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)

1 comment:

  1. Hastings RagnarssonApril 8, 2015 at 5:26 PM

    What do you mean, "young adult"? I'm 64 and I'm loving it!