Historical Lectures and Essays by Charles Kingsley

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Page 2

But beyond them, and hovering on the verge of Mythus and Fairyland, there
is a ballad called "Finn the Fair," and how

An upland Earl had twa braw sons,
My story to begin;
The tane was Light Haldane the strong,
The tither was winsome Finn.

and so forth; which was still sung, with other "rimur," or ballads, in
the Faroes, at the end of the last century. Professor Rafn has inserted
it, because it talks of Vinland as a well-known place, and because the
brothers are sent by the princess to slay American kings; but that Rime
has another value. It is of a beauty so perfect, and yet so like the old
Scotch ballads in its heroic conception of love, and in all its forms and
its qualities, that it is one proof more, to any student of early
European poetry, that we and these old Norsemen are men of the same

If anything more important than is told by Professor Rafn and Mr. Black
{2} be now known to the antiquarians of Massachusetts, let me entreat
them to pardon my ignorance. But let me record my opinion that, though
somewhat too much may have been made in past years of certain
rock-inscriptions, and so forth, on this side of the Atlantic, there can
be no reasonable doubt that our own race landed and tried to settle on
the shore of New England six hundred years before their kinsmen, and, in
many cases, their actual descendants, the august Pilgrim Fathers of the
seventeenth century. And so, as I said, a Scandinavian dynasty might
have been seated now upon the throne of Mexico. And how was that strange
chance lost? First, of course, by the length and danger of the coasting
voyage. It was one thing to have, like Columbus and Vespucci, Cortes and
Pizarro, the Azores as a halfway port; another to have Greenland, or even
Iceland. It was one thing to run south-west upon Columbus's track,
across the Mar de Damas, the Ladies' Sea, which hardly knows a storm,
with the blazing blue above, the blazing blue below, in an ever-warming
climate, where every breath is life and joy; another to struggle against
the fogs and icebergs, the rocks and currents of the dreary North
Atlantic. No wonder, then, that the knowledge of Markland, and Vinland,
and Whiteman's Land died away in a few generations, and became but
fireside sagas for the winter nights.

But there were other causes, more honourable to the dogged energy of the
Norse. They were in those very years conquering and settling nearer home
as no other people--unless, perhaps, the old Ionian Greeks--conquered and

Greenland, we have seen, they held--the western side at least--and held
it long and well enough to afford, it is said, 2,600 pounds of walrus'
teeth as yearly tithe to the Pope, besides Peter's pence, and to build
many a convent, and church, and cathedral, with farms and homesteads
round; for one saga speaks of Greenland as producing wheat of the finest
quality. All is ruined now, perhaps by gradual change of climate.

But they had richer fields of enterprise than Greenland, Iceland, and the
Faroes. Their boldest outlaws at that very time--whether from Norway,
Sweden, Denmark, or Britain--were forming the imperial life-guard of the
Byzantine Emperor, as the once famous Varangers of Constantinople; and
that splendid epoch of their race was just dawning, of which my lamented
friend, the late Sir Edmund Head, says so well in his preface to Viga
Glum's Icelandic Saga, "The Sagas, of which this tale is one, were
composed for the men who have left their mark in every corner of Europe;
and whose language and laws are at this moment important elements in the
speech and institutions of England, America, and Australia. There is no
page of modern history in which the influence of the Norsemen and their
conquests must not be taken into account--Russia, Constantinople, Greece,
Palestine, Sicily, the coasts of Africa, Southern Italy, France, the
Spanish Peninsula, England, Scotland, Ireland, and every rock and island
round them, have been visited, and most of them at one time or the other
ruled, by the men of Scandinavia. The motto on the sword of Roger
Guiscard was a proud one:

Appulus et Calaber, Siculus mihi servit et Afer.

Every island, says Sir Edmund Head, and truly--for the name of almost
every island on the coast of England, Scotland, and Eastern Ireland, ends
in either _ey_ or _ay_ or _oe_, a Norse appellative, as is the word
"island" itself--is a mark of its having been, at some time or other,
visited by the Vikings of Scandinavia.

Norway, meanwhile, was convulsed by war; and what perhaps was of more
immediate consequence, Svend Fork-beard, whom we Englishmen call
Sweyn--the renegade from that Christian Faith which had been forced on
him by his German conqueror, the Emperor Otto II.--with his illustrious
son Cnut, whom we call Canute, were just calling together all the most
daring spirits of the Baltic coasts for the subjugation of England; and
when that great feat was performed, the Scandinavian emigration was
paralysed, probably, for a time by the fearful wars at home. While the
king of Sweden, and St. Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, were setting on
Denmark during Cnut's pilgrimage to Rome, and Cnut, sailing with a mighty
fleet to Norway, was driving St. Olaf into Russia, to return and fall in
the fratricidal battle of Stiklestead--during, strangely enough, a total
eclipse of the sun--Vinland was like enough to remain still uncolonised.
After Cnut's short-lived triumph--king as he was of Denmark, Norway,
England, and half Scotland, and what not of Wendish Folk inside the
Baltic--the force of the Norsemen seems to have been exhausted in their
native lands. Once more only, if I remember right, did "Lochlin," really
and hopefully send forth her "mailed swarm" to conquer a foreign land;
and with a result unexpected alike by them and by their enemies. Had it
been otherwise, we might not have been here this day.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 12:54