Book review: Two takes on Gudrid
Christine Foster Meloni
Who was Gudrid? We first read about her in the Icelandic Vinland Sagas, written in the early 13th century. Are these sagas history or legend, or both? Recent scientific discoveries seem to give credence to at least some of the legends. Gudrid, in any case, is widely accepted as an historical figure.
Two contemporary authors have written books that bring this extraordinary 11th-century Viking woman to life. They did not collaborate, but their books taken together create a satisfying picture of this adventurous woman.
Margaret Elphinstone’s The Sea Road is historical fiction. It, therefore, reads like a novel and embellishes the few “facts” available. The story is fast paced and entertaining, and the historical characters well developed.
Gudrid tells her story in the first person. At the beginning of the book she is a widow in Rome, living temporarily in a hospice for pilgrims from the North. She is a Christian and has arrived with a letter of introduction from the Bishop of Skalholt in Iceland to Cardinal Hildebrand in Rome. The Cardinal asks Agnar Asleifarsson, Gudrid’s countryman, to write down the story of her life. This book is her story.
And quite a life she has had! Gudrid was born in Iceland, where the sea dominates everyone’s life and where Christianity is struggling to win the battle against the Norse gods. Her first husband was Thorstein Eiriksson, the son of Eirik the Red. After his death, she marries Karlsefni, a wealthy Icelandic chieftain and merchant. She travels with Karlsefni to Greenland and even to North America, where they find the houses built by her former brother-in-law, Leif Eiriksson. She also gives birth to a son there, the first European born in the New World. When she returns to Iceland after her pilgrimage to Rome, she establishes a small home for nuns and dies soon thereafter.
Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler serves as an excellent companion volume to Elphinstone’s book. After getting to know Gudrid through her own retelling of her life story in The Sea Road, readers may turn to Brown’s book of nonfiction to learn more about her.
Brown was intrigued by the stories of this Viking woman, who is said to have traveled from Iceland and Greenland to Newfoundland and Norway several times. She joins archaeologists in the field who have modern technology, and with them traces Gudrid’s journeys on land and sea. Important discoveries are made. For example, the remains of a Viking longhouse from around the year 1066 are found in Iceland and believed to be Gudrid’s house. In her book she reconstructs Gudrid’s life based on this scientific evidence.
Brown is not saying, however, that the sagas are true. The scientific finds do not make them true. She understands that, after so many centuries, we cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are accurate history. She urges us, therefore, not to ask if the sagas are true but if they are plausible.
After reading these two fine books, one would have to agree that the saga histories are plausible. But whether or not the histories are accurate, the saga writers as well as Elphinstone and Brown are excellent storytellers, and their works are well worth reading simply to gain an understanding of the Viking era.
Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.
This article originally appeared in the June 5, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.