Gudrid the Wanderer and the Modern Detective Novel

Iceland has long provided fascination for authors, and none more so than for Michael Ridpath.
Iceland on the carta marina by Magnus.
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I write two strands of fiction in parallel: historical novels, usually concerning espionage in the 20th century, and modern-day crime novels set in Iceland. Usually, I enjoy keeping these two strands separate, but every now and then I cannot resist the urge to let Iceland’s fascinating history seep into my detective novels. I first heard of Gudrídur Thorbjarnardóttir, or Gudrid the Wanderer, when I was researching my first crime novel set in Iceland. One of my characters was a priest, and so I went to meet one, the Reverend Sigrídur. She showed me her church, an amazing modern building with an altar bathed in light reflected off water, in the Reykjavík suburb of Grafarholt. The church was dedicated to a woman named Gudrid, who lived around the year 1000 AD. Sigrídur told me about Gudrid, and why she was called The Wanderer. She was born in Iceland, got married in Greenland, gave birth to her son Snorri in Vínland – the Norse name for North America, returned to Iceland and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. I found this extraordinary; I still do.

As I discovered more about Gudrid, I determined to write a book about her. But writing a 21st century detective novel about a Viking explorer is not easy. It took me several years to alight on a way of doing it, but I got there in the end. A TV crew is making a documentary about Gudrid, following in her footsteps to Greenland and North America, when someone is murdered. My detective Magnus investigates.

Before Magnus could get on the case, I needed to do my own investigation. There are two sagas that give a broad picture of the Viking settlement of Greenland and exploration of North America: The Saga of the Greenlanders, and The Saga of Erik the Red, together known as The Vinland Sagas, and published as such by Penguin Classics. These describe the following story. The outlaw, Erik the Red, sailed from Iceland and established himself at a farm at Brattahlíd in the south-west of Greenland. Gudrid followed him, with her first husband, who died soon after they arrived in Greenland. Vikings settled along the west coast of Greenland, at the ‘Eastern Settlement’ around what is now Qaqortoq, and the ‘Western Settlement’ further up the coast near what is now the capital, Nuuk.

The two sagas disagree on who first made landfall in North America, which became known as ‘Vínland’. One saga says it was Bjarni Herjólfsson, who got lost on the way to Greenland, the other says it was Leif Eriksson, Erik the Red’s son. These days Leif seems to get all the credit. Anyway, Leif, Thorfinn Karlsefni and Thorfinn’s new wife Gudrid made a series of expeditions to Vínland, so called because of the discovery of grapes there. The sagas describe the establishment of temporary settlements at ‘Leif’s Booths’ and ‘Keel Point’, as well as a tantalizing journey far to the south to a place called ‘Hóp’, which is described in some detail.

The Norse remained in Greenland until the 15th century. Around the year 1000, Northern Europe was relatively warm, and it was possible to grow crops in Greenland. Greenlanders traded with Iceland and England, narwhal horns being a particularly profitable export. Most of Greenland is covered with a massive block of ice, many miles deep, but there are small patches of lush green around the south coast. One of these is Brattahlíd, now known as Qassiarsuk, which is on the opposite side of the fjord from the former US airbase and now international airport at Narsarsuaq. You can still see the remains of Erik the Red’s farm, and a replica stands a couple of hundred metres away. In July, the ruins are knee-deep in lush green grass and wildflowers; white and blue icebergs drift sedately by in the fjord. Sheep farming was reintroduced to the area in the 1920s.

The mystery about Greenland isn’t how it was settled but how it was abandoned. As the 13th century progressed, the climate became colder. The southern fjords were iced up for much of the year. Greenland had been uninhabited when the Norsemen arrived, but in the 12th century the Inuit appeared. It’s not clear whether they and the Norsemen fought, but the Inuit were expert hunters, and it is probable that they outcompeted the Norsemen, especially when it became too cold for the Viking farmers to grow crops.

The last recorded mention of the Greenland settlement is the description of a wedding at Hvalsey in 1409 by a visiting merchant from Iceland – the ruins of the Norse church there still stand. Eventually, the harbours of Greenland were frozen all the year round. It’s not clear what happened to the surviving settlers: some speculate that they headed south to Vínland, some think they were overwhelmed by the Inuit, and others believe they starved to death in the cold. I shiver just to think about those last settlers trapped year-round by sea ice, waiting for ships from the outside world that never came.

There is much less archaeological evidence for a Viking presence in North America; indeed, until 1961 there was none. Despite the compelling descriptions in the sagas, many historians preferred to write them off as myth, ensuring that the credit for discovering America lay with the Genoese Christopher Columbus. However, in 1961 a Norwegian couple, Anne and Helge Ingstad, discovered evidence of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Since then, various other Viking artefacts have been found in Canada, especially to the north on Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island.

Norsemen landing in Iceland, by Oscar Wergeland


There remains the question of how far Thorfinn Karlsefni and Gudrid travelled south, in other words where this mysterious place Hóp is. The Vikings travelled by longships and stayed there for a couple of summers, before being driven out by the locals, or ‘Skraelings’ as the Norse called them. There are clues about grapes, self-sown wheat, a river running north to south, and a lagoon right by the sea (hóp means ‘tidal lagoon’). Longships had an extensive range, so the explorers could have travelled some distance from L’Anse aux Meadows. Candidate locations include the St Lawrence estuary, Buzzard’s Bay near Cape Cod, Narragansett in Rhode Island and even Brooklyn. The truth is we don’t know. That’s the kind of gap in the historical record I love. It’s crying out for a novel to fill it.

Dozens of spurious Viking remains have been found in the United States. Most are clearly fakes. One of the most famous is the Kensington rune stone – Kensington is a small town in Minnesota – which was discovered by a Swedish farmer in 1898. This bore an inscription in runes saying the equivalent of ‘30 Vikings woz here 1362’. This seems an obvious fake – Minnesota is a long way from the Atlantic. But much to my surprise, having read the evidence, I suspect that the stone may indeed be genuine and that a Viking party travelled down from the Hudson Bay or along the Great Lakes water system to Minnesota. It is extraordinary how far Viking trading routes stretched: from Byzantium in the east, through Russia and the Baltic to Iceland and then on to Greenland and Vínland. We shouldn’t underestimate the Norsemen’s ability to cover large distances by sea, river, and lake.

Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said: ‘The Icelanders are the most intelligent race on earth, because they discovered America and never told anyone.’ Much of the scepticism of historians towards the idea that Icelanders discovered America comes from Italians or Italian-Americans who are big fans of Columbus. They have a particular problem with a visit Columbus may or may not have made to Iceland in 1477, fifteen years before he set sail on the Santa María. The journey was reported by Columbus himself in his letter to Queen Isabella many years later, but he was frustratingly vague, talking about a land called ‘Thile’ and tides of extraordinary variation.

His account agrees with the stories I had heard earlier of an Italian nobleman staying near Ólafsvík in West Iceland, a town I had visited when researching an earlier book. These claim that centuries ago an Italian nobleman came to stay with a local priest at Ingjaldshóll, a church nestled beneath the serene Snaefesllsjökull volcano nearby. Naturally, the locals speculate this Italian was Columbus.

The claims by some historians that if Columbus did visit Iceland, he would have been unlikely to hear of Vínland are laughable. I quote from an article in a learned historical journal I read in the British Library:

“There is no need to suggest that he [Columbus] learned of the medieval Greenland colony: Icelanders had lost interest in it after Norway took control of contacts with it . . . He is still less likely to have heard of the Vinland sagas, even if they had been retained in folk memory, which is very doubtful, or had been written down in unintelligible language between the 12th and 14th centuries.”

This is one of the all-time classic underestimations of Iceland. The 15th century was the greatest period when the sagas were copied. Iceland was full of priests who understood Latin. Icelanders had traded with Greenland in living memory; some had attended a wedding there seventy years before. If Columbus did visit Iceland in 1477, as he claimed he did, he would most certainly have heard about Vínland.

Plenty to get my teeth into. This is where history ends and fiction begins. My small television crew follows the wanderings of Gudrid from Iceland to Greenland and then Nantucket – a good location for Hóp and more importantly an enticing place for me to research – returning to the village of Glaumbaer in North Iceland. They shed members of their crew in a bloody fashion along the way; this is a murder mystery after all. As my detective Magnus investigates, he learns of a letter from Christopher Columbus to his brother describing what he heard about Vínland when he was in Iceland in 1477.

In September 2018, almost ten years after I had first heard of Gudrid and visited Ingjaldshóll, my fifth Magnus novel, The Wanderer was published.

Michael Ridpath is the bestselling author of spy novels set in pre-war Europe and Nordic crime fiction. Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland is Michael Ridpath’s account of researching his detective series set there.