Vinland is the story of a man who had a magnificent adventure when he was a boy, and lived and worked and dreamed in its shadow all the rest of his life.
This book is set in eleventh-century Orkney, and it’s a Viking book, though if I tell you that, it won’t give you the sense of the book’s trajectory at all. George Mackay Brown writes the story of Ranald Sigmundson, who as an eleven-year-old boy leaves his abusive father and travels with Leif Erikson to ‘Vinland’ — a green, fertile, timbered land where they encounter “skraelings,” Native Americans whom Ranald will never forget. On their way home, Ranald visits the King of Norway and is treated as a special guest. When he finally returns to Orkney, he goes back to his family farm of Breckness, to take up ownership and rescue his mother from a life of poverty. There he lives out the rest of his days, listening to the sea and longing for it, but never returning to it. At first, Ranald participates in the politics of the island, as various earls battle for preeminence and as Norway and Scotland push this way and that. But after a time, he retreats more and more from the world and even from his family, until it’s time for him to set final sail.
The prose of the book is simple, and after the voyage with Leif Erikson, it tells the story of an ordinary man. The doings of the earls — Earl Sigurdson and his quarrelsome sons (including Thorfinn) — are none of Ranald’s business, until they affect his taxes. But Brown shows a country in which personal loyalties, not just to earls or to larger nations like Norway, Denmark, and Scotland, but to whole ways of life, are changing before the eyes of men like Ranald. From the beginning of the novel, there is a persistent push away from pagan culture and toward the influx of Christianity. Ranald himself begins a pagan and dies a Christian. The viking way of life is also dying out: plundering up and down the coast is giving way to agriculture and solid merchant relationships. Change or die; change or you’re doomed.
This is a subtle, lovely little book, with quiet emotions and the ordinary poetry of the Orkney landscape. I think I would have been more impressed with it if I hadn’t just read the absolutely marvelous Hild, which takes place in the same century and deals with some of the same issues about the transition from pagan lives to Christian ones, and if one of my very favorite books weren’t Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, whose protagonist is Earl Thorfinn. Both of those books are more complex and more gripping than this one. This book is definitely worth reading, but honestly, it just made me want to read those two again.