On Smiley’s Greenlanders

On my recent shooting trip to Sweden and Norway, I brought along Jane Smiley’s novel The Greenlanders, a work of fiction that traces the lives of a brother and sister, Gunnar and Margret, who were born and raised on a Norse farm in Greenland during the 14th Century.

Taking place generations after the time when Greenland was settled by outlaw Erik the Red, The Greenlanders retains the mood of an Icelandic saga. Smiley’s story is centered on recurrent themes such as the importance of social status and the struggle for order and survival, all of which characterized life during Viking times. Nevertheless, her characters do not possess the qualities that saga authors typically attributed to their ancestors. Gunnar and Margret are not beautiful, valiant nor affluent. In fact, we identify with them through their faults and weaknesses. It is through a strategy of borrowing the language of the sagas yet bringing the story down to earth, that Smiley has created a very contemporary historical epic.

Writers of historical fictions are tasked with endless research when it comes to understanding the time and place in which their novels are set. For Smiley, this must have been especially challenging. Historical accounts of Norse settlement in Greenland are vague. From the Vinland Sagas, we learn that Erik the Red discovered Greenland around 982 and colonized the country shortly afterward. At this time, two Norse Settlements were established along the island’s west coast, the northernmost one was called the Western Settlement, and the more southern called the Eastern Settlement. By the time the story of The Greenlanders opens, the Western Settlement has already been abandoned foreshadowing the eventual outcome of Norse occupation in this country. The reader is constantly made aware of the harsh and remote conditions of north, in which famine is capable of consuming the population and communication with the European world is close to non-existent. One is left to wonder if anyone from this era survived to tell his or her story.

Smiley is also a master storyteller, crafting stories within stories, and sometimes referring to Norse mythologies and earlier sagas with enough confidence and creativity to alter the original narratives. She reminds us that in difficult times, the sharing of tales is always accessible and can help to pass the long, cold winters, “for folk may not contemplate their fates all the time, and must play as well as work.”

I was turning the last pages of The Greenlanders on a flight home from Stockholm, as we flew over the southern tip of Greenland. Luckily the sky was relatively clear and we could see the landscape below. Photo by Jessica Auer.

On the idea of north

It is the last day of September and as I begin to travel back south, away from the Lofoten Islands and the Arctic Circle, I am scarcely conscious that I have indeed spent the last 8 days this far north. The temperature is balmy 8 º Celsius and has hovered around this point, day and night for almost the entire time I have been here. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the coast of Norway, even at 68º North, can barely be described as arctic. The leaves have turned yellow and orange but have not yet fallen and much of the grass remains a lush green. Despite the sublime setting, the islands and the rest of Nordland are hardly remote or inaccessible. I reached Lofoten by train and bus and will be leaving by boat and airplane. A nicely paved road connects the archipelago and extends to the very tip of Lofoten to a town simply named Å. After a few days I traded in my rental car for a bicycle, exploring the islands as a much slower pace.

When the largest Viking Age homestead was found in Lofoten in 1983, the archeological world was stunned, not only by the discovery of such a large home measuring 83 meters long, but by the fact that a politically and historically powerful household was being unearthed in the polar region. Like many other places in the northern world, Nordland had long been dismissed as a less important part of the country and so consequently this find gave new meaning to historical status of the area.

Borg seen from a distance. The Viking-age longhouse is located on a hilltop near the modern Borg church, overlooking a tranquil lake connected to the sea. Photo by Jessica Auer.

No one should be surprised that the landscape would have attracted a large and influential number of Vikings to the area. The deep fjords are the result of the past presence of enormous glaciers, which carved out the land that characterizes much of the North Atlantic. Of course the Vikings are not only linked to the north by their ability to travel throughout the fjords and across the sea but also their hearty nature and capacity to survive the cold winters in their turf-insulated houses.

A reconstruction of the longhouse has been built next to the museum in Borg. The turf siding is typical of most Viking-age steadings but the impressive wooden roof shingles are representative of Norwegian architecture, mostly seen on middle-age churches. Photo by Jessica Auer.

I mainly photographed the site at Borg where the large Viking Age homestead was excavated, as well as a presumed court site with the remains of several iron-age boathouses. However, most of the vestiges of the Viking age remain hidden under the ground and many grave fields are located further out on smaller remote islands. One has only read the landscape and make use of their imagination to figure out where these people once settled and traveled to. Archeologists and scholars believe that the Viking chieftain, who eventually abandoned his farm at Borg, moved west to Iceland, most likely to seek greater independence from the Kingdom of Norway. In my amateur opinion, I do not believe the ‘Lofotrs’ left to seek out better lands.

One of the more sublime-looking fjords in Lofoten, near the village of Reine. Photo by Jessica Auer.