If a friend of yours is curious to know more about the Viking world and is pestering you for a book recommendation, point them towards Beyond the Northlands

Written in wonderfully entertaining fashion by BBC broadcaster and historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, it takes the reader from the very tip of Norway to where Vinland might have been, down to the gilded courts of Kievan Rus and Byzantine Constantinople, and into the bleakest retreats of the Orkneys

The reader, in turn, happily follows her because Barraclough knows just how to weave a saga, dropping in relevant, explanatory detail to guide the way according to the four points of the compass. 

First things first. This is not a history of the Vikings but descriptions of the voyages they made, or may have made, as celebrated in the Old Norse sagas – "medieval Iceland's unparalleled storytelling legacy to the world," as the writer puts it in typically succinct style. 

In her quest for understanding the Viking era, Barraclough ventured to Greenland's rugged coastline, investigating the survival and legacy of Norse settlements that emerged from the brave few who journeyed from Iceland. Photo: Holger J. Bub / Pexels

Sagas and travelogue 

As she says on her website, "I'm interested in how the physical environment affects the construction of identity and memory, and the close connections between geography – real and imagined – and the stories humans tell about the world, their place in it, and their past." 

In Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas, Barraclough takes an immersive approach to her writing. Rather than spending the entire process in her study, surrounded by reference books sprawled over every available surface, she chooses to live the Viking experience to the extent that logistics and budget permit. 

Though her research is rigorous, evidenced by 30 pages of reference notes, she ventures far beyond her study, seeking firsthand experiences in historical Viking territories.

She spends the night in the loneliest, most daunting lighthouse in the world, at the northernmost tip of Norway, to get a sense of the Arctic. 

She bravely sails up the coast of Greenland to understand the challenges of Western and Eastern Settlements established by the relatively few Norse who survived the journey from Iceland. (She also outlines the logic behind their names and locations.) 

She tours what's left of Byzantine Constantinople to see where the Varangian Guard left their mark, literally. 

Most of all, she's constantly curious and alert. 

No one reading this book who has to fly out of Arlanda Airport in Stockholm will now do so without gazing out of the windows near the ladies' toilets in Terminal 2. (They look out onto a large Viking runestone.)

A Cambridge undergraduate in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, Barraclough provides her own English renditions of the sagas she constantly refers to while also compiling a list of the best versions in translation. 

She is experienced and qualified enough to appreciate that they straddle the "hazy borderline between fact and fabrication, orality and literacy – written for the entertainment of men, not to the glory of God," as she admits. 

It's not only her job but her pleasure to sift through the kennings ("the Norse equivalent of a cryptic crossword clue") and the centuries-old conundrums. 

Navigating through the challenging terrain of Vardø, Barraclough uncovers layers of history where Norwegian and Russian influences converge, offering insights into the strategic importance of this area during the Viking Age. Photo: paul.horsefield / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Look North, Go West 

In Beyond the Northlands, the passages the author selects take her North, West, East, and South, the directions around which the book is structured.

First, though, she starts at the hearth, contemplating the Old Norse word heimr, which means both "home" and "world," perhaps at odds with the Vikings' savage arrival in England, the massacre at Lindisfarne where Chapter 1 begins. 

Wherever the Norse went, they took their customs with them, as well as their language, the writer pointing out some of the more curious examples of place names around the UK

Beyond these few historical curios – did you know that influential textile designer William Morris sailed to Iceland for inspiration in 1871? – the focus is very much on lands far from Britain and Ireland. 

The writer's cultural references, however, are redolent of someone whose childhood was spent in the UK. Barraclough's footnotes are a trove of diverting trivia, her mind a pinball machine of Norse-related material. 

One minute, she's quoting from the cult children's TV series Noggin the Nog from the early 1960s, the next extolling the virtues of Swedish beaver-gland schnapps. 

It's all wonderfully engaging, a world away from dry, academic histories of the period that dissuade the layman from further investigation. 

Which is not to say she isn't thorough. 

Many are the author to have scorned the erroneous notion of Vikings in horned helmets – Barraclough points the finger at the particular Bayreuth costume designer who chose to embellish his Wagner production in 1876. 

We have Carl Doepler to thank/blame for this wardrobe malapropism ever since.

Starting with Iceland, "a land born of the Viking Age," the writer treks through mud and jagged rocks to Vardø, where Norway overlooks Russia, before a fascinating if frustrating tour of Viking Greenland, "a Nordic Pompeii." 

Here, you feel she's most at home, scrutinizing the landscape and the historical evidence to assess how and why the Norse settlers died out there. 

Maybe the mystery could be summed up in a line from the Greenlandic version of the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily seal meat," she conjectures. 

However, she isn't afraid to bring topics such as climate change, as reflected in Flemish art, the Hanseatic League, and ptarmigans into the argument. 

The latter, Arctic poultry, is referred to by the Japanese as "thunder birds," according to another gently humorous footnote. 

After visiting Greenland, Barraclough returns to exploring the saga texts, this time seeking evidence of Vinland. 

She simplifies complex information into essential, easily understood details. 

In the two sagas that mention Vinland, Erik the Red's Saga describes three westward voyages, while the Greenlanders' Saga recounts six. 

Some of their passages align: "Helluland" is likely Baffin Island, and "Markland" probably Labrador, as both are named in a later Icelandic map, the Mappa Mundi. 

The evidence, or the lack thereof, regarding Viking presence in North America, specifically at L'Anse aux Meadows, is concisely summarized in three words: "No land farmed." 

This site was primarily a Norse outpost, a "stepping stone to the south." Intriguingly, two of its buildings were set ablaze for unknown reasons. 

Barraclough's analysis of the sagas offers a clearer view of these early explorations. 

Notably, it was the German and Scottish slaves in the Norse party who ventured further and discovered grapes. 

This raises questions: Were these slaves more adventurous, or were they simply following orders from their Norse masters? 

Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim was the coronation site for all Norwegian monarchs, from Harald I to the current King Harald V. Photo: Kenggo / Shutterstock

Following the money 

Once we move east, the sources become more manifold and cosmopolitan. 

Thanks to Arab and Slav chronicles, we see the Norse through the eyes of others: worldly-wise, axe-wielding, and in need of better table manners. 

This chapter begins with the Caliph's ambassadors leaving the civilization of Baghdad in 921 to endure the rugged conditions beside the Volga. 

Barraclough then literally "follows the money," explaining why so much Arab silver was found at Birka, surrounded by the waters of Lake Mälaren in Sweden.

Was Ivan the Terrible of Norse descent? The writer would like to think so but suggests that the scant evidence of Viking influence on medieval Russia is due to Stalin's directives. 

Local archaeologists were abruptly cut off from interacting with their Finnish counterparts, halting any cross-border research for generations. 

On a jollier note, we discover more about the presence of elephants in medieval Europe, not only as beasts of burden but also as stone likenesses carved in Nidaros Cathedral, Norway's medieval capital.

Today, this city is known as Trondheim, still only about 400 km from the Arctic Circle. 

The chapter on the South follows the Crusades, featuring a cairn in the Orkneys with Norse inscriptions still visible, as well as Rognvald's cathedral in Kirkwall. 

We also visit a monastery in Reichenau, Southern Germany, where 600 Scandinavian names are found in the fraternity book.

The demise of Rome in the Middle Ages would have starkly contrasted with the riches of its Eastern counterpart, the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. 

The adventures of Varangian hero Harald Hardrada have been documented in recent times, but this Norse Jason Bourne never fails to fascinate.

Much like medieval maps – which, we find out, often feature the words "There be dragons" – the writer depicts the serpents and squids described in the sagas. 

She weighs up the possibilities for misinterpretation in the natural world, fully aware that the chronicler in Iceland would never have dipped his toes in the Mediterranean.

All in all, this is an informative jaunt around the Viking world, one that's crying out for the writer to present on camera, but one that works perfectly well as presented on the page. 

Some 50 or so photographs provide frequent illustrative breaks, and maps for each direction set the scene before each chapter. 

Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, is available for purchase on Amazon here.

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