This contribution looks at a selection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travel books published by North American visitors to Iceland. The fascination of nineteenth-century British tourists with northern latitudes has been the subject of considerable scholarship by Andrew Wawn and Jón Karl Helgason (amongst others) in recent years. Hitherto, American accounts of travel to Iceland have not been examined in much detail, however. As well as presenting an overview of these little-studied travel books (who were the authors, when and why did they visit Iceland and choose to publish their travel narratives, where did they go?), this essay will attempt to identify what can be said to characterise these American accounts, as well as to evaluate the interest that each author had in the sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur).
The reputation of Christopher Columbus has fluctuated over the centuries, with writers sometimes treating him as a hero, and at other times emphasising his crimes against the Arawaks and his legacy of genocide against other indigenous peoples of North and South America. Some of these critics note that the title of ‘Discoverer’ serves to diminish the history of indigenous people and to justify their continued exploitation. Occasionally, critics have attacked the notion of Columbus as ‘Discoverer’ by pointing to the earlier Norse voyages. This chapter analyses works of popular history written since the excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows and argues that using the Norse voyages in this way tends to reproduce Eurocentric assumptions but can also serve as a helpful occasion to imagine pro-indigenous alternatives to European conquest.
From Iceland to the Americas, an anthology of thirteen original critical essays, is an exercise in the reception of a small historical fact with wide-ranging social, cultural, and imaginative consequences. Medieval records claim that around the year 1000 Leif Eiriksson and other Nordic explorers sailed westwards from Iceland and Greenland to a place they called Vinland. Archaeological evidence has in fact verified this claim, though primarily by way of one small, short-lived Norse settlement in Newfoundland, which may not even have been Leif’s. Whether or not this settlement was his, however, the contact associated with him has had an outsized impact on cultural imagination in and of the Americas. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, indeed, novels, poetry, history, politics, arts and crafts, comics, films and video games have all reflected a rising interest in the medieval Norse and their North American presence. Uniquely in reception studies, From Iceland to the Americas approaches this dynamic between Nordic history and its reception by bringing together international authorities on mythology, language, film, and cultural studies, as well as on the literature that has dominated critical reception. Collectively, the essays not only explore the connections among medieval Iceland and the modern Americas, but also probe why medieval contact has become a modern cultural touchstone.
The Old Icelandic Vinland sagas enjoy a special status in American culture as the oldest written accounts of an attempted European settlement in the New World. But how are these stories conceived by the people who can actually claim direct descent from Leif Eiriksson and his fellow pioneers, that is the Icelanders? This contribution explores the various ways in which the story of Vinland has been framed in the cultural memory of Icelanders on both sides of the Atlantic. It focuses on written sources from the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, when new ideas on Icelandic nationhood emerged in the spirit of the island’s independence movement. Furthermore, it compares the ideas of Icelanders in Iceland to those of Icelandic immigrants in the New World and analyses the differences between them, using the theoretical concept of territorial kinship. Was the Icelandic approach to Vinland on the other side of the Atlantic markedly different from that of the Icelanders who stayed at home? And if so, what does this tell us about the construction of national self-images at home and abroad?
Iceland in the literary and the professorial imagination
Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (published in French in 1864, but widely circulating in English translations by the mid-1870s) stands as a defining document in the literary imagination of Iceland in the Anglo-American tradition. It looks back to a heritage of associating philology and geology as historical sciences and, in turn, of finding Iceland as the lode for both. It also provided later travellers with a template for exploring both the language and the landscape of the island. In the process, Verne’s novel helped to make the scholar into a heroic adventurer and grant to nineteenth-century writers a new sense of a professorial sublime.
Leif Eiriksson, the 1893 World’s Fair, and the Great Lakes landnám
Amy C. Mulligan
In a headline-grabbing re-enactment of Leif Eiriksson’s Vinland voyage, a wooden Viking ship sailed from Norway to become one of the most popular spectacles at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The voyage of the aptly-named Viking to America’s Midwest, as well as the later erection of a statue of Leif in Chicago and the 1927 naming of the major highway now known as ‘Lake Shore Drive’ as ‘Leif Ericson Drive’, show the many ways in which a medieval Viking past was re-mapped onto the landscape of one of America’s most dynamic urban centres, Chicago, a city which excelled at reinvention like nowhere else in late nineteenth-century America. Through place-naming practices and immersive performances in new landscapes, powerful identity narratives rooted in a medieval past allowed those who came to Chicago, and Scandinavian-American communities in particular, to find Valhalla in the Midwest and establish a valorised American future.
The topics of the chapter are the importance of Old Norse literature for people of mostly Norwegian descent in North America and their devotion to the matter of Vinland. The study includes a discussion on how Professor Rasmus B. Anderson (1846–1936) influenced and contributed to the legacy of the medieval explorer Leif Eiriksson, the reception of Old Norse literature in the founding of the publishing company The Norrœna Society, and translations of Old Norse works. The focus is at the same time on ‘missions of education’ leading up to observances, festivals, and anniversaries, both Norwegian and all American – ´missions´ that involved publishing medieval literature, crossing the Atlantic on replicas of Viking ships, and even raising statues. All of these advocated for the importance of Leif Eiriksson being the first European to find America.
The mythology of emigration in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods
In American Gods, Neil Gaiman imagines how belief in the gods and folk heroes of the Old World is exported to the New World along with each successive wave of emigrants. In the novel, Gaiman fantasises about how these supernatural figures, reified in the narrative, fight for survival in their new setting, and come into conflict with the new gods of Gaiman’s America. This piece focuses on comparing and contrasting Gaiman’s Old Norse-derived gods with their originals in Old Norse mythological sources. It argues that these creatures are at the same time both sinister and comic but concludes that Gaiman’s representation of human immigration is a positive one which crucially does not privilege the value or contribution of one group over another.
Nineteenth-century American poets used Viking artefacts (real and fake) and the Vinland Sagas to help their readers connect, emotionally as well as intellectually, to the deep past. In Samuel Bellamy Beach’s Escalala, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘Skeleton in Armor’, Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s ‘Newport Tower’, and Sidney Lanier’s ‘Psalm of the West’, Vikings appear as spectral figures, representing ancient history while also posing more current questions about the relationship between whiteness, indigeneity, and national identity. When figured as the first so-called ‘Saxons’ to reach the New World, Vikings helped poets to romanticise, to celebrate – and sometimes, though rarely, to question – the legitimacy of the European colonial project.
While the nineteenth century saw many ‘national epics’ which retold (and combined) major Norse myths, the twentieth century saw mythological figures refracted into culture in more complex ways; indeed, sceptical trends in scholarship often corresponded with greater creative leeway in new narrative responses to mythological stories. Many scholars and writers have suggested that American superhero comics are, as one book has it, A Modern Mythology. Such a comparison would require a similar process to those which produced the Norse myths, with an ongoing tradition being sculpted by audience reception, ultimately capturing archetypes of deities. Evaluating the quintessential Batman film The Dark Knight (2008) in these terms shows that its unusual plot likewise owes much to narrative traditions shaped by reception, driving its apocalyptic themes of dynastic failure. As with Balder’s death and capture by Hel in Norse mythology, when a myth occupies a turning point in a set of interwoven stories, it gains ‘the weight of folklore’. In a post 9/11 context, the film depicts the powers of world order corrupt and in decline, as the rule of law collapses. In a time of chaos and conspiracy, the Joker’s mutilation of shining district attorney Harvey Dent takes on hellish symbolism.