the road and along a dirt track, winding up through the hills and into a small valley. His police-issued Skoda strained to maintain traction: the road was in poor condition and in places very steep. After a bone-rattling eight kilometres they finally came across a small white farm with a red roof nestling in the hillside at the head of its own little valley. Beneath the farm the obligatory lush green home meadow stretched down to a fast-flowing stream. The rest of the grass in the valley lurked brown and lacklustre, where it wasn't still covered in snow.
"'How fair the slopes are,'" Ingileif said.
Magnus smiled as he recognized the quotation from Njal's Saga. He finished it: "'Fairer than they have ever seemed to me before.'"

I've been in that car. I've had that interaction--though usually the Icelanders with me don't offer such an obvious quotation to complete.

And when the story continues, I recognize the farmhouse, the kitchen, the people there:

The father, an impossibly wizened man, stirred himself from a comfortable armchair, while the mother busied herself with coffee and cakes. A stove warmed the living room, which was chock full of Icelandic knick-knacks, including at least four miniature Icelandic flags.
And a giant high-definition television screen. Just to remind them that they were truly in Iceland.
The younger farmer who had greeted them did most of the talking. His name was Adalsteinn. And before they could ask him any questions he told them about his parents, the fact that he himself was single, the fact that the farm had been in the family for generations, and particularly the fact that farming these days was tough, very tough indeed.
The coffee was delicious, as were the cakes.

Michael Ridpath has met Icelanders and paid attention to their wisdom and depth, as well as to the obvious quirks and foibles most journalists seize upon. He understands how Icelanders feel about volcanoes and glaciers--as well as elves and trolls. Most importantly, he understands Icelandic sagas and the role they have played in Icelandic culture.

And not only in Icelandic culture. One of the reasons I wrote my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings, was to reveal how, through Tolkien, medieval Icelandic literature has shaped modern American and British culture. A number of readers have told me how surprised they were to learn, as one put it, that Snorri Sturluson was the "granddaddy of Bilbo Baggins."

Ridpath makes the same point--effortlessly and convincingly--in Where the Shadows Lie, though he has the advantage of fiction where I had to stick to fact.

For centuries, a family of Icelanders has hidden away a saga--and the ring of power it refers to. One of the only people they allowed to read it was J.R.R. Tolkien, and it clearly inspired The Lord of the Rings. (They even have letters from Tolkien to prove it.) So when the economic crisis hits Iceland and one of the family members decides to bail out her business by selling the family saga, it finds a ready market in LOTR fans. One of them is a Silicon Valley billionaire. Another is a Yorkshire truck driver. A number of people get bashed in the head and/or plunge to their deaths beside waterfalls before Magnus, our Boston cop, solves the mystery. As he and the Yorkshire truck driver are rushing to prevent the final killing, the Yorkshireman says,

"'There's nothing wrong in being a Lord of the Rings fan… What is wrong is when you let it blind you to what's going on in the real world.' He looked around at the extraordinary countryside flashing through the mist around them. 'Although sometimes I find it hard to believe that this country is part of the real world.'"

"I know what you mean," Magnus says.

I know what he means too.

Learn more at

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Anders Winroth's "The Age of the Vikings"

Were the Vikings raiders or traders? Scholars waffle on this question. Looking at the Latin chronicles from the time, Vikings were cruel, bloodthirsty, rapacious barbarians. But since the publication in 1970 of The Viking Achievement by Peter Foote and David Wilson, historians have tended to stress the brave, adventurous, clever, and artistic side of life in the North in the years between 793 and 1066.

Some say the pendulum has swung too far.

That's a point stressed by the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition held at the Danish National Museum in 2013, the British Museum in 2014, and on its way to the State Museum in Berlin in 2015. As its curators stress, "For all of the peaceful achievements of the Viking Age, some of those encounters were undoubtedly violent and this is reflected in the accounts of those they fought. The repeated focus on such attacks should warn us against too peaceful an interpretation of the Vikings." The emblem of their exhibition is a sword; the centerpiece is a warship.

Anders Winroth, in his new book The Age of the Vikings, has a slightly different take on the question. As he states in his introduction, "I argue that their violence, seen in broad historical context, was no worse than that of others in a savage time, when heroes like Charlemagne (d. 814) killed and plundered on a much greater scale than the northern raiders."

He makes a good argument that by focusing on one side or the other--raiders or traders--we really don't know the Vikings at all.

Winroth's The Age of the Vikings is meant as a general introduction; as such, it covers a lot of familiar ground. But one section very new and exciting to me was the story of Estrid Sigfastsdotter, who died in the late 11th century and was buried on a farm just outside of Stockholm. Using archaeology, runic studies, and traditional historical sources, Winroth pieces together the story of this "independent and active woman."

Estrid's "influence and wealth are still discernible in the Swedish landscape through the many runic inscriptions that she created to memorialize the dead of her family," he writes. "But when we read the inscriptions, we are perhaps less fascinated by the men of the family than by Estrid herself, the matriarch, who stands out in unusually vivid colors."

Estrid outlived two husbands, three sons, and her stepson--she raised five runestones to their memory, telling us so. She ran two large farms, first as her husband's helpmeet, in charge of food, clothing, and education. "She carried the keys of the farm (one key followed her into the grave)," Winroth writes, "and she managed the storehouses."

Also in her grave were three weights, of the kind used with a Viking Age balance scale to weigh out silver. "They symbolize Estrid's responsibility for managing family affairs," Winroth says. "As the men around her died, Estrid took on an even more central role in the family, managing farms and thralls, running the family business, making the important decisions."

Estrid's grave was discovered in the 1990s through an accident of road building. Studying her skeleton, archaeologists learned she died in her 60s--a great age for that time. She was a tall, slim woman "with gracious features," Winroth says.

Estrid was rich, but still her family suffered from sickness and hunger. Her first-born son died at about age 10; a skeleton identified as his shows signs of malnourishment in his first five years, along with a severe ear infection. Estrid herself had once broken her arm, though it healed well. Both she and the tall man buried beside her (probably her second husband) had terrible problems with their teeth.

And she was Christian. Born in about 1010 or 1020, Estrid may have been given her somewhat unusual name in honor of the Swedish queen, Estrid, who came from northern Germany. Winroth speculates that Queen Estrid may even have been the child's godmother. Scandinavian  kings, he writes, "used Christianity and especially the relationship-creating ceremony of baptism to create and confirm alliances with the great men and women of their kingdoms," a theory he develops further in his earlier book, The Conversion of Scandinavia.

But the most exciting detail of Estrid's story is that she, too, was a far-traveler. The runestone she raised to her first husband, Östen, tells us that he died on the way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Though the runes do not say so, Estrid probably went with him. In a famous record of 11th-century Scandinavian travelers who stopped at the monastery of Reichenau, on the border of Germany and Switzerland, are the names "Östen, Estrid." The name preceding these two is Sven; Estrid had a son named Sven. And in Estrid's grave was a small wooden box locked with a key. It contained two coins, one of which came from Switzerland.

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. Read about another exceptional Viking woman in my book, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt 2007; Mariner 2009). Join me again next Wednesday at for more adventures in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer, check out the tours at

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge

Some books stay in my mind long after I've finished them. Some books stay in my soul. Fridrik Erlings's Boy on the Edge is one of these.

Written for young adults and translated by the author himself from Icelandic, Boy on the Edge is the story of big, ugly Henry, with his club foot and his stutter and his fear of reading aloud, son of an abused, alcoholic mother who is little more than a prostitute. Sounds bleak, but it's not. It's one of the most uplifting books I've ever read. Henry does not find happiness; Henry earns it.

Shunted from school to school, bullied past the breaking point, Henry snaps. Tragically, the person he hurts is the only one he loves: his mother. He is sent away to a reform camp run by a half-crazy evangelical minister on an isolated sheep-and-dairy farm far out in the Icelandic countryside. Arriving, scared, silent, resentful, he has his first brief hint of a future that could be different: The minister's wife, Emily, is making pancakes.

Writes Erlings: "There was this wonderful smell he'd never smelled before, and the sound of batter being poured gently into a frying pan, where it crackled briefly in melted butter, giving off an amazing scent."

Despite the pancakes, all is not well on the farm, either. The minister is a tyrant; Emily is unfulfilled. They have different visions for their reform school--and vastly different methods. The minister preaches hellfire and damnation and locks misbehaving boys in a dark basement room, visiting only to kneel with them in prayer. Emily, instead, teaches Henry how to milk the cows, feed the sheep, and clean up the manure: He was the King of Dung, collecting the dues from his subjects, filling the wheelbarrow. … He was somebody. Who would have thought? 

Of course, the thrill of being the King of Dung wears off. But throughout the book, the peaceful rhythms of the farm, the glory of the nearby sea, the danger of the sea cliffs, the pounding of the rain, the treacherous lava field, with its ruts and cracks, the brutal butchering of the bull, the happy cavorting of the cows in the spring, the serenity of the moon in the vast night sky, and the busy-ness of the little birds play counterpoint to Henry's efforts to understand himself.

The rain showers arrived from the ocean and the snow melted into the lava. One day a green knoll of moss appeared from under the snow and the southern winds rounded up the fluffy clouds and made them gallop across the sky. 
The promise of spring laughed in a brook and whispered in the yellow grass at the swamp. It shook the ptarmigan in flight with a playful gust of wind, which made it spring into the air, brown-breasted and white-winged.

Henry tries hard to make friends with some of the other reform-school boys, only to be disappointed over and over again. Ultimately, his striving for friendship leads to disaster--as, simultaneously, the fabric of the reform-school is unraveling. Then, in a tense and brilliant ending, Erlingsson allows Henry, almost in spite of himself, to succeed, finding not only friendship, but love.

Like Halldor Laxness's Brekkukotsannall, published in English as The Fish Can Sing, Boy on the Edge uses a child's coming of age to examine the failings of society, contrasting city and country, new ways and old, and reaching a compromise in which tradition can be honored and modernity embraced. How should we live in the world? How should we love one another? The answers are in Boy on the Edge.

Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings was published in the U.S. by Candlewick Press in 2014. It received a starred review as one of the best books of the year from Publisher's Weekly, which judged it "poetic and powerful." I highly recommend it.