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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A spellbinding journey back into the Dark Ages of the north, 25 Jan. 2001
Leon Marvell (Mt. Lawley, Western Australia Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Vinland (Paperback)
George Mackay Brown's fourth novel Vinland is the story of Ranald, son of Sigmund Firemouth, who sets sail from his native Orkney to ply trade with Greenland, Norway and Iceland as his forefathers did before him. Through a stroke of fate young Ranald stows away on Leif Ericson's ship the Westseeker, finally to step ashore in America, which Ericson calls Vinland. There the Viking crew encounter an American Indian tribe, calling them the 'skraelings' ('savages'). Young Ranald befriends a skraeling boy, but through a terrible misunderstanding, friendship turns to hatred and the crew of the Westseeker must leave the shores of Vinland.
Thus begins the epic saga of Ranald Sigmund, of his travels in Norway and Ireland, and of his eventual return to Orkney to reclaim the farm of his ancestors. Along the way we meet kings and poets, monks and warriors, we hear the magical tale of St. Brandon and the Isle of the Blessed, and we find ourselves midst the bloody battle of Clontarf in Ireland.
It has been said of Mackay Brown's work that it possesses "a strangeness and magic rare anywhere in literature today", and after reading this short novel you will be convinced of the truth of this. If it were not for the fact that the author hails from Orkney rather than South America, he would have been acknowledged as a master of 'magic realism' long ago. There is a poetic intensity and a visionary quality about his prose that makes you realise that you are reading the work of a contemporary bard or 'skald' as the Vikings would have called him.
The description of the battle of Clontarf and the carrying of the raven banner is one of the most frightening and incandescent descriptions of pitched battle that I have ever read. Few writers today could take you to the heart of a bloody confrontation - fought only with axes, swords and arrows - and simultaneously describe both the horror and the ecstasy experienced by the warriors on the battlefield.
Neither you nor I will ever be able to visit the Dark Ages of the north, but reading Vinland is as good as first-class ticket to the time of the Vikings, when Christianity and the Old Gods vied for the souls and flesh of crofters and warriors alike.George Mackay Brown evokes the sights, the sounds, the smells, even the very tastes of the times in a way that few writers today seem capable of.
If you have ever dreamed of being transported back in time, and if you want to be utterly spellbound by the journey, you cannot afford not to read this book.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tale that haunts the memory, 7 Jun. 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Vinland (Paperback)
This is a wonderful novel, suffused with an aching melancholy for what might have been. As in all of George Mackay Brown's prose, the greatness of the author is shown by the wealth of meaning which inhabits what is, on the surface, a simply told, straightforward tale.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life of Ranald of Orkney, 9 Jan. 2013
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Vinland (Paperback)
This is a wonderfully simple book; written in a lyrical poetical tone which reminded me of the saga writers; one that does not hold emotion so much in the words used, but in the way they are all put together. The sweeping vista of the story, and the characters that Ranald meets on the way hold the reader enthralled. The writing is reminiscent of that of the old sagas; a narrative, with little or no judgment on the motives or emotions of the characters; merely statements of fact, honour, and righteous behaviour is evinced by the Orcadian, Icelandic and other warriors and women.

This is a wonderful book, and one to be savoured, and enjoyed again and again when the mood takes you; perhaps on a winter's night, sitting by the fire, enjoying mulled wine and dreaming of ages gone by.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars poetic, 20 May 2009
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This review is from: Vinland (Paperback)
There's no intricate plot here- so not much of a spoiler when I say this is an historical novel set around the time of Macbeth, in which the protagonist visits Vinland in his youth, returns to Orkney, gets married and grows old. But it's the sensitivity and the use of language that makes this really stand out. It's short and beautifully written and you won't want it to end.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Different Kind of Saga, 7 Jan. 2007
This review is from: Vinland (Paperback)
There was a time when saga novels (based on the old Norse literature, in some fashion or other) were hard to come by. I can remember combing the bookstores for them. Yes, there was E. R. Eddison's STYRBIORN THE STRONG and H. Rider Haggard's ERIC BRIGHTEYES. And, if you were lucky, you also found the little known but truly wonderful tale of Harold and William and their struggle for the throne of England in 1066: THE GOLDEN WARRIOR by Hope Muntz. But there wasn't much else besides. Eventually I stumbled on Cecelia Holland's TWO RAVENS (on a remainders table) and Jane Smiley's THE GREENLANDERS, but it was always tough going looking for novels like this. (I wrote my own saga type novel in 1996, partly in answer to what I had come to think was a dearth of interest in the saga world and its literary traditions because of this.)

But lately vikings are all the rage. Cecelia Holland has given us her own three-book series about the Gaelic and Norse world, taking us to all the well-known areas of viking history including the North American coast. And Bernard Cornwell has given us a series of three, as well, dealing with the Danish invasions of England and the valiant defense mounted by King Alfred of Wessex (who would come to be called the Great by those who succeeded him). Irish travel writer Tim Severin has given us his own trilogy about a certain Thorkel (mentioned briefly in Erik the Red's Saga as an illegitimate son of Leif Eriksson) who starts out as a youngster in Greenland and eventually goes nearly everywhere and meets nearly everyone who's anyone in the viking world of his day. And then there are some older and forgotten works like Margaret Elphinstone's THE SEA ROAD, about Gudrid, Leif Eriksson's sister-in-law, and Joan Felicia Henriksen's ASTRID: A VIKING SAGA about the mother of the future King Olaf Trygvesson, one of the heroic Norwegian kings of saga legend. These can still be found if you look hard enough. But there are plenty more new ones, too. I can no longer count them all on two hands. But that's a good thing for those of us who love the Norse thing.

VINLAND, by Scottish writer George MacKay Brown, is in this tradition. Written in the early nineties, I was yet unaware of it in the days when I was actively searching out saga-based fiction in every used and new bookstore I could find. But now I've gotten hold of, and read, it.

It's a moving, poetic tale, written in a way that evokes the old saga literature from which it is sprung. Tracing the life of Ranald Sigmundson, an Orkney farmer, from his boyhood, when he is taken to sea by a fierce father against his will (and rebelliously finds his way to the North American coast -- Vinland in the old sagas -- on Leif Eriksson's ship) until old age and hermit-like seclusion on his Orkney farm, this is, in a very real sense, an anti-saga.

Relying on the saga tone and many of its conventions, Brown's story of Ranald is not one of action, as is so often found in the original sagas, but of contemplation in the shadow of the great events and violent men recalled primarily in the Orkneyinga Saga, that violent Icelandic tale of the strivings of the Orkney earls and Norwegian kings for primacy over the islands immediately north of the Scottish coast. Ranald Sigmundson eventually finds himself with Leif and his crew in Vinland, in the midst of a violent clash with local natives and later lives for a year or so in the Norse colony of Greenland, a guest of Leif and his family. Homesick and worried about his mother and grandfather, Ranald takes ship back east on a Norwegian bound trading vessel where he finds himself a surprise guest of the Norwegian King Olaf Trygvesson. There he is treated to a bird's eye view of the royal court and tastes its delights. Olaf, it seems, enjoys his company, enhancing Ranald's reputation who, though still but a boy, goes on to take over management of the merchant vessel he has booked passage on, as he works his way back to his family home in the Orkneys.

But once home, Ranald abandons the sea and the trading life to find a place for himself as a farmer. But for a brief venture to support his liege lord, Earl Sigurd of Orkney, at the Battle of Clontarf (which saw the final defeat of the viking alliance against the native Irish), Ranald never leaves his home islands again. His is a life of withdrawal from the great events of his day because he is revolted by the greed and violence that seem to drive the great men. As Earl Sigurd's remaining sons strive for rule over Orkney, Ranald withdraws more and more from the political disputes that characterize his native land. He grows old as Sigurd's youngest son eventually consolidates his power through bloodshed and ruthlessness, leaving the dead and broken in his wake.

In the end, Ranald is drawn to the monks who have settled on the islands and the contemplative life they represent, becoming their patron and friend and separating himself from the family he has raised to farm the land after him. Pining all his years for the life of the sea he has abandoned, and for a vision of Vinland which has become idealized in his own mind, Ranald eventually is drawn to a deeper vision of that mysterious western land, seeing it as a place beyond human life itself, a metaphor for the peace and salvation that is only attainable, he believes, through the promise of faith.

Although superficially about vikings and such, this book is really something more. There are battles in it but one never really sees or feels them, even in the midst of them, as Ranald cleaves his way through the enemy host at Clontarf, slashing blindly with his sword like all the others, killing men without even realizing what he is about.

There are some jarring moments, too. For instance, in his interview with King Olaf, Ranald is asked by the king if the Vinland natives live in such and such a way and Ranald affirms that they do. Yet, the saga literature tells us Leif's was the first voyage to Vinland and that Leif never went back. According to Brown's tale, neither did Ranald. But on the one voyage Ranald participated in, their contact with the native "Skraelings" was limited to a few coastal meetings and attacks. They never got to the Skraeling villages so Ranald couldn't have confirmed what the king asks him about. In fact, the king couldn't have known any of it because the later voyages which were to have more extensive contacts with the Skraelings hadn't taken place yet!

King Olaf, too, is something of a problem in this tale. He is, of course, Olaf Trygvesson who ruled in Norway from about 995 to 1000, a very short stint. Yet Brown continuously refers to the king of Norway as Olaf throughout the years. In fact there was a later and more famous Christianizing King Olaf, dubbed Olaf the Saint by posterity and known in his lifetime as Olaf the Stout, but Brown makes no real differentiation (except for a brief comment much later on telling us that he is speaking of a different King Olaf). Brown, indeed, leaves us with the sense that Olaf is a single king for most of this time though the two Olafs were very different in their appearance, their comportment and their actions. And he gives us no sense of the intervening years between the two.

Brown also tells us about villages in Greenland and Iceland though there is no evidence from the sagas or archaeologically that the Norse lived in villages in these places at this time. In fact, they seem to have lived in scattered, isolated farms, coming together for periodic gatherings to deal with legal and other societal issues. But otherwise, they lived apart though some of the farms were quite large with many inhabitants to maintain them.

Along with certain modernisms, I found these issues a bit off-putting since they didn't jibe with what I know of the era and made me think Brown was a bit sloppy or overly loose with his narrative. But, on balance, they did not diminish the tale for me by much. I found this story of Ranald Sigmundson's aging, and his quest for life's meaning, moving and compelling, perhaps because I am not so young as I once was myself.

If you're looking for a fast paced, action packed viking tale, this is not the one. But if you want to read about a man's inner quest against a background of worldly concerns which retains the feel of the old Norse sagas, you'll find that sort of tale here.

Stuart W. Mirsky, author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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Vinland by George Mackay Brown (Paperback - 1 Jun. 2011)
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