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The King of Vinland's Saga
Stuart W. Mirsky
Xlibris, 637 pages

The King of Vinland's Saga
Stuart W. Mirsky
A 51-year old, mid-level municipal bureaucrat in a major northeastern American city, Mr. Mirsky wrote magazine and newspaper articles after graduating Brooklyn College and travelling abroad. Like many writers before him, he became enamoured of the Icelandic sagas early on, finding both inspiration and a writing education in the lean, hard prose of these under-appreciated mediaeval masterpieces. Married, with three children, he's promised to finally give up the civil service and get on with a writing career... if this book sells.

ISFDB Bibliography
Xlibris Corporation

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The King of Vinland's Saga is a wonderfully rich adventure novel, with memorable characters, a storyline that is faithful to the mediaeval Icelandic sagas, and enough sword- and axe-play to please even the most jaded of adventure readers. Sadly, the popularity of "pure" (no SF, no magic users) adventure literature in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and Talbot Mundy, except for a resurgence in the early 70s, has been on a steady decline in the last 50 years. Some of us still scrounge through piles of discarded hardcovers for authors like H. Bedford-Jones, A.O. Friel, Arthur D. Howden-Smith, the Baroness Orczy, and Stanley J. Weyman, or copies of crumbling magazines like Argosy, and Adventure, but we're a dying breed. This book was written for just our kind, although one hopes that some people will logoff their virtual world of Hollywood hype and special effects and let their imaginations be swept away by good old-fashioned adventure.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Icelandic sagas, they're a body of epic tragedies of family feuds, wars and Viking expeditions with doomed warrior superheroes and blood-crazed fighters called berserkers, in a time when men were men and women were proud of it -- very politically incorrect times indeed. That the sagas largely inspired the rebirth of heroic fantasy in the late 19th century and were a major influence on The Lord of the Rings, among other fantasy works, is not in doubt. In 1866, William Morris met the Icelander and saga scholar Eirikr Magnusson and by the end of the decade they had translated The Saga of Gunnlaug, Grettir's Saga, and The Volsunga Saga. It was this latter saga that inspired Morris' famous epic poem Sigurd (1877), and, along with the later Volsunga-derived Nibelungenlied, Richard Wagner's contemporaneous The Nibelung's Ring. As well as a number of classic non-saga-based mediaeval fantasies, Morris also wrote two pseudo-Icelandic novels: A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1888) and its sequel The Roots of the Mountains (1889). About this time, H. Rider Haggard of She fame was planning a saga tale of his own. After visits to William Morris, 5 weeks hiking around Iceland, and 4 months in writing (She took comparatively only 6 weeks to write), Haggard produced one of his greatest and most polished romances: Eric Brighteyes (1891). The 20s and 30s brought E.R. Eddison's great Strybiorn the Strong, and the lesser works of Arthur D. Howden-Smith, Swain's Saga, and Eric Linklater, The Men of Ness, amongst others. Over the years other major fantasy writers have taken up the torch: Evangeline Walton's The Cross and the Sword (1956), and Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga (1973). Even the recent (October 1999) anthology Isaac Asimov's Werewolves contains Gregg Keizer's "What Seen But the Wolf," a tale of norsemen dealing with a werewolf amongst them during an expedition to the coast of North America.

The Norse discovery (c. 1000 A.D.), exploration and commercial exploitation of Vinland, as they called America, as related in the Groenlendinga Saga (c. 1190) and Eirik's Saga (c. 1260) is the background for Mirsky's The King of Vinland's Saga. Certainly, Mirsky's work compares well to that of his predecessors, both in terms of capturing the gloomy mood of the saga, the larger-than-life heroes, and avoiding any blatant historical inaccuracies within the context of a work of fiction.

The idea of a narrative of 11th or 12th century Europeans interacting with the Native Americans of their time, isn't all that new. The poet Robert Southey's 1805 epic poem Madoc tells the story of a Welsh prince forced to flee the political situation in his homeland and lose his claims to land and power. According to legend he crossed the Atlantic, landing in the region of current day Mobile, Alabama. Southey extends the story to Madoc's involvement in Aztec politics and warfaring.

Mirsky's story is similar in that Sigtrygg Thorgilsson, the illegitimate grandson of Leif Eiriksson, is denied his birthright by his grandfather's descendants. When they renege on a promise to cede to him Leif's claims in Vinland and furnish him with a boat to reach there, in exchange for his land claims in Greenland, Sigtrygg and the small group he has gathered around him take the boat by force and leave for Vinland. There they meet the Skraelings (or natives) and help one tribe throw off the yoke of a native tyrant. Returning to their claims with native wives they find that a group of Greenlanders have arrived and taken over the claim. Peaceful co-existence is impossible, and a back-and-forth slaughter occurs, until the defeated Skraeling leader returns in a punitive expedition from which few will survive.

Besides the heroic leader Sigtrygg, the huge berserker Arnliot Keelfoot with his cursed axe (a character in many ways reminiscent of Haggard's great Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas), Vragi the quiet and retiring old veteran who hasn't forgotten his old skills with a sword, Girstein, the most reasonable and supportive of Sygtrygg's step family, and Thjodhild the vindictive and jealous kinswoman, the book is peopled with many complex and interesting characters. The fight sequences, be they between Greenlander and skraeling or amongst the Greenlanders themselves are excellently portrayed, on par with any of Mirsky's literary precursors, and consistent with original saga accounts of such things.

So don't be afraid that just because The King of Vinland's Saga is a self-published book it won't live up to something published by one of the major publishers. This is one to please even the likes of Snorri Sturluson, and it even passed my "keep me up reading until 3 a.m. test."

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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