Norse Settlements in Canada: Background information when reading The Half-Drowned King

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The Half-Drowned King

by Linnea Hartsuyker

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker X
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2018, 448 pages

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Gary Presley

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Norse Settlements in Canada

This article relates to The Half-Drowned King

Print Review

Map of VinlandThe Half-Drowned King, Linnea Hartsuyker's wonderful Norse saga, is set prior to the end of the first millennium, significantly before the major explorations of the Norse to the west, an era when anthropologists have traced their footprints to the edges of the North American continent.

It was only a few decades ago when school children were taught that Columbus "discovered" America, with credit spread among other European explorers for other sightings and encounters. It's generally accepted now that the Norse settled in Iceland, then colonized Greenland, and thereafter ventured as far as present-day Gulf of St. Lawrence and eastern Canada's New Brunswick (which Leif Eriksson named Vinland.) It's curious that permanent colonies weren't established in the New World, especially considering that the areas noted were every bit as fertile as Iceland and the western reaches of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

Vikings Landing on VinlandIn a paper presented to the Sixteenth Viking Congress in 2009, Brigitta Wallace's "L'anse aux Meadows: Different Disciplines, Divergent Views" suggested three primary reasons why Norse settlements in Canada did not become permanent. First, the relatively small Norse population of Greenland couldn't sustain a significant effort in Vinland, especially considering the distance dividing the two and the fact that arable land remained available in Greenland. Second, all of Vinland's natural resources were available elsewhere, even close to home in Europe. Third, there was a significant population of aboriginal people, known as the Mi'kmaq, who forcefully opposed the Norse.

Each of these factors were complicated by other elements. For example, unlike later settlers equipped with firearms, when it came to weaponary, the Norse were on an equal footing with the native peoples with perhaps some advantage going to the latter because they were better adapted to the climate and terrain. Neither did the Norse have the larger ships of later settlers, nor navigational aids such as compasses to exploit the natural resources of North America. The journeys from the Norse homelands, and Greenland and Iceland, did in fact require stops along the way. These factors and others are mentioned in Jared Diamond's seminal work Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond even notes that the Norse ventured west before the invention of the printing press. Had information like maps and reports of natural resources been more easily disseminated, North America might have attracted more settlers.

L'anse aux MeadowsFinally, of course, there is the human factor to consider. The Norse were independent-minded folk. One example noted in the author's notes is that settlements in Iceland following Harald Fairhair's unification of Norway as a monarchy were sparked by elements within Norse society that preferred a less arbitrary authority. The Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, was founded in 930 CE, and is generally held to be the oldest Parliament in the world.

Map of Viking treks to Vinland, courtesy of brandeis.edu
Norsemen meeting the native people of Vinland and L'Anse aux Meadows and 11th-century Norse settlement in Newfoundland, both courtesy of www.beccajjones.com

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Half-Drowned King. It originally ran in October 2017 and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback edition.

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