Greenland: Gudrid the Wanderer wanders all over the place.

 

Eric the Red's house in Greenland
I first heard of Gudrídur Thorbjarnardóttir, or Gudrid the Wanderer, when I was visiting my ecclesiastical contact, the Reverend Sara. She showed me her church, an amazing modern building with an altar bathed in light reflected off water, in the Reykjavík suburb of Grafarholt. The church was dedicated to Gudrid. She told me about Gudrid's travels from Iceland to Greenland to North America and back again, and then on to Rome, all around the year 1000 AD. I found this extraordinary; I still do.

As I discovered more about Gudrid, I determined to write a book about her. But writing a twenty-first-century detective novel about a Viking explorer is not easy. It took me several years to alight on a way of doing it, but I got there in the end. 

A TV crew is making a documentary about Gudrid, following in her footsteps to Greenland and North America, when someone is murdered. Magnus investigates. The resulting book is called The Wanderer.

Before Magnus could get on the case, I needed to do my own investigation. There are two sagas which give a broad picture of the Viking settlement of Greenland and exploration of North America: The Saga of the Greenlanders, and The Saga of Erik the Red, together known as The Vinland Sagas, and published as such by Penguin Classics. These describe the following story. 

The outlaw Erik the Red sailed from Iceland and established himself at a farm at Brattahlíd in the south-west of Greenland. Gudrid followed him, with her first husband, who died soon after they arrived in Greenland. Vikings settled along the west coast of Greenland, at the 'Eastern Settlement' around what is now Qaqortoq, and the 'Western Settlement' further up the coast near what is now the capital, Nuuk.

The Norse remained in Greenland until the fifteenth century. Around the year 1000, Northern Europe was relatively warm, and it was possible to grow crops in Greenland. Greenlanders traded with Iceland and England, narwhal horns being a particularly profitable export, as we have seen. 

Most of Greenland is covered with a massive block of ice, many miles deep, but there are small patches of lush green around the south coast. One of these is Brattahlíd, now known as Qassiarsuk, which is on the opposite side of the fjord from the former US airbase and now international airport at Narsarsuaq. You can still see the remains of Erik the Red's farm, and a replica stands a couple of hundred metres away (see photo above – notice how green it is?). In July, the ruins are knee-deep in lush green grass and wild flowers; white and blue icebergs drift sedately by in the fjord. Sheep farming was reintroduced to the area in the 1920s.

The mystery about Greenland isn't how it was settled but how it was abandoned. As the thirteenth century progressed, the climate became colder. The southern fjords were iced up for much of the year. Greenland had been uninhabited when the Norsemen arrived, but in the twelfth century, the Inuit appeared. It's not clear whether they and the Norsemen fought, but the Inuit were expert hunters, and it is probable that they outcompeted the Norsemen, especially when it became too cold for the Viking farmers to grow crops.

The last recorded mention of the Greenland settlement is the description of a wedding at Hvalsey in 1409 by a visiting merchant from Iceland - the ruins of the Norse church there still stand. Eventually, the harbours of Greenland were frozen all the year round. It's not clear what happened to the surviving settlers: some speculate that they headed south to Vinland, some think they were overwhelmed by the Inuit, and others believe they starved to death in the cold.

Six hundred years later, I shiver to think about those last settlers trapped year-round by sea ice, waiting for ships from the outside world that never came.

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