The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
We think you will like Chilly Winds, Silence of the Grave: An Inspector Erlendur Novel, and Jar City: An Inspector Erlendur Novel if you like this list.
From Geza's list on climate change thrillers.
As with the previous book, this one too shows the author’s deep knowledge of the subject and his ability to weave that into a gripping thriller. Here too, you get both learning and titillation. In this book, Brooks Yeager, a former advisor to the Arctic Council and environmental negotiator, combines the high-stakes dynamics of international Arctic politics and many of the critical environmental issues facing us there and elsewhere, with other key ingredients such as well-constructed characters, lots of romance and an engaging plot to create a book you cannot put down.
From Michael's list on to read if you want to understand Iceland.
I don’t think it is overly ambitious to claim that you can learn a lot about a country from its crime novels. I certainly did, devouring novels by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Lilja Sigurdardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and the Englishman Quentin Bates. A good crime novel describes not only a place and its people but what makes them tick, what they fear, and what they desire. It’s very hard to pick just one crome novel from so many great ones, but Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave won the British Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2005 and also features the British occupation of the country during the war. Plus, it’s a damned good story.
From Elizabeth's list on understanding the Viking mindset and relationship with the world.
Another work of fiction, (in fact, another Icelandic Noir), this book explores modern ramifications of Nordic kinship relationships and the limited Icelandic gene pool. It has a tremendous sense of place and is deeply wintry and claustrophobic. An unsettling mystery by a modern master of the form.