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The Norse Discoverers of America, the Wineland Sagas
Review Author: W. P. Ker
The English Historical Review, Vol. 37 (146): 267-269. (April 1922)  Oxford University Press.


Reviews of Books

The Norse Discoverers of America, the Wineland Sagas. Translated and discussed. by G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, F.R.G.S. (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1921.)

    The conclusion of this treatise is that Thorfinn Karlsefni found Cape Cod ; that the Wonder Strands are the New England coast, that Straumsey is Fisher's Island at the mouth of Long Island Sound, which is Straums-fjrđr; and that Hp is the bay or estuary of the Hudson River. This theory is more likely than any other ; distinctly better than Gustav Storm's careful argument identifying Wineland with Nova Scotia. The choice, we may say, is between these two explanations ; for this reason, that the evidence requires a northward pointing cape, with water open for exploration on each side of it. There is no such landscape available except at Cape Breton Island, which is Storm's choice, and at Cape Cod, which is preferred by Mr. Gathorne-Hardy.

    Storm's argument is very plausible. His diagram showing the relative positions required by the story, and his application of this diagram to the map of Nova Scotia, seem to 'save the appearances', at any rate. The story told in Eireks saga rauđa can be made to fit.

    But Mr. Gathorne-Hardy shows that it does not fit without some forcing. Apart from the problem of the vine, which is not quite at home so far north, and keeping to geography, we are asked for an immense stretch of sandy shore, the 'Wonder Strands', which, briefly, is not there; that defect alone seems enough to refute Nova Scotia. Mr. Gathorne-Hardy meets the eminent Norwegian historian, and gives good ground for rejecting his explanation. His own theory is even better than he knows ; it suffers, in his demonstration, from want of proper diagrams and maps. His argument needs one map taking in the whole coast from Cape Cod to the mouth of the Hudson ; this is not given ; instead of it there are two bits which leave out the Wonder Strands in the middle. It may be remarked here that the treatment of the old map of the Icelander Stephanius is clumsy and cruel, as may be judged by any one who will compare the rough sketch here, p. 29, with Storm's reproduction (Vinlandsreiserne, Fig. 2).

    After passing the Wonder Strands Karlsefni puts into a fjord. There was an island at the mouth, and very strong currents. Karlsefni made a camp there, or thereabout, and passed the winter. In the spring Karlsefni goes exploring by sea to the south, leaving his base at Straumsfjord, and coming at last to Hpwhere a river runs through a lake (vatn) to the sea, with many shoals at the river-mouth. Mr. Gathorne-Hardy quotes here,

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aptly, the description of Hudson River 'by its first recognized discoverer Verezzano' 'we passed up this river about half a league, when we found it formed a most beautiful lake, three leagues in circuit.' Thus according to Mr. Gathorne-Hardy, the discoverers knew both Long Island Sound [ = Straumsfjrđr, the south coast of Long Island, and the estuary of the Hudson [ = Hp, a very familiar name ; disguised as 'Oban', they say, in the Sound of Kerrara].

    After this southern exploration Karlsefni went north to discover what he could : he rounded a cape, steering west : if Hp is the Hudson mouth the cape will be Cape Cod. Here comes a passage which Mr. Gathorne-Hardy thinks corrupt; which on the contrary might be taken as a guarantee of good faith. It is wrongly translated and badly spelt by Mr. Gathorne-Hardy. In Hauk's book, which alone gives the passage in full, it is thus : eir tluđu ll ein fjll au, er Hpi vru ok au er n funnu eir, ok at stđiz mjk sv , ok vri jamlangt r Straumsfirđi beggja vegna. This means, 'They reckoned that the mountains at Hope and those they now had found were all one, and that this fitted well enough, and either way was the same distance from Straumsfjord '. Mr. Gathorne-Hardy translates 'ok at stđiz mjk sv ', 'were therefore close opposite one another', which is harder to understand : 'standast ' means to correspond, to fit, and 'mjk' here has its frequent sense of 'pretty nearly '. Now this, it might be maintained, is too good not to be true : it must, at any rate, be part of a tradition which kept as close as possible to an original report. Otherwise, it is Swift or Defoe ; the ordinary yarn-spinner does not think of this close geographical study. It is not much against Mr. Gathorne-Hardy's identifications that his Hp or Hudson is too far away from the Massachusetts coast in the neighbourhood of Boston. For it is clear that those Greenland navigators expected a large opening westward round their cape, and were from the first inclined to make things fit. It seems clear, too, that they did not think of those mountains as a narrow range. Take an example from Norwegian history : the same Flatey book that preserves the other version of the Greenland voyages also contains the Life of King Hacon. Hacon we are there told went by larsund, the Sound of Islay, round Stirismli, the Mull of Kintyre, and so to Bute and the adjacent islands. Now from Islay he ought to have seen the mountains of Herey (= Arran) over Kintyre, and rounding the Mull he comes in sight of Arran again from the inner sea. The view from outside corresponds with the view from inside. But the landscape in Wineland is not an easy thing like this ; one makes out from the language that there is a large mass of mountains, and 'mjk' = 'well enough' shows that after all there might be room for doubt. Storm's theory, and his map of Nova Scotia, show a much closer correspondence and a much shorter distance between the two views : but this possibly is not so much in his favour as might appear ; the identification is perhaps too easy.

    Mr. Gathorne-Hardy has argued in favour of a narrative which is generally despised ; which Professor Finnur Jnsson in a recent paper (1915) rejects : the story of Bjarni Herjulfsson. This captain is said to have been driven south in bad weather sailing from Iceland to Greenland and to have come in sight of various unknown lands before he came at

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last to his father's house in Greenland. The story is certainly well told and life-like ; while, as Mr. Gathorne-Hardy well argues, there is nothing in it that any one could have a motive for inventing. The details are rather better than here represented : 'whereupon they left the land on the port side and let the sheet turn towards it' (p. 26) is unintelligible, though, or because, it is a literal translation. Skaut means either ' tack' or' sheet', as the case may be. The meaning clearly is that they were sailing on the port tack, with a westerly wind. Here it looks, again, as if there were a true tradition. There is no obvious motive for invention, while the particulars are clear in themselves.

    There are many other points and matters of interest in the book ; the author is to be congratulated on his skill in putting so much into three hundred pages.                                                                 W. P. Ker.