Item description for Vinland by George MacKay Brown...
Vinland, George Mackay Brown's fourth novel, follows the turbulent life of Ranald Sigmundson, a young boy born into the Dark Ages, when Orkney was torn between its Viking past and its Christian future. This book takes the reader on a journey from Orkney, over to Norway, into Iceland and Ireland, recreating with historical accuracy the customs and landscapes of the time while bringing the age to life through a large cast of engaging characters. Through the telling of Ranald's story, Mackay Brown displays abundant knowledge about many facets of early Orkney life, of seamanship, marriage customs, beliefs and traditions and his portrayal of this age extends to the routine of the Norwegian Royal court. Traditional poetry is scattered throughout Mackay Brown's prose adding a richness and depth to the tale he tells.
Lore and legend, the elemental pull of the sea and the land, the sweetness of the early religion and the darker, more ancient rites, weave through this exquisite celebration of Orcadian history and the inexorable seasons of life.
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Est. Packaging Dimensions: Length: 7.56" Width: 4.96" Height: 0.87" Weight: 0.49 lbs.
Release Date Oct 30, 2005
Publisher Interlink Publishing Group
ISBN 1904598331 ISBN13 9781904598336
Availability 0 units.
More About George MacKay Brown
The work of George Mackay Brown (19171996) is defined by the spirit and history of the Orkney islands. He managed to give the culture, land, and oral tradition of the islands universal significance. Throughout his prolific writing career, he found inspiration in the history and folklore of Orkney.
There was a time when saga novels (based on the old Norse literature, in some fashion or other) were hard to come by. I can remember combing the bookstores for them. Yes, there was E. R. Eddison's STYRBIORN THE STRONG and H. Rider Haggard's ERIC BRIGHTEYES. And, if you were lucky, you also found the little known but truly wonderful tale of Harold and William and their struggle for the throne of England in 1066: THE GOLDEN WARRIOR by Hope Muntz. But there wasn't much else besides. Eventually I stumbled on Cecelia Holland's TWO RAVENS (on a remainders table) and Jane Smiley's THE GREENLANDERS, but it was always tough going looking for novels like this. (I wrote my own saga type novel in 1996, partly in answer to what I had come to think was a dearth of interest in the saga world and its literary traditions because of this.)
But lately vikings are all the rage. Cecelia Holland has given us her own three-book series about the Gaelic and Norse world, taking us to all the well-known areas of viking history including the North American coast. And Bernard Cornwell has given us a series of three, as well, dealing with the Danish invasions of England and the valiant defense mounted by King Alfred of Wessex (who would come to be called the Great by those who succeeded him). Irish travel writer Tim Severin has given us his own trilogy about a certain Thorkel (mentioned briefly in Erik the Red's Saga as an illegitimate son of Leif Eriksson) who starts out as a youngster in Greenland and eventually goes nearly everywhere and meets nearly everyone who's anyone in the viking world of his day. And then there are some older and forgotten works like Margaret Elphinstone's THE SEA ROAD, about Gudrid, Leif Eriksson's sister-in-law, and Joan Felicia Henriksen's ASTRID: A VIKING SAGA about the mother of the future King Olaf Trygvesson, one of the heroic Norwegian kings of saga legend. These can still be found if you look hard enough. But there are plenty more new ones, too. I can no longer count them all on two hands. But that's a good thing for those of us who love the Norse thing.
VINLAND, by Scottish writer George MacKay Brown, is in this tradition. Written in the early nineties, I was yet unaware of it in the days when I was actively searching out saga-based fiction in every used and new bookstore I could find. But now I've gotten hold of, and read, it.
It's a moving, poetic tale, written in a way that evokes the old saga literature from which it is sprung. Tracing the life of Ranald Sigmundson, an Orkney farmer, from his boyhood, when he is taken to sea by a fierce father against his will (and rebelliously finds his way to the North American coast -- Vinland in the old sagas -- on Leif Eriksson's ship) until old age and hermit-like seclusion on his Orkney farm, this is, in a very real sense, an anti-saga.
Relying on the saga tone and many of its conventions, Brown's story of Ranald is not one of action, as is so often found in the original sagas, but of contemplation in the shadow of the great events and violent men recalled primarily in the Orkneyinga Saga, that violent Icelandic tale of the strivings of the Orkney earls and Norwegian kings for primacy over the islands immediately north of the Scottish coast. Ranald Sigmundson eventually finds himself with Leif and his crew in Vinland, in the midst of a violent clash with local natives and later lives for a year or so in the Norse colony of Greenland, a guest of Leif and his family. Homesick and worried about his mother and grandfather, Ranald takes ship back east on a Norwegian bound trading vessel and, in Norway, finds himself a surprise guest of the Norwegian King Olaf Trygvesson. There he is treated to a bird's eye view of the royal court and tastes its delights. King Olaf, it seems, enjoys his company, enhancing Ranald's reputation who, though still but a boy, goes on to take over management of the merchant vessel he has booked passage on, as he works his way back to his family home in the Orkneys.
But once home, Ranald abandons the sea and the trading life to find a place for himself as a farmer. But for a brief venture to support his liege lord, Earl Sigurd of Orkney, at the Battle of Clontarf (which saw the final defeat of the viking alliance against the native Irish), Ranald never leaves his home islands again. His is a life of withdrawal from the great events of his day because he is revolted by the greed and violence that seem to drive the great men. As Earl Sigurd's remaining sons strive for rule over Orkney, Ranald withdraws more and more from the political disputes that characterize his native land. He grows old as Sigurd's youngest son eventually consolidates his power through bloodshed and ruthlessness, leaving the dead and broken in his wake.
In the end, Ranald is drawn to the monks who have settled on the islands and the contemplative life they represent, becoming their patron and friend and separating himself from the family he has raised to farm the land after him. Pining all his years for the life of the sea he has abandoned, and for a vision of Vinland which has become idealized in his own mind, Ranald eventually is drawn to a deeper vision of that mysterious western land, seeing it as a place beyond human life itself, a metaphor for the peace and salvation that is only attainable, he believes, through the promise of faith.
Although superficially about vikings and such, this book is really something more. There are battles in it but one never really sees or feels them, even in the midst of them, as Ranald cleaves his way through the enemy host at Clontarf, slashing blindly with his sword like all the others, killing men without even realizing what he is about.
There are some jarring moments, too. For instance, in his interview with King Olaf, Ranald is asked by the king if the Vinland natives live in such and such a way and Ranald affirms that they do. Yet, the saga literature tells us Leif's was the first voyage to Vinland and that Leif never went back. According to Brown's tale, neither did Ranald. But on that one voyage their contact with the native "Skraelings" was limited to a few coastal meetings and attacks. They never got to the Skraeling villages so Ranald couldn't have confirmed what the king asks him about. In fact, the king couldn't have known enough about the matter to have asked him those questions since the later voyages, which were to have more extensive contacts with the Skraelings, hadn't even taken place yet!
King Olaf, too, is something of a problem in this tale. He is, of course, Olaf Trygvesson who ruled in Norway from about 995 to 1000, a very short stint. Yet Brown continuously refers to the king of Norway as "Olaf" throughout the years. In fact there was a later and more famous Christianizing King Olaf, dubbed Olaf the Saint by posterity and known in his lifetime as Olaf the Stout, but Brown makes no real differentiation (except for a brief comment much later on telling us he is speaking of a different King Olaf). Brown, indeed, leaves us with the sense that Olaf is a single king for most of this time though the two Olafs were very different in their appearance, their comportment and their actions. And he gives us no sense of the intervening years between the two.
Brown also tells us about villages in Greenland and Iceland though there is no evidence from the sagas or from archaeology that the Norse lived in villages in these places at this time. In fact, they seem to have lived in scattered, isolated farms, coming together for periodic gatherings to deal with legal and other societal issues, but otherwise living in separate farming settlements, albeit some quite large, with many inhabitants to maintain them.
Along with certain modernisms, I found these issues a bit off-putting since they didn't jibe with what I know of the era and made me think Brown was a bit sloppy and overly loose with his narrative. But, on balance, they did not diminish the tale for me by much. I found this story of Ranald Sigmundson's aging, and his quest for life's meaning, moving and compelling, perhaps because I am not so young as I once was myself.
If you're looking for a fast paced, action packed viking tale, this is not the one. But if you want to read about a man's inner quest against a background of worldly concerns which retains the feel of the old Norse sagas, you'll find that sort of tale here.
P.S. If you really love the sagas and the novels derived from them as I do, I'd recommend another recent entry by Canadian author Jeff Janoda. It's called SAGA: A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL ICELAND, an unfortunately clumsy title for what is truly a wonderful novel about a small community of settlers in the early days of the Icelandic "republic"!
Styrbiorn the Strong Eric Brighteyes: The Works of H. Rider Haggard The Golden Warrior, the Story of Harold and WilliamThe Greenlanders Two Ravens Saga: A Novel Of Medieval Iceland The King of Vinland's Saga
Simple saga full of profound wisdom Feb 8, 2001
I bought this book on a whim, expecting intrepid and swashbuckling escapism. What I discovered was something quite different, but no less enthralling for that and I feel that Vinland will surely leave a more lasting impression on every reader than most conventional historic adventures. George Mackay Brown has written a saga in the traditional scandinavian style. The usual characterisation and prosaic descriptions are kept to a minimum. The personae speak to us almost entirely through their deeds. The saga unfolds around the life of Ranald Sigmundson who, as a boy and young man is priviledged to have a surfeit of adventure, journeying with Leif Ericsson on his epic voyage to the New World, meeting with kings and fighting in history-changing battles. As maturity sets in, Ranald turns his back on such matters and, echoing Voltaire's "il faut cultiver notre jardin", settles down to life as a farmer. Ranald's increasingly reclusive and ascetic lifestyle is in stark contrast to the violent acts engendered by the ruthless power struggle of earls and kings around him. Like the eye of the hurricane, Ranald finds fulfillment through his lone meditations. Yet, in so doing, has Ranald chosen the coward's way out in running from worldly things, including distancing himself from his beloved family? This book will make you question your personal values, the path you have chosen through life and will make you face your own mortality. The elegiaic and poetic conclusion is deeply moving and will stay with the reader for a long time.