Review: Beyond The Northlands. Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas – Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough

My version: Hardback
Genre: Non Fiction, The Vikings, Icelandic Sagas
Oxford University Press
First published: 2016
ISBN: 978-0-19-870124-8
Pages: 280 (317)
, signed

From the cover:
In the dying days of the eighth century, the Vikings erupted onto the international stage with brutal raids and slaughter. The medieval Norse may be best remembered as monk murderers and village pillagers, but this is far from the whole story. Throughout the middle ages, Norse longships transported these Northern voyagers far and wide, where they not only raided but also traded, explored and settled new lands, encountered unfamiliar races and embarked on pilgrimages and crusades.
The Norse travelled to all corners of the medieval world, and beyond. North to the wastelands of Arctic Scandinavia, south to the politically turbulent heartlands of medieval Christendom, west across the wild seas to Greenland and the fringes of the North American continent, and east down the Russian waterways, trading silver, skins and slaves.
‘Beyond The Northlands,’ explores this world through the stories that the Norse told about themselves in their Sagas. But the depiction of the Viking world in the old-Norse-Icelandic sagas goes far beyond historical facts. What emerges from these tales, is a mixture of realism and fantasy, quasi-historical adventures and exotic wonder tales that rocket far beyond the horizon of reality. On the crackling brown pages of Saga manuscripts, trolls, dragons, and outlandish tribes jostle for position with explorers, traders and kings.
To explore the Sagas and the world that produced them, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough now takes her own trip through the dramatic landscapes they describe. Along the way, she illuminates the rich but often confuding Saga accounts with a range of other evidence: Archaeological finds, rune stones, medieval world maps, encyclopaedic manuscripts and texts from as far away as Byzantium and Baghdad. As her journey across the old Norse world shows, by situating the Sagas against the revealing background of this other evidence, we can begin to understand just how the world was experienced, remembered and imagined by this unique culture from the outermost edge of Europe so many centuries ago.

I find after reading this one I can safely say, I’m not much for the Norse sagas.

Not really fair on the Sagas and this book, I guess, but there it is. They are way too fanciful and full of too many trolls, ice snakes and one-legged beings for my liking. The Sagas were a product of and about their time. They were told (not written initially, not until after the Viking Age), around the fires on long winter evenings, and handed down by word of mouth. Story tellers learning them and repeating them wherever they went. So, they were a reflection of the world as the Vikings saw it. They couldn’t explain a lot of what they saw, so invented reasons for why. That’s where this book comes in, documenting some of the more well-known, larger-than-life Viking Age figures and where their deeds were unexplained, or needed a little artistic “umph!” to make those winter nights pass a little quicker, or justify the expense of feeding someone who told tales for a living, they either invented magical explanations, or just let it be as magic.

The life and times of the various well-known Vikings are already well-documented elsewhere, what sets this book apart then, is the detail and place-setting of the Sagas. The author is, as the title suggests, making them more appetising for a modern audience, while retaining their original sense of wonder at the world of the time around them. In that respect, I’d say the book succeeds very well. Knowing what we know now about the regions they explored but didn’t know enough about to explain as we would do now, you can maybe see what they saw and perhaps understand why they wrote the explanations they did. It all no doubt held your average just-back-from-pillaging hard-bitten Viking spell-bound round his turf fire of many an icy winter.

You can buy Beyond The Northlands from The Book Depository

Photo by Flavius Les on Unsplash

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