Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Quick Re-View of 'The Greenlanders' by Jane Smiley

Author Jane Smiley has written a new novel that takes the premise of the Boccaccio's Italian Renaissance classic the Decameron and applies it to modern-day Hollywood. I haven’t read the book, called Ten Days in the Hills, but the recent Washington Post story on the subject included a mention of one of Ms. Smiley’s earlier novels, The Greenlanders.

You don’t hear much about The Greenlanders, but it is an amazing book. Dark and haunting, it is Ms. Smiley’s brilliant imagining of the final years of the Norse Greenland colony. Unlike Ten Days in the Hills, it doesn’t appropriate an earlier literary conceit and rework it with modern characters and setting. What it does do is take the current apocalyptic sensibility—whether expressed in Christian, Muslim, environmentalist, or other terms—and gives it some depth by portraying the progress of a real, historical societal extinction on an intimate human scale. In that sense, The Greenlanders has much to tell us about the terrifying nature of both human power and human impotence.

Greenland was settled by Norse colonists shortly after its exploration in the 980s by Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson’s father. (Leif, by tradition one of the Norse discoverers of America, was partly responsible for the Norse settlement in Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows.) It was Erik, a Norwegian outlaw, who gave Greenland its name, hoping to attract settlers to this largely glaciated land. Whether because of the name or some other factor, settlers did come to Greenland, and by 1300 there were probably some 2,000-5,000 people there, split between the Eastern Settlement (at Julianehåb) and the Western Settlement (at Godthåbsfjord). Settlers built turf longhouses in the fashion of those in Iceland and raised livestock, supplementing meat and dairy products with seal, fish, sea birds and their eggs, and the occasional beached whale. They depended heavily on trade with Iceland, and through Iceland, with Norway and Europe beyond. With a bishop installed at Gardar (Igaliku) from the early 12th century, the Greenlanders likely felt that their home, built with their own hands and sanctioned as it was by God and the church, was permanent.

And it was permanent for nearly 500 years, which is, after all, longer than European civilization has existed in North America. But ultimately the Norse colony disappeared: first the Western Settlement (around 1350) and then the Eastern Settlement (about a century later). A cooling climate at around this time helped to push the Greenlanders, whose survival had always been marginal, over the edge. By the time of Ms. Smiley’s story their seafaring abilities had suffered decline. Ice must have clogged their harbors for much of the year and wood for shipbuilding was not locally available. Strangely enough, though, we don’t know exactly why or how the Greenland colony disappeared. Was it famine (no stranger to these parts), an epidemic (also common), strife or assimilation with the Inuit, or pirates? Some suggest that once the population had dwindled to a certain point those remaining were transported to Iceland or elsewhere, although there is no historical record of such an occurrence. Some of the last Greenlanders, found buried in the churchyard at Herjolfnes (Ikigaat), were wearing up-to-date European-style clothing, so they must still have had some connection to the outside world.

Six hundred years ago Greenland was on the far edge of the (European) world and its existence was, sad to say, largely irrelevant. Perhaps—and again, we don’t know what actions they did or didn’t take—the Icelanders and Norwegians, the Greenlanders’ closest relations, so to speak, had more pressing matters to attend to. If that seems callous, we should remember that even in our own era—with its instant communications and live video and audio feeds from all parts of the globe—there are still people (think of the Jews and others in Europe, the Cambodians, the Bosnian Muslims, the Rwandans, the people of Darfur, etc.) who were/are largely abandoned by us, their human kin who are fortunate enough to have been born elsewhere. In this age of global climate change the Inuit people are now facing the possible extinction of their society in the Arctic, thanks to a combination of our actions and our inaction.

It must have been a combination of factors that doomed the Greenland colony. Ms. Smiley, herself a scholar of Norse language and culture, examines them all, weaving them organically into the lives of her characters in ways that are believable and chilling. One of the most relevant aspects of the novel for us now is how the countless variations on human frailty—greed, envy, fear, superstition, hatred, irrationality, closed-mindedness, conformity, etc.--can play into the demise of a society.

If we choose our actions and our leaders carefully, can we hope to avoid such a demise?


Arneborg, Jette and Kirsten A. Seaver “From Vikings to Norsemen” and Lynnerup, Niels “Life and Death in Norse Greenland” both in Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington and London: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Graham-Campbell, James, Colleen Batey, Helen Clarke, R.I. Page and Neil S. Price. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. (A Facts on File book). Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Limited, 1994.