Historical Lectures and Essays by Charles Kingsley

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Page 1

This story may serve as a text for my whole lecture. Not only does it
smack of the sea-breeze and the salt water, like all the finest old Norse
sagas, but it gives a glimpse at least of the nobleness which underlay
the grim and often cruel nature of the Norseman. It belongs, too, to the
culminating epoch, to the beginning of that era when the Scandinavian
peoples had their great times; when the old fierceness of the worshippers
of Thor and Odin was tempered, without being effeminated, by the Faith of
the "White Christ," till the very men who had been the destroyers of
Western Europe became its civilisers.

It should have, moreover, a special interest to Americans. For--as
American antiquaries are well aware--Bjarne was on his voyage home from
the coast of New England; possibly from that very Mount Hope Bay which
seems to have borne the same name in the time of those old Norsemen, as
afterwards in the days of King Philip, the last sachem of the Wampanong
Indians. He was going back to Greenland, perhaps for reinforcements,
finding, he and his fellow-captain, Thorfinn, the Esquimaux who then
dwelt in that land too strong for them. For the Norsemen were then on
the very edge of discovery, which might have changed the history not only
of this continent but of Europe likewise. They had found and colonised
Iceland and Greenland. They had found Labrador, and called it Helluland,
from its ice-polished rocks. They had found Nova Scotia seemingly, and
called it Markland, from its woods. They had found New England, and
called it Vinland the Good. A fair land they found it, well wooded, with
good pasturage; so that they had already imported cows, and a bull whose
lowings terrified the Esquimaux. They had found self-sown corn too,
probably maize. The streams were full of salmon. But they had called
the land Vinland, by reason of its grapes. Quaint enough, and bearing in
its very quaintness the stamp of truth, is the story of the first finding
of the wild fox-grapes. How Leif the Fortunate, almost as soon as he
first landed, missed a little wizened old German servant of his father's,
Tyrker by name, and was much vexed thereat, for he had been brought up on
the old man's knee, and hurrying off to find him met Tyrker coming back
twisting his eyes about--a trick of his--smacking his lips and talking
German to himself in high excitement. And when they get him to talk
Norse again, he says: "I have not been far, but I have news for you. I
have found vines and grapes!" "Is that true, foster-father?" says Leif.
"True it is," says the old German, "for I was brought up where there was
never any lack of them."

The saga--as given by Rafn--had a detailed description of this quaint
personage's appearance; and it would not he amiss if American
wine-growers should employ an American sculptor--and there are great
American sculptors--to render that description into marble, and set up
little Tyrker in some public place, as the Silenus of the New World.

Thus the first cargoes homeward from Vinland to Greenland had been of
timber and of raisins, and of vine-stocks, which were not like to thrive.

And more. Beyond Vinland the Good there was said to be another land,
Whiteman's Land--or Ireland the Mickle, as some called it. For these
Norse traders from Limerick had found Ari Marson, and Ketla of Ruykjanes,
supposed to have been long since drowned at sea, and said that the people
had made him and Ketla chiefs, and baptized Ari. What is all this? and
what is this, too, which the Esquimaux children taken in Markland told
the Northmen, of a land beyond them where the folk wore white clothes,
and carried flags on poles? Are these all dreams? or was some part of
that great civilisation, the relics whereof your antiquarians find in so
many parts of the United States, still in existence some 900 years ago;
and were these old Norse cousins of ours upon the very edge of it? Be
that as it may, how nearly did these fierce Vikings, some of whom seemed
to have sailed far south along the shore, become aware that just beyond
them lay a land of fruits and spices, gold and gems? The adverse current
of the Gulf Stream, it may be, would have long prevented their getting
past the Bahamas into the Gulf of Mexico; but, sooner or later, some
storm must have carried a Greenland viking to San Domingo or to Cuba; and
then, as has been well said, some Scandinavian dynasty might have sat
upon the throne of Mexico.

These stories are well known to antiquarians. They may be found, almost
all of them, in Professor Rafn's "Antiquitates Americanae." The action
in them stands out often so clear and dramatic, that the internal
evidence of historic truth is irresistible. Thorvald, who, when he saw
what seems to be, they say, the bluff head of Alderton at the south-east
end of Boston Bay, said, "Here should I like to dwell," and, shot by an
Esquimaux arrow, bade bury him on that place, with a cross at his head
and a cross at his feet, and call the place Cross Ness for evermore;
Gudrida, the magnificent widow, who wins hearts and sees strange deeds
from Iceland to Greenland, and Greenland to Vinland and back, and at
last, worn out and sad, goes off on a pilgrimage to Rome; Helgi and
Finnbogi, the Norwegians, who, like our Arctic voyagers in after times,
devise all sorts of sports and games to keep the men in humour during the
long winter at Hope; and last, but not least, the terrible Freydisa, who,
when the Norse are seized with a sudden panic at the Esquimaux and flee
from them, as they had three weeks before fled from Thorfinn's bellowing
bull, turns, when so weak that she cannot escape, single-handed on the
savages, and catching up a slain man's sword, puts them all to flight
with her fierce visage and fierce cries--Freydisa the Terrible, who, in
another voyage, persuades her husband to fall on Helgi and Finnbogi, when
asleep, and murder them and all their men; and then, when he will not
murder the five women too, takes up an axe and slays them all herself,
and getting back to Greenland, when the dark and unexplained tale comes
out, lives unpunished, but abhorred henceforth. All these folks, I say,
are no phantoms, but realities; at least, if I can judge of internal

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Sep 2019, 16:49