The best books for Northern Lands

Margaret Elphinstone Author Of The Sea Road
By Margaret Elphinstone

Who am I?

I first experienced the silvery light of the far north in Lapland in 1970 on a university expedition. I had never been anywhere wholly wild before. I was hooked. In the Faroes I discovered the true force of the Atlantic Ocean. The obvious place to settle was Shetland, where I worked in the library and discovered the sagas. Summers spent volunteering on a Viking excavation on the island of Papa Stour inspired my first novel. I became a historical novelist with a particular interest in the liminal spaces where peoples and cultures live on the edges Then came Greenland, Vinland, Hy Brasil… there is no end to exploration, even now.


I wrote...

The Sea Road

By Margaret Elphinstone,

Book cover of The Sea Road

What is my book about?

What was Gudrid really like? The sagas say she grew up by the volcano Snaefel, in a culture of feuding and farming in tenth-century Iceland. She was among the early Norse settlers of Greenland, and maybe the first European woman to give birth in North America. She had at least two husbands; she made her own pilgrimage to Rome. There are many strong women in the sagas, and Gudrid is a kinder character than most. However, as far as first-person narratives go, women’s voices are silent.

The Sea Road gives Gudrid her own voice, as she experiences the tensions between families, between desire and duty, pagan and Christian, her own people and the unknown Skraelings, and finally between the living and the dead. 

The books I picked & why

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The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America

By Unknown, Magnus Magnusson (translator), Hermann Palsson (translator)

Book cover of The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America

Why this book?

This thin volume, containing Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, is perfect for carrying around Iceland and Greenland in one’s pocket or re-living dangerous voyages to the edges of the known world in armchair comfort. With typical sparse understatement, these sagas cover the Norse colonisation of Greenland and Vinland. And what a story: vibrant characters, feuds, violence, courage, and extraordinary adventure. Is it all true? Archaeology says broadly ‘yes’; Icelanders remember saga incidents as if they’d happened yesterday. I can’t but see these ultra-masculine journeys through the eyes of Gudrid, possibly the first Norse woman to reach North America. Gudrid is the heroine of The Sea Road, a feisty, much-married adventurer who, in my reading, stands at the heart of these sagas.

Land Under the Pole Star

By Helge Ingstad,

Book cover of Land Under the Pole Star

Why this book?

Why would I carry a one-kilo hardback around Greenland and Newfoundland on my back? Because Helge Ingstad was the archaeologist who discovered and excavated L’Anse Aux Meadowes, the first archaeological corroboration of Norse settlement in North America. Also because Land Under the Pole Star does the sort of sea exploration I have only dreamed about, following the Viking voyagers to Greenland and Vinland (wherever that was; personally I find Ingstad’s theories convincing). Not too colonial or patriarchal for modern sensibilities, Ingstad’s project is to relate the old Norse texts to what he finds on the ground. He’s an acute, sympathetic observer of Greenlandic life. I couldn’t have found a better guide, and if you like northern journeys with a scholarly purpose, this is the very book.


Independent People

By Halldor Laxness,

Book cover of Independent People

Why this book?

Perhaps Asta Sollilja is the fictional heroine who haunts me the most - even more than Gudrid. Her sufferings are the result of accumulative bitter ironies on a saga scale, but Asta Sollilja has a capacity for love that isn’t evident in the strong women of the Medieval sagas. She has a different kind of strength. Born into poverty-stricken rural Iceland in the early 1900s, Asta Sollilja is raised the hard way by her stepfather Bjartur, the central character of the novel. Bjartur’s harsh struggle as an independent sheep farmer is emblematic of Iceland (national independence came in 1944). However, for me, the heart of the novel is the desperate tension between father and daughter, a life-and-death struggle if ever there was one.


The Sealwoman's Gift

By Sally Magnusson,

Book cover of The Sealwoman's Gift

Why this book?

Icelanders still remember how in 1627 Algerian pirates carried off around 400 people, including nearly everyone from Heimaey. Archives record that Asta ∂orsteinsdottir and pastor Olaf Egilsson and their children were among them. Just how traumatic would that be, to have not only yourself but, worse, your beloved family, snatched from home and sold into slavery? What are the chances of ever seeing your children again? Yet history shows repeatedly that human beings will suffer almost anything, and survive. Another powerful daughter of the sagas, Sally Magnusson’s Asta never lets go of who she is, and yet she is torn… who wouldn’t be? The feeling of soft silk trousers against her skin, compared with harsh heavy Icelandic wool - for me that encapsulates just how confusing loyalty and identity can be.


Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

By Peter Høeg,

Book cover of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Why this book?

The sudden death of a small boy in the impoverished Greenlandic community in Copenhagen precipitates Smilla’s enquiries into a mysterious network of contacts and undefined interests. Accident or murder? Smilla loved young Isaiah; she needs to know why. Her anger, tenacity, and curiosity lead her inexorably into danger. Love is the route to loss and betrayal. But Smilla is a Greenlander, and she knows all about snow; she can name everything in this frozen world. The closer she gets to home, the more perilous the journey, and the more Smilla knows where she is: “If you haven’t grown up in this landscape, it uses up your strength.” This is much more than a scary thriller; it’s about facing powerful odds and knowing who you are.

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