Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Boundaries of Difference in the Vinland Sagas

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Boundaries of Difference in the Vinland Sagas

Article excerpt

MOST TWENTIETH-CENTURY study of the Vinland sagas, Groenlendinga saga and Eiriks saga rauda, has been historical and archaeological in nature; scholars have been very concerned with the veracity of the narratives the sagas relate. Paleographers have compared the manuscripts--and even their content--to determine which of the two is older. Most scholars now seem to accept Jon Johannesson's assertion that Groenlendinga saga is the older of the two dating from c. 1200. (1) Historians have delved into chronicles to study more dryly factual accounts of the saga characters' doings to determine the historical probability of these characters' undertaking the voyages related in the sagas. (2) Ever since Gustav Storm's 1887 assertion that Vinland must have been in Nova Scotia, archaeologists have reconstructed ships, retraced voyage routes, and tried somewhat obsessively to determine where Vinland actually is and what actual Native American tribes the Norsemen encountered. The proposed locations range from Maryland to Labrador and all points in between, and the natives are associated with either the Micmac or the Boethuk depending in part on the scholar's idea of the location in question. (3)

In the shadow of the overwhelming concern with determining what parts of the sagas are factual and what parts fictional, scholars have given surprisingly little attention to these texts as literary rather than historical artifacts. These sagas are ripe for such interpretation and offer the reader interesting characters and high adventure. The narrative of exploration of the unknown and encounters with unfamiliar peoples are perhaps among the most striking features of these sagas. The heroes boldly enter the new lands they discover, expecting a paradise that lures them because of its difference from what they know. These differences and the route are the main foci of the two sagas, but the route ultimately does not lead to paradise. The Norsemen's often violent interactions with Native Americans mar their explorations and attempts to settle; the travelers react to the natives' racial Otherness by constructing boundaries, both physical and mental, to keep the natives away. The boundaries of difference constructed by the Norsemen finally push them away from this land of plenty.

The Vinland sagas are narratives of travel and exploration in which the characters take leave of a familiar land to investigate a new one. According to Casey Blanton's genre study Travel Writing: The Self and the World, travel writings main purpose in narrating such events throughout the history of the genre has been to introduce the other to the narrative's readers (xi). However, he states, early travel accounts, such as those of the Middle Ages, are so tightly bound by their objects of devotion or economics that they obscure the narrator's thoughts about his experiences and fail properly to introduce otherness to the reader (3). Not until the Renaissance, he claims, does a personal voice emerge in travel literature to allow the important interplay between observer and observed that characterizes the mature form of the genre (9). Meanwhile, Stephen Greenblatt argues that the real difference between a medieval text like the fourteenth-century Mandeville's Travels and those of Renaissance and Enlightenment explorers is that Mandeville's text is not interested in personal ownership of the lands described, although he would not mind their "possession" by a Christian empire (27-8). While Greenblatt's assessment of the difference between medieval and later travel narratives is problematic, his interpretation of Mandeville is made possible by the interplay between observer and observed, which Blanton finds important to the genre, even if the traveler's voice does not use quite the same formulas as a nineteenth-century traveler might employ. The medieval text becomes interpretable because of the specific feature that Blanton asserts does not exist in travel texts before the eighteenth century. …

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