Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Last Kings of Norse America by Janey Westin and Robert Glen Johnson

I found this book in the museum of Njal's Saga in Iceland. An interesting account on the Vikings presence in North America. The sub-title is "Runestone Keys to a Lost Empire" and it makes for exciting reading. The authors explore a possible 14th century visit to North America on behalf of the Norwegian king Magnus. He sent his son Haakon VI as leader of the expedition and Johnson and Westin investigate available manuscripts and rune stones to follow in their foot steps as far as possible.

It is a fantastically, exciting journey they take us on. They start with an historical background on the situation in Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland. As everywhere there were political turmoil and fight for power. The Norwegian had early ties with North America and the fur trade, but due to circumstances the trade had ceased. Now was the time to try to establish this lucrative business again.

The authors base their book on earlier research but have made a lot of new research, including new translations of the rune stones. There are two stones that they analyse; The Kensington stone and the Spirit Pond stone.

The Spirit Pond stone was discovered in 1971 by Walter Elliott who were out looking for arrowheads. Instead he found a strange, flat stone with markings on it. Elliott was excited about his find and tried to get it acknowledged. It is still controversial and there are people on both sides of the coin; is it a hoax or is it real. It does not look like a traditional rune stone and this might be the reason why it is controversial.

The Kensington stone was found on a forty-foot-high hill in 1898 when farmer Olof Ohman and his son were out clearing land in Kensington, Minnesota. It also had markings on it. Although the discovery was documented in detail at the time, the finding of the stone has led to a bitter 100-year-long controversy.

From the existing 'evidence' Johnson and Westin has made new translations of the stones and looked into manuscripts that describe the travels taking place in the 1360s. They take us on an exciting tour into the wilderness, how the Vikings settle down and build a church in a spot that became their base. How they venture into the unknown nature, meet Indians and what they believe is earlier Norse people integrated into their new land. How they are exposed to violent storms, how many people die, how some are killed and much more that meet first explorers. The last we hear from them is the tale of the Kensington stone. This tour which never saw the men coming back was led by Paul Knutsson.

Left back at the east coast was King Haakon who had to sail back to Norway. He waited as long as he could, but the winter was no time to go sailing, so his entourage had to leave before Knutsson's return. Maybe to leave a note of what had happened when half of their crew died in a big storm, he asked his scribe to write a poem. That is the words on the Spirit Pond stone. It was obviously not meant to stand high like a usual rune stone, but to be kept as a memory to bring home. The big question is of course, why they did not bring it with them, but left it behind.

The end of the book contains appendixes with information on the research that has got into the translation and interpretation of the runes. It is quite fascinating and is done in a very academic way, as far as I can see. They give various interpretations and you can make up your own mind of what is correct. Fascinating reading as well.

If you are interested in the earlier visitors to America this is a great read. I feel I would like to further read about this time. One must admire these people who conquered nature with solid boats, I think, but much exposed to the weather and not knowing where to go. Especially on the American continent where Knutsson only had an old map and had to guess which way to go to come back to camp. It is so vividly described in the book that you are there with them.

Johnson and Westin have also looked at all sides of the case working with linguistics, studying Scandinavian history, knowledge of calligraphy. It has taken them several years to look into this part of the Scandinavian and American history. A great achievement.

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