Beyond the Norselands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas
Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough
Oxford University Press
320pp, 52 colour illustrations
Hardback, £25

The Vikings have loomed large in our minds ever since their first terrifying forays on to British soil, most notably at the monastery of Lindisfarne in AD 793. While the word 'Viking' is linked to piracy, not all the inhabitants of medieval Scandinavia – most particularly Norway, Denmark and Sweden – were Vikings, and even real Vikings engaged in less violent activities. More than deadly marauding raiders, these northerners were also skilled navigators, intrepid explorers and canny traders whose voyages led them from the frozen Arctic to the fringes of North America and even to Jerusalem.

Accounts of their multifaceted world have survived in the Old Norse sagas – tales written down between the 12th and 15th centuries – which form a rich and unique literary legacy. They provide, says Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, a lecturer in medieval history at Durham University, 'a fluid, fragmented, multidimensional picture of the world' as seen through the eyes of those who recorded them. But while some sagas stick closely to reality, others are dominated by the fantastic and the unearthly. In them we meet an array of fiery, cunning characters, who have extraordinary adventures, and plenty of fantastic beasts – from trolls to witches and ogres.

It is the real world that lies behind these sagas that Barraclough sets out to explore and reveal in Beyond the Northlands, separating, to the extent that the evidence permits, fact from fiction. Barraclough takes us through the choppy waters of the lives of these formidable northerners, skilfully piloting us through the historical terrain from which the sagas sprang.

Journeying through Barraclough's pacy narrative, one can only marvel at the Norsemen's verve. Striking north, they ventured into Finnmark, the northernmost regions of Scandinavia. A place of bleak beauty, jagged cliffs and icy seas, it offered considerable riches, and here the Norsemen traded with the Sami, who were renowned for possessing magical powers.

This frozen northern netherworld spawned a collection of sagas that chronicle the real struggles between powerful chieftains of the north and ambitious, southern kings, but are also populated by trolls and demons. As Barraclough comments: 'There is something about the dramatic, barren landscapes of the north that the imagination easily fills with the magical, the monstrous, and the supernatural.'

Travelling west during the 10th century, famously led by the turbulent outcast Erik the Red, the Norsemen established settlements around the fjords of southwest Greenland. Evidence of these colonies, mysteriously abandoned in the 15th century, still survive. But the life there, too, prompted sagas filled with tales of feuds, brawls and murders. The Vinland sagas were the product of another astonishing venture. Journeying further west around AD 1000, Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red, undertook an epic voyage that led him to Newfoundland. The remains of the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows were found in 1961.

The Norsemen also struck east and south. Travellers from eastern Sweden – called the Rus – headed east from the mid-8th century onwards, navigating the waters of Russia and beyond. Eventually some settled in the East Slavic lands, helping lay the foundations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, while others found themselves homes around the Caspian Sea. Norsemen advanced further to the Black Sea and on to Constantinople; others, including Rognvald from Orkney, reached the Holy Land where some of his adventures, chronicled in several sagas, were disconcertingly bloody.

There are plenty of stories that vividly bring their times to life: the Norse trader Ofthere, regales the members of the court of King Alfred in the 9th century with tales of his travels to the frozen fringes of Europe, the painful decline of the Norse settlements in Greenland, and the horrifying account of the murder of a slave girl on the Volga, ritually sacrificed by the locals when her owner died.

Many inhabitants of the British Isles carry the DNA of these fearless northerners who played such a pivotal role in history. While we shrink from their more savage characteristics, their resourcefulness and resilience fill us with awe. Their zeal was remarkable and Barraclough provides a confident, compelling narrative of their brutal, challenging world and a valuable companion to their sagas.
Diana Bentley