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- 149 Annette Kolodny d Curious Encounters in My Search for Vinland I n 1961, while still an undergraduate English major at Brooklyn College in New York, I won a scholarship for summer study abroad. Eager to experience life in a country about which I then knew next to nothing, I used the scholarship to enroll in the literature program at the University of Oslo in Norway. My ten weeks in Norway were glorious, not least because my studies introduced me to a literary tradition far older than and very different from the American literary history I had concentrated on at home. Always curious about how literary traditions first begin, I was particularly intrigued by the medieval prose narratives written down in Iceland in the vernacular—that is, the everyday language of western Norway and Iceland. Today we call that language Old West Norse or Old Icelandic. And because they were written in the vernacular, rather than Latin, these prose narratives initiated that great corpus of enormously popular medieval literature known as the Icelandic sagas. Struggling through texts whose language challenged me with every word, depending for help on dictionaries and English translations of a few of the sagas, I fell in love with the powerful personages, the narrative energy, and the sheer exuberant adventure of the stories those sagas told. What I never anticipated in 1961, however, was that almost forty years later two of those sagas would send me on a great adventure of my own. It began as a research project that, among other places, brought me several times back to Norway. But in Maine in the summer of 2000, it developed into a project that confronted me with people and events so unexpected that I was forced to entirely rethink what I was about. To explain, I begin with the scholarly context out of which my project emerged. In anticipation of the approaching 1992 quincentenary of Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas, the 1980s witnessed a wealth of new research about Europe’s earliest contacts with the so- annette kolodny - 150 called New World. But following fast on the Columbian quincentenary was yet ­ another significant historical marker that generated even more research and a major traveling exhibit curated by the Smithsonian Institution . This was the year 2000, the millennial anniversary of what is generally believed to have been Leif Eiriksson’s first exploration of North America around ad 1000. Leif famously named the land he explored “Vinland” to emphasize its wealth of natural resources, including the abundance of wild grapevines. The story of Leif’s exploration as well as the stories of subsequent attempts to settle a permanent Norse colony in Vinland circulated widely in oral tradition in Greenland, Iceland , Denmark, and Norway. Then, about a hundred years after the events they record, these oral sayings—or sagas—began to be written down by Christian clerics in Iceland. They thus entered the medieval literature tradition that so intrigued me when I studied at the University of Oslo. The two surviving sagas that tell of the voyages to Vinland are “The Greenlanders’ Saga” and “Eirik the Red’s Saga,” known collectively as the Vinland sagas. Although embellished by folklore motifs and medieval literary conventions, the two Vinland sagas are based on real people, real places, and real events. The stories in these sagas were given a physical reality in 1961, when the Norwegian adventurer Helge Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking-era site at Épaves Bay, near the fishing village of L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northeast tip of Newfoundland. Excavated in subsequent years by Ingstad and his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, the site showed evidence of having been used for Norse ship repair as well as evidence of the presence of women. Consistent with the stories in the sagas, the little settlement could have housed as many as 160 people. In a volume published in 1977, titled The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America, Anne Stine Ingstad detailed unearthing the remains of eight house sites, four boat sheds, a charcoal kiln, evidence of domestic animals, a woman’s spindle whorl, a smithy for forging iron, iron nails and nail fragments, and a “ring-headed pin, which is a Viking Age form of jewelry” used for fastening a cloak. Carbon dating of these finds, combined with the specific architectural features of the tiny settlement, led Anne Stine Ingstad to conclude that it “suggest[ed] Iceland as its cultural source,” but that it ultimately...


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