beyond the northlands

Beyond the Northlands by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough

Having been to Iceland three years ago and with heritage hailing from Scotland, I cannot help but be attracted to books about Scandinavia.

Such histories are often a bit staid, with sometimes-interesting information that the author can't always manage to present with much excitement or in an engaging way. Beyond the Northlands isn't one of those books. I've actually already seen other early reviews for Beyond where the reviewers were complaining about the non-traditional tone that Barraclough takes, annoyed that it's too informal.

Well, unless you're actually a graduate student in studies like this (in which case you're likely already quite familiar with the information herein), you may well appreciate Barraclough's light handling of the material, which makes it more engaging and entertaining. It's not an inappropriate tone, and neither does it "dumb-down" the material. It's simply her style and I certainly felt that it contributed to my desire to keep reading. 

"To all intents and purposes, therefore, Iceland was a terra nova, save perhaps for the aforementioned handful of holy men (who under any circumstances would have struggled to create the next generation of settlers between then)."

This isn't a straightforward accounting of what we know strictly about the Vikings and their affects on history, as most books involving the Vikings are. As the name suggests, Barraclough uses everyone's generic concept of Vikings as a diving board for the much broader view of many different peoples from the northern climes, how they traded, warred, interbred, and developed kingdoms and cultures and stories. She focuses on sagas and how particular stories might explain why particular social networks would have wanted to create such stories, or where the seeds of all the fantastical creatures and human personalities in the sagas might have germinated. Some of the figures in the sagas may or may not have ben real life people, some almost certainly were, some were known from other records to be authenticated living people but their roles and involvements in history were greatly exaggerated or were otherwise used repeatedly as placeholders to represent, for example, a generic Scandinavian woman; Barraclough assists in parsing out these legends. If you've already read some of the more pared down books on our generic knowledge about VIkings, it's a perfect basis for expanding into Barraclough's rich and diverse exploration of further reaching journeys and settlements.

The photographs and illustrations are also quite beautiful. 

Beyond the Northlands will be published in the United States on December 1 by Oxford University Press, who generously provided my advanced copy.