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Archive for October, 2011

Leif Eiriksson discovering America, by Christian Krogh

I completely missed Leif Eiriksson day–a particularly egregious lapse, since my dissertation research in Iceland was funded by the Leifur Eiríksson Foundation.  Some Scandinavianist I am.  Ah well.  I will make up for it by pointing out that, just as Leif Eiriksson Day (October 9th) precedes Columbus Day (October 10th), the Icelander Leifr Eiríksson preceded Columbus in North America by 500 years.  No permanent settlement was ever made in North America–it was just too far from the centers of Scandinavian society and culture for a Scandinavian colony to be sustainable–but he was followed by a few other expeditions, and Greenlanders continued to harvest lumber in North America in the following centuries.

We have two stories about the discovery of and attempt to exploit North America: Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga, both collected together as the Vinland Sagas (there are two translations out now–the old Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson translation, and the new translation by Keneva Kunz, with an excellent introduction by Gísli Sigurðsson).  There are a lot of interesting things we could say about these sagas and the history of the scholarship re: the Norse encounter with America, but for now I will point out that the Norse in Vinland behaved as we might expect considering their patterns of exploitation in the rest of the world during the Viking age.  No, I don’t mean they went around pillaging (though they did get into a few fights).  And keeping in mind my post on the term “Viking”, let’s not forget that, while we speak of “Vikings” discovering America, “Viking” really just means “Pirate”, and the Scandinavians exploring North America would certainly not have called themselves “Vikings”.

So what do I mean, if I don’t mean “piracy”?  Well, when the Vikings went through areas like England and France where a significant amount of wealth was concentrated in towns, sure, they ran around pillaging and ransoming and behaving in a generally militant fashion.  Ireland and Russia, while rich in natural resources and scattered wealth, had no concentrated sources of capital for the Vikings to pick up–so they balanced their piracy with trade, and were largely responsible for establishing the infrastructure of commerce which allowed wealth to flow and be gathered in these areas.  They seem to have developed their knack for this closer to home, as they are known to have exacted tribute (furs and ivory, for example) from the Sami peoples as well.  The Sami live in the far North of Scandinavia, the “Wild”, as it would certainly appear to an agrarian society like the Norse.  The rest of the North Atlantic was largely empty, and so the Norse settlers had to exploit the natural resources of the area on their own–until they reached North America and the “Skraelings” (= “wretches”, their word for the Native Americans), where again they met another people group which would have looked very “Wild” to them.  The sagas emphasize the fear the Skraelings show at the site of a bull, and their wonder at milk–both representative of the agricultural/pastoral society of the Scandinavians.  And speaking of milk…

I believe it was my archeologist friend Dayanna who first pointed this out to me.  According to Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders), “…when the Skraelings saw the milk they wanted to buy nothing else.  And so the outcome of their trading expedition was that the Skraelings carried their purchases away in their bellies, and left their packs and furs with Karlsefni and his men”  (from Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson’s translation).  The next day the Skraelings come and attack them.  Well, OK, a few other things happen in between to get the conflict going, but what if the problem is misdiagnosed by the saga?  From what I’ve read and been told, most people who stop drinking milk will eventually become lactose intolerant.  If the Native Americans encountered by the Norse were not used to drinking milk (“That’s what babies eat!  Do you know where that came from?  Gross!”), then we might imagine that they had an uncomfortable night.  Well, what would YOU do the next day?

In any case, I’m sure the exchange looked exactly like this:

Well, I don’t really know how to draw a Native American for this time period, so I apologize for just making them bare and brown. Also, the smurf hat for the Viking was more of a whim–I don’t know whether they actually wore things like that or not. 

The comic strip is available as a print, card, mug, etc. on DeviantArt.

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I was watching Tales of Earthsea, the movie by Gorō Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki) and started drawing the above picture.  Probably not accurate to the books, but then again, neither was the movie.  It was fun enough anyway, but I definitely recommend the books over the movie (I always do).  I imagine it was a world closer than the live action TV series, though (still–did NO ONE get the memo that Ged and the rest of the archipelago were brown skinned???).

The Earthsea series is one of my old favorites.  Can’t remember when I first read it–possibly high school, possibly college–but I associate it with the other “big classics” in my life, from Narnia to Middle Earth.  My affections apply primarily to the original trilogy, however: Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore–or at least, when I first read the follow-up novels (Tehanu and The Other Wind) they didn’t feel quite the same.  That was a long time ago, though, and I’m planning on rereading them as I work my way through the series now.  I will say that I am more a fan of the changes in theory these days, at least now that I have some academic experience–the original series uncritically recapitulates a lot of the patriarchal and even misogynistic elements of the medieval and pre-medieval cultures it mimics (wizards are male, noble, learned, respected, witches are female, amateurs, petty and sometimes evil).  Well, that makes it accurate, right?  Except that a text is an action within the real world, the current world, and we are responsible for what we do in this real world with our writing and reading.  Blindly recapitulating a problematic ideology is different than representing that ideology.  But then again, this is the author who wrote the gender-bending Left Hand of Darkness, and I have to say the Earthsea series is a lot more aware of gender than most fantasy novels. It is nice that she opened up the world of Earthsea a bit in her later books, though.

One thing a novelist friend pointed out to me which my loyalty to the series had maybe blinded me to–the first book, at least, and to a degree the rest of the series, is fairly guilty of “telling” as opposed to “showing”.  I think this is a common problem for older children’s books– they assume more of a “story-teller” mode, covering large swathes of plot and lifetime in summary.  Well, I’ve got to say, I like the prose anyway.  It gives it a different feel, sure, but it has a beauty and rhythm to it all the same.  “Showing” still comes into it, but at different intervals than they teach you at writer’s conferences.  Besides that, the first novel covers a large amount of Sparrowhawk’s biography, so a certain amount of summary is to be expected.

I may have more on this later–I’m rereading the series right now, and will be rereading the later novels for the first time in years–maybe since undergrad.  We will see how I like them now.

The image is available as a print, a card, and several other things from DeviantArt.

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