The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley

by Tim O'Neil

1 June 2006


Scholars have traditionally described the disappearance of the Greenland settlements in the early decades of the 15th century as a mystery. But contrary to popular belief, it hasn’t been hard for historians and archaeologists working in recent decades to uncover the proximate causes of Norse Greendland’s downfall. Certainly, while the exact circumstances of the Greenlanders’ last days are forever lost behind the veil of history, the long-term forces that contributed to the destruction of this strange society are mostly known. In his recent book Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, Jared Diamond devotes two chapters to the rise and subsequent failure of the Greenland colonies, discussing in detail both the climatological and sociological aspects of the societal malfunction that eventually destroyed the furthest outpost of European civilization (these two chapters provide an essential appendix to The Greenlanders, even including references to the few historical records which inform the book’s structure). It’s also worth pointing out that although there were no Europeans left alive on the island by approximately 1430, the colonies had lasted a full 450 years, founded by the exiled Erik the Red in the last decades of the tenth century and remaining in regular (primarily mercantile) contact with Western Europe for the duration of their existence. So while hardly a ringing success, Norse Greenland was definitely not an abject failure, either.

But at some point in the early 15th century, the Greenland settlements simply ceased to exist. The Greenlanders is an account of the last decades of life at these settlements, the story of three generations of Greenland farmers eking out a living in one of the most unforgiving climates on Earth. Jane Smiley is a writer of fiction, and The Greenlanders makes no pretense of documentary reality, despite the impeccable research that comprises the book’s core. Rather, the book presents the fictionalized circumstances of the last generations of Greenlanders with the unvarnished texture of myth, detailing the gradual decline of the economic, spiritual and moral institutions that composed the Greenlanders’ society. To do this, Smiley has adapted a spry approximation of the Norsemen’s own language and philosophy. It is widely considered that one of the most pressing and difficult challenges of presenting history is the necessity of illustrating the circumstances of times passed in the same manner as they were perceived by the people living in those times—to eliminate the prejudices of culture and hindsight, allowing the audience to inhabit as nearly as possible the lives and mores of the dead, to present, in the words of The Atlantic’s Benjamin Schwarz, “history on its own terms”. In this regard, at least, Smiley has perpetrated an amazing feat of historical slight-of-hand, by allowing the reader to so neatly and completely experience a world some seven centuries gone.

cover art

The Greenlanders

Jane Smiley

(Anchor Books)

It is tempting to say something to the effect that “they don’t make them like this anymore”, and it would be true, regardless of the cliché. But a book like this is rare in any era. Historical fiction is a difficult challenge for the writer to master convincingly, and the genre has itself fallen into disrepair in recent years with the advent of the escalating “isms”—modernism, post-modernism, and their various illicit progeny, focused with a laser-like precision on the present, relegating the past and the future to the far-flung outposts of genre potboilers, mass-market paperbacks, and the occasional scholarly romp. The Greenlanders hearkens back to the old school of literature, and by old, I mean the 12th century. The book is not a clever modern spin on the historical mode, but rather a heady approximation of the same dense, scriptural style that animated those Northern European myths and legends which survive in literate form to the modern day.

In this regard the narrative has few modern corollaries. Certainly, it is engrossing, dense and richly detailed in a way that only the most involving historical narratives can be—think War and Peace or Vanity Fair. But whereas Tolstoy and Thackeray were conjuring circumstances which had occurred, at most, within the memory of their parents’ generation, Smiley is dealing with a society that lived and died long before the United States was even founded. The texture and tone she has adopted reminds me of nothing in the modern canon so much as Tolkein’s Silmarillion cycle, if I may be forgiven such an unorthodox analogy. While, certainly, the myths and legends that compose the corpus of Tolkein’s work are fantastic evocations of imagination and eschatology, they are informed by the same pre-modern resources that live and breath through The Greenlanders, the poetic eddas and French romances and Germanic sagas of Northern Europe. There’s nothing at all ironic about it in the way we currently understand the term, but you could probably best describe the tone as historical deadpan. At no point does Smiley break through her authorial veneer to wink at the reader. The historian’s customary irony is replaced with the assumed fatalism of the Norse themselves, for whom death was a harsh fact of daily existence. The effect is monumental, and carries the burnished authenticity of a long-lost epic.

The story, as much as it can be encapsulated (try describing Anna Karenina as a book about adultery), details the misfortunes of a family of medium-sized freeholders on Greenland’s Eastern Settlement. Aesgir Gunnarson’s two children, laconic Gunnar and willful Margret, form the center of the narrative. Aesgir’s children fall from grace within their closed society, waylaid by pride and indiscretion. But the scope of Smiley’s massive skein betrays far more than merely the circumstances of one family’s ongoing struggles, placing them firmly in the context of the overall deterioration of Greenland society. Of course, few people are privileged to comprehend the shape and direction of history in their own times, and it is only with hindsight that pattern and structure emerges. But over the course of Gunnar and Margret’s lives we cannot help but see the decline: men and women die and the society cannot regenerate, sheep and goats become rarer and more precious with every passing year, the effort to rebound from every harsh winter becomes harsher and more exacting with every generation. Things deteriorate, skills are lost, knowledge is forgotten, and decay is ubiquitous.

Gunnar is lazy and curious, disinclined to commit to the backbreaking regimen of agriculture and hunting that comprises the Greenlanders’ lives. Margret, distant and imperial, falls into a marriage of convenience with an oafish farmhand whom she eventually cuckolds in favor of a Norwegian nobleman. After the affair is outed, she is exiled into a life of servitude, and the bulk of the book is concerned with the time span siblings’ four decades of painful separation. As the years pass, Gunnar’s own children revisit the sins of their fathers’ generation, at turns willful, mischievous and wrathful, echoes of history revisited through twice-told stories that resound fully with the voices of their tellers over the course of the long Greenland winters. The book culminates in the death by burning of Gunnar’s only son Kolgrim for the specious crime of witchcraft, an actual event recorded in the few surviving chronicles of the Greenlanders’ final years. By the time Kolgrim meets his doom, there are not so many Greenlanders as there were in his grandfathers’ time, and this entropy has already become a palpable presence to the older generation.

Greenland is a large island dominated by massive glaciers. The only habitable areas are small inland fjords on the western coast, facing away from Europe and Iceland. Centuries of attempting to adapt European-style farmholding to the tenuous ecology of the fjords gradually weakened the already-fragile ecosystem. The Greenlanders themselves hewed closely to their European identity at all costs, eschewing the superior hunting methods of the Inuit (“skraeling”, or “wretches”) as the work of the devil, and declining in almost all instances to adapt their lifestyle to the harsh reality of life under the Arctic Circle. And so, just as Diamond lightly sketches the Greenlanders’ plight in the pages of Collapse, Smiley gives us the steadings’ misfortune in cruel, painstaking detail. (It’s worth noting that while she does not deign to illustrate the Greenlanders’ ecological plight in modern terms, their own perceptions are underlined by the readers’ acute awareness of current environmental issues, giving the book yet another dimension as a uniquely eco-centric epic.) The relentless erosion precipitated by sheep and goat farming contributed, along with merciless arctic winds, to denuding the soil for which said livestock depended on their nutrition. Wet or cold summers produced an insufficient hay crop with which to keep the livestock alive through the long winter months. Every year livestock dwindled. Recurring periods of famine and disease took their toll on both animal and human, killing off entire farms. Entire districts were eventually abandoned as the survivors amassed around the few remaining viable landholdings. As Europe gradually forgot the Greenlanders, the bonds of society stretched and eventually broke, giving way to lawlessness and demagoguery. Bandits and false prophets arose, placing an even greater strain on ever-dwindling communal resources. Eventually, at the end of The Greenlanders, the reader is left with a society on the brink of total destruction, dissolved into sharply atomized family units huddling in the darkness and waiting for the last sheep to die, or to be taken in a Skraeling raid, or to freeze in a harsh winter, or to be murdered by a jealous neighbor…

But more than just a pageant of stark inevitability, The Greenlanders is also a chronicle of recognizable passions. Although the reader is separated by a gulf of seven centuries, the human emotions of anger and jealousy, lust and regret, love and loathing, remain as vivid, and as futile, as they have ever been. And once again we are reminded of the sagas of myth and legend, wherein gods and goddesses and beasts and warriors served as proxies for the most basic of human concerns, essentially unchanged throughout millennia, from the establishment of ancient Sumeria to the rise of the United States. The men and women of Greenland are neither gods or demons, and magic does not touch their lives except as it does ours: through the perception of magic in the minds of men, where saints and visions establish their own reality independent of the material world. But the life and death of the Greenland colony is, in its own way, presented as merely another chapter in the war that has raged between men and their baser instincts since the establishment of civilization. That this occurs against a background of a slow, insufferably banal apocalypse only heightens out perception of tragedy. With the full hindsight of history we are allowed to see the shape of our actions, but only in the brief bloom of our lives are those actions permitted to carry their small meaning.

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