The Far Traveler by Nancy Marie Brown
Weirdly, one of the places that I get book recommendations from is Richard’s Variety Store, a truly eclectic little place that can be found in Atlanta. The Far Traveler came to me that way, because I would ordinarily never run across it, which is one of the reasons I like Richard’s so much.
The Far Traveler is author Nancy Marie Brown’s attempt to piece together the life of Gudrid, a Viking woman who traveled the known world in the early eleventh century. By studying the Icelandic sagas that feature Gudrid, the archaeological sites connected to the sagas, and the ways of life of Viking women, Brown assembles a portrait of an extraordinary woman who lived a thousand years ago.
For the most part, Brown is a lovely narrator, overshadowing her subject but certainly there. Her research for this book spans decades, and the various people she interviews have been researching even longer. She is, however, poor at technical explanations. Towards the beginning of the book, she explains (or tries to) Viking sea vessels; towards the end she explains (or tries to) Viking weaving. Unless you already have background knowledge in both areas, it’s not very accessible. It’s just not done properly- she starts off well but soon grows too obscure to follow. Thankfully, these are the only two instances.
Brown comes to the melancholic conclusion that archaeology is, however well-intentioned, a form of destruction, especially when it comes to excavating the turf houses of the Vikings. The Far Traveler opened my eyes to Scandinavian archaeology. We still don’t know how the Vikings sailed their boats, for instance, although we have their ships. I never realized how delicate such places are, and how careful archaeologists must be. And especially how error-prone it can be. Nineteenth century archaeologists often threw out soil their modern successors would kill for, and it took experimental archaeology (doing things like the Vikings to better understand them) to discover that some supposed beads were weaving tools. Even if you only have a passing interest in Vikings, this angle is fascinating.
Brown takes great care in studying the sagas and relaying them to her audience. I particularly liked it when Brown explained the differences among sagas purporting to tell the same story and how difficult it occasionally is to translate Old Norse and Icelandic into English. For instance, Gudrid is complimented in one saga with a term that was been translated dozens of ways; Brown seizes upon this opportunity to discuss the gendered power spectrum of the Vikings.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that female sexuality wasn’t feared by the Vikings. While there’s certainly sexism in the culture (men would never do “feminine” farm chores), the matter of fact view towards virginity was refreshing. While the heroes of the sagas do get around, the women they sleep with are never dismissed, shamed, or forgotten. Brown argues that the introduction of Christianity bolstered women’s independence. It placed spiritual control in the hands of women, and a Viking saw Jesus as one god among many, allowing a woman choose.
While Gudrid is the focus, Brown, by sheer lack of material, is forced to look much broader to try and see what her life was like. We get a few glimpses of her throughout the book, particularly the two wonderful impressions that bookend it–we first “see” Gudrid as an old woman setting off for a pilgrimage to Rome and last “see” Gudrid as a possible narrator in her own saga, proud of her husband. It’s not an easy task, attempting to resurrect a woman dead for a thousand years in words, and it can be hit or miss–you tend to learn more about the society than you do about Gudrid. But when it works, like when Brown explains Gudrid’s encounter with a Skraeling (the Old Norse word for Native Americans), it works.
Bottom line: An eye-opening book about archaeology and the life of a Viking woman told by a discreet narrator. Too bad the ship and weaving explanations are so obscure.
I rented this book from the public library.