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Literature / The Vinland Sagas

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"Leif Eriksson discovers America" (Christian Krohg 1893)
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The so-called Vinland Sagas are two separate Icelandic sagas, The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders, both composed around the early 13th century.

Both sagas recount the rocky life of Erik "the Red" Thorvaldsson, his many feuds that lead to him being banished from Norway and from Iceland, and his bold resolve to follow a sailor's yarn about an unknown land west of Iceland. Indeed he finds and explores an uninhabited country where he makes a new home for himself and his family, and which he dubs Greenland because "he said people would be attracted there if it had a favourable name" (Saga of Erik the Red).

The tale then moves on to the discovery of yet more uncharted shores in the West, Erik's son Leif's sojourn in a pleasant land he names Vinland, and the further voyages of Erik's children and other adventurous souls to explore the unknown parts. There follow encounters and fighting with the natives of Vinland, called Skraelings (skrælingjar) by the sagas, and an ambitious but ultimately futile attempt by Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid to settle in the new world.

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There are also differences and even considerable contradictions between the two sagas. The most obvious is that The Saga of the Greenlanders tells of three more expeditions to Vinland after Leif's, while in the Saga of Erik the Red there is only one. In Erik the Red, the main heroes are Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir (formerly the wife of Thorstein Eriksson), while The Greenlanders gives more spotlight to Leif and his siblings.

By intention, the Vinland sagas are part family chronicles, part account of extraordinary voyages. Modern reception is chiefly driven by the wish to read them as historical sources which might direct archeologists to lost Norse settlements on the American continent. Success has been limited, as a site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland (excavated 1961-68) remains the only confirmed Norse settlement in America ever found, and it is uncertain which of the places mentioned in the Vinland sagas should be identified with L'Anse aux Meadows (if any).

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The Saga of Erik the Red can be read online here.


Tropes:

  • Be Careful What You Wish For: When Thorvald Eriksson and his companions discover and explore a wooded headland, Thorvald likes the spot and says that he would like to make his home there. A little later they are attacked by Skraelings, and Thorvald gets a deadly wound from an arrow. Before he dies, he advises his companions to bury him on the headland, and remarks that his wish did indeed come true: he will stay on the headland (The Greenlanders).
  • Burn the Undead: Thorstein Eriksson comes temporarily alive again to reveal that the true cause of the plague in Lysufjord is the ghost of the overseer Gardi, the first man to die that winter in Lysufjord, and that Gardi's corpse must be burnt to stop the epidemic (Erik the Red).
  • Ethnic Magician: Clearly the Skraelings are magic-users. They put a sleep spell on Thorvald and his companions (The Greenlanders), make Thorfinn and his party see an illusionary host which attacks them from the rear (Erik the Red), and sink into the earth like ghosts (Erik the Red).
  • Forced Sleep: Shortly after killing several Skraelings on the headland of Krossanes, Thorvald and his companions suddenly get so sleepy they cannot stay awake. A supernatural voice wakes them up just in time to escape from a host of vengeful Skraelings. The implication is that the natives have cast a sleep spell on them (The Greenlanders).
  • Lady Macbeth: During their winter in Vinland, Freydis Eriksdottir lies to her husband Thorvard that the brothers Helgi and Finnbogi have beaten and abused her, and thus incites him into attacking and killing the brothers and their entire crew. Her true motive is to take the brothers' ship and cargo (The Greenlanders).
  • Lottery of Doom: Lost in the Greenland Sea on a ship infested with shipworms, and with a lifeboat that can only hold half of them, Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew cast lots about who is going to get into the lifeboat. The losers are left behind to certain death (Erik the Red).
  • Magic Music: To perform her soothsaying ritual, the seeress Thorbjorg requires women who can sing a certain chant called "Varðlokkur". Gudrid is the only one present who can sing the song, and she does so. Thorbjorg is very pleased and says that the song has attracted many spirits, because Gudrid has sung so beautifully, and it are the spirits who supposedly reveal the future to Thorbjorg (Erik the Red).
  • The Promised Land: There are numerous enthusiastic descriptions of Vinland's natural resources, such as wild-grown wheat, grapes, streams with plenty of fish, no frost or snow in winter, and forests full of game for hunting and timber for building. At Leif's Huts, there is salmon "larger than they had ever seen before" (The Greenlanders); at Straumsey, there are "so many birds there that they could hardly walk without stepping on eggs" (Erik the Red). When Leif and his companions drink the dew of Vinland right after making land, they "thought they had never tasted anything as sweet" (The Greenlanders). Erik the Red also asserts that Leif found Vinland accidentally when he was sailing to Greenland with a mission from the king of Norway to preach Christianity there; this and the combined mention of wheat and grapes—which are used to make bread and wine, i.e. the food used in the Eucharist—suggest between the lines that maybe the discovery of Vinland was according to some divine plan. Vinland is not a perfect paradise, though: In Erik the Red Thorfinn and his party suffer famine during their first winter in Vinland because their preparations were insufficient, and the natives fight back and kill Thorvald Eriksson and Thorbrand Snorrason.
  • Staking the Loved One: During the winter Thorstein Eriksson and Gudrid spend in the Western Settlement with farmer Thorstein and his wife Sigrid, people start dying from a mysterious disease (later revealed to be the doing of the draugr Gardi). Sigrid dies, but hours later comes alive again as an undead and tries to get into the bed of the sick Thorstein Eriksson. Her husband puts her to rest again by driving an axe into her breast (Erik the Red).

Alternative Title(s): The Saga Of The Greenlanders, The Saga Of Erik The Red

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