The Rise and Fall of Norse America: Vikings, Vinland and Alternate History

By Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey | Extrapolation, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of Norse America: Vikings, Vinland and Alternate History


Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey, Extrapolation


* Viking derives from Old Norse vik (creek, inlet), and vikingr were those who lived and lurked in bays or fjords. (1) In their day they were known by many names: Varangians, vikvejar, Norsemen, westfaldingi, wiccan, gall, lochlannach, dani, 'camp folk', ascomani ('ashmen'); but for all the accounts that have survived, it remains unclear why exactly they came to be known, and feared, by so many. The terror spread by Vikings has given way to an ongoing bafflement as to what historical circumstances triggered their sudden extensive raiding and trading activities. (2) It is easier to account for the posthumous interest in the Viking as a cultural icon: the fascination with "Vikings"--a term that should be confined to inverted commas since it has come to refer more to a modem stereotype than to any past reality--is an outgrowth of a Western reorientation toward the North, a hyperboreanism that started around the end of the eighteenth century and that sought to replace the traditional veneration of Southern, Medit erranean cultures with a frequently racially biased celebration of the elementary vigor of the Nordic people. But what are these Vikings? Today's associations, no doubt, are shaped more by Hagar the Horrible and Marval Comics'Thor than by the historical realities of Scandinavian civilization 800-1000 AD. Vikings are Klingons in longships, a hardy race that fears nothing more than death without honor; bellicose and boisterous, they are one of the warrior peoples peacetime cultures cannot do without. This of course does not exhaust the cultural analysis of what "Viking" stands for, but it does contribute its share to their portrayal in alternate history. (3)

Vikings are not the most popular allohistorical protagonists--that honor still goes to the victorious Nazis--, but they have become dependable players whose participation ranges from cameo appearances in short stories (e.g., Chalker; Coulson; Leiber; Leinster) and role-playing games (Hite, Neumeier, and Schiffer) to detailed depictions in novels (e.g., Barrett jr.; De Camp; Eriksson; Roberts). The following remarks will focus exclusively on the Vinland or 'Norse American' scenario, that is, on texts that presuppose a successful colonization of parts of North America by early Scandinavian settlers. (4) Two will be of particular importance: L. Sprague de Camp's The Wheels of If, one of the first full-length alternate histories within the Anglophone SF tradition, and Kim Stanley Robinson's "Vinland the Dream," a remarkable vignette that probes the twilight zone in which forgery, 'real' history, and alternate history become indistinguishable. The analysis will reveal that underneath the popular Viking mythology t here are issues hidden that go beyond the recycling of cultural stereotypes for entertainment purposes. The texts were chosen because, in a certain way, The Wheels of If stands at the beginning and "Vinland the Dream" at the end of the Norse American scenario. That is not to say that Robinson's short story will turn out to be the last contribution, but as a highly self-reflexive alternate history, "Vinland the Dream" can be read as a summary of, and a look back on a tradition that was significantly shaped by De Camp's novel.

As a starting point it will be helpful to briefly summarize three important family resemblances that tend to characterize most Norse American scenarios:

1. Native Americans tend to fare better in Norse American societies than in our timeline. Barrett's "Vinaskaland" in The Leaves of Time is an interracial idyll ruled by a Nordic-Native code of honor first expounded by the philosopher "Sven-Akawaai," a son of both races and grandson to Leif Eriksson's brother, Thorvald (see Barrett 46-47). Given what the Icelandic sagas have to say about the dismal relations between the Norsemen and those they disparaged as skraelingar, especially in the context of Thorvald Eriksson's journey, this is an optimistic scenario, to say the least. …

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