The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Sea Road is an imaginative and beautifully written attempt to recreate the life of an Icelandic woman called Gudrun Thorbjarnadottir. If you have no idea who that is, that’s ok. Not many will know who she is. She is a Norse woman, who appears in the Icelandic Sagas, the wife of Karsefni, of the few Norse adventurers to have visited North America – five hundred years before Columbus.
The story begins though, in Rome in 1051 and Gudrun is at the end of a pilgrimage. She is relating her life story to a fellow Icelander, a monk, called Agnar. She is of interest to the Church, because of her travels. She is “…one of those who have gone beyond the confines of the mortal world, in the body. She has dwelt for over a year in the lands outside the material world.”
The theme, the idea, of her having been ‘outside the world’ is just one of the many layers to this wonderful book. She has, by having visited and lived in the Norse settlement in North America, been ‘outside’ the world as it was known at the time. She too was of the opinion that she had been outside the world and subscribed to the Viking view, that this was the land that ran round the edge of the world as they knew it and that if you sailed along the coast far enough south, you’d reach Africa. This feeling of being ‘outside,’ is also used to symbolise both the position of the Norse Pagan beliefs being outside those of the arrogant up-start new religion of Christianity and the flight of the old Norse beliefs, out of the ‘old world’ they once ruled. There is no room for them in the new, Old World and they, along with the remaining Norse believers, find themselves being pushed further and further west. But can the New World be a new home for an old world religion?
Despite Gudrun’s own conversion to Christianity, there is a sense of sadness, mixed with longing, for the old ways. The story she relates has it too. A sadness, a regret, that a time, a productive, sensible, well-founded, earthy, functioning culture has passed. Through no fault of its own. A connection to the world around them, now lost to the peoples of Christianity. Forced to the edges of the world and then beyond, as the story says several times. Others seem to have converted to the new religion, for more practical reasons: “”It’s all very well for a man at sea to pray to Thor, but here on land we’re overrun by demons, and more and more people are being driven off their land by the dead who refuse to lie quiet. This new power might be just the thing we need.”” They clearly saw the new god first as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the older gods. A new solution, to some old problems!
Gudrun tells of the arrival in Iceland when she was a child, of a wild, red-haired adventurer called Eirik Raudi. Regarded by most as a notorious outlaw, he convinces several Icelanders, including Gudrun’s father, to move to a new land he has found, that he has deliberately enticingly called the Green Land. Though Eirik’s wife is now a devoted Christian, he is old school Norse: “The very mention of a new god made Eirik flame. “Take away your milk-and-water gods, your gods for infants!” he used to shout. “What kind of man do you want if you fancy a god who hasn’t the guts to lift a hand to save himself? Don’t tell me stories about flocks of sheep! I want men like wolves! What kind of country do you think this is?” Life is hard in the Green Land and the eastern and western settlements struggle along, but gradually, through being blown off course by storms trying to reach the settlements, sailors come in with reports of even more lands sighted to the west. Their desire for the new land, is purely practical. Trees have been sighted and trees are a scarce to non-existant in the Green Land.
It is Eirik’s son, Leif, who first makes inroads into the new land and he builds houses (‘Leif’s Houses’) there. It seems however, like they never really intended settling in the new lands, merely using them to supply Greenland and to sell what they flound in the New World, to the Old.
Gudrun and Karsefni also travel to America and remain there for around a year, but problems with the local inhabitants – not clear if it was Inuit or ‘Indians’ – mean they have to return earlier than expected to Greenland. She refers to the final voyage that is mentioned in the sagas, though only in passing, because she wasnt a part of it and it didn’t end well. Margaret Elphinstone is obviously using the actual Viking remains found in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, as her – the Icelandic Sagas’ – ‘Leif’s Houses.’ She also has Gudrun suggesting that they sailed a lot further south from Leif’s Houses, definitely what is now the USA (material has been found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which points to other, more southerly explorations), maybe even into the St. Lawrence seaway. Gudrun does make it clear that there were other voyages, apart from the ones she mentions – the ones the sagas mention – and that is also without doubt true.
And there’s a twist in the end of the tale, so you’ll want to have kept your wits about you and have an eye for detail…I’ll say no more.
The Sea Road is based on the mentions of what we now know to be North America, in the Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas were written after the oral story-telling tradition of the Vikings. If you’re thinking ‘Chinese whispers,’ it should maybe be pointed out that they are, in that respect, at least as accurate as Homer’s tales of Ancient Greece. People were selected (or selected themselves) for their ability in story-telling. As in, remembering what they were told and how the story should be told. There was no TV, no internet, no newspapers, no radio. Telling stories in the evenings was what they did. They knew the stories by heart and loved them told in the right way. You read a child their favourite story each night, then try changing a word or a scene – see how far you get. The Vikings didn’t write that much down at the time (unfortunately), remembering was what they were good at. Stories of their gods or ancestors, or also as in The Sea Road, sailing directions to places. Get one of those wrong and you don’t sail any more. It’s interesting too , that the Danish word for ‘speak’ is ‘tale.’ As the book points out, once a story was written down, it was dead. Telling and re-telling kept the story alive, the people and the places involved alive too.
I remember thinking several times, that this was not so much an idea of what it must have been like, but that this was how it was. She has surely come that close. I began thinking about it and analysing the story as if it were an actual record of what happened. Speaking of which, it was a good one to read having just come off the back of reading Robert Enterline’s Viking America. A happy accident. The Sea Road fits very well with and develops much of the conjecture, possibilities and evidence that put forth. The Sea Road would even, I think, make more sense, give even more pleasure, if you had read ‘Viking America’ first. It’s by no means essential, you’d just know that more of ‘The Sea Road’ could actually be true than you might otherwise have thought.
It doesn’t feel like reading a work of fiction. This is like reading their diary, their thoughts. It came over as if Gudrun is trying to remember what happened in her dreams. Trying to glimpse the events through the mists, through the trees. Like trying grab hold of smoke. The idea of the story being told once again to, or by, a monk did raise a few groans from me at the start. It’s been surely done to death. But as, to be fair, the only ones who could write back then were monks and because it in no way got in the way and the monk, being a fellow Icelander, understands her better than a lot of the monks do in similarly related books, it works an absolute treat.
The Sea Road is a much more ‘honest,’ moving, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying ‘Viking’ book, than ever your Giles Kristians and Robert Lows are. A beautifully written glimpse, full of longing, of regret and of happiness of a time and a people lost forever.