The Far Traveler
Weaving together the Icelandic sagas, past scholarship, new archeological evidence, as well as her own field research, Nancy Marie Brown presents an overdue, holistic look at the life of Gudrid the Far Traveler. Effectively addressing the often romanticized, male dominated, interpretation of the medieval Icelandic sagas, Brown highlights the narrative of a Viking woman, an explorer and “saga role-model” in her own right (page 10).
In medias res, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (2008) opens with Brown assisting archeologist John Steinberg in an excavation of what she asserts is the former dwelling of Gudrid the Far Traveler in Glaumbaer, Iceland. Among other experiences in the field, Brown details her woolen sweater, the biting wind, and her excitement as she painstakingly unearths a Viking era sod house with nothing more than a spade.
From here, Brown provides the reader with an understanding of the Icelandic Sagas and how they, combined with other scholarship and research conducted with contemporary scientific techniques, open a window into the Viking Age, roughly 870-1030 A.D.
Though it has been over 1,000 years since the figures in the sagas settled the volcanic island of Iceland and voyaged to Vinland, Brown challenges the reader to decenter themselves and their present view of reality to become immersed in the Icelandic sagas and approach them as memories, Iceland’s collective historical narrative, rather than myths.
Context is king, or rather it is queen. Through a detailed look at the language, locations, and characters of the sagas, Brown effectively shifts the reader’s perspective to center the incredible feats of Gudrid the Far Traveler, who voyaged across the ocean at least seven times (as documented in the sagas), including all the way to Vinland. From this position, a Viking woman traveled to North America, helped create a settlement, encountered indigenous peoples, gave birth, and then returned to Iceland centuries before Christopher Columbus sailed to colonize the “New World.”
Though Brown recognizes that many of the theories she postulates about Gurdrid’s life are just that, her own suppositions based on the limited physical evidence uncovered thus far, she also demonstrates how archeology is an ever-evolving field that challenges and reevaluates the “facts.”
From the numerous debunked conclusions of previous studies, it is clear to the reader that the field of archeology is not fixed or infallible. Especially in light of Women’s History Month this past March, it is clear to the reader how the contributions of women archeologists and professionals, like Anne Stine Ingstad, have been historically undervalued or simply overlooked.
Based on Brown’s refined conclusions formed from a variety of sources, who is to say that Gudrid the Far Traveler did not accompany her husband and Viking crew to North America and beyond? Succinctly summarizing her position, Brown states, “This concept of truth mingles our ideas of history and of art—the record of what actually happened with the truth a good novel can tell you about yourself and the world around you” (page 35).
As an excellently written work, The Far Traveler invites the reader into the fantastical yet very human world of the Icelandic Sagas and blurs the boundaries between myth and memory to bring the vast accomplishments of a Viking woman, and of all the women since who have labored to tell her story, into the light.
This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.