Sunday, September 20, 2015

No Armchair Adventurer: Nancy Marie Brown's Passionate Exploration of Iceland's Past

Nancy Marie Brown and her Icelandic horse Gaeska. 
Photo by Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang. 

     “I had thought about it once as a way to earn a living,” Nancy Marie Brown writes about her graduate studies of the Icelandic sagas in an essay entitled “Practical Education.”  But as the author of seven books concludes, those studies “turned out to be a way to make a life.”
     That prescient essay appeared in 2002. At the time, Brown was a science writer and editor at Penn State University. The following year would see the publication of her first book, “A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse,” and her move – with her husband, writer Charles Fergus – to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   And with that move began the making of a rewarding life that revolves around their home on Butternut farm, dedication to their craft, and yearly summer trips to her beloved Iceland.
    The renovated farmhouse is open, airy, full of light, and clutter and distraction free, though as one might expect, heavily laden bookcases abound.  Tall windows look over meadows with a gentle roll and the woods beyond. Through those woods run miles of well-maintained trails for hikes and horse rides.
     Nancy Brown, tall and slender, with light brown hair reaching almost to her waist, obviously makes use of those trails regularly.  The care and feeding of four Icelandic horses require an equal discipline and routine.  And certainly, the publication of a book roughly every two years allows little time for leisure or for entertaining at length the concept of “writer’s block.”
     This month St. Martin’s Press will publish Brown’s latest, “Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, “ which Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks describes as “a true cornucopia, bursting with revelations . . . by a writer who is as erudite as she is engaging.”  A starred review in Booklist calls it “a delight” and “endlessly fascinating.”
     Brown describes her work – exemplified in earlier books such as “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman” and “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages” -- as a combination of extremes, of medieval literature and modern archaeology, of myth and fact.  We caught up with the author via email, as she was leading a tour of western Iceland that marries days of horseback riding with evening discussions of the sagas -- a combination one imagines she might find most pleasing of all.

You've had a long interest in Iceland.  How did that come about?

I've often asked myself the same question, and each time the answer wriggles farther back into my past. I used to say it started in college, when I first read one of the medieval Icelandic sagas. Now I trace my interest in Iceland to age four, when a babysitter read me "The Hobbit." Tolkien taught Old Icelandic at Oxford, and much of the magic of his work, I've learned, comes from medieval Iceland. In college I was startled to find Tolkien's names--Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin, and even Gandalf--in a work by the thirteenth century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. What was Tolkien’s wizard doing in medieval Iceland? I answered that question in my 2012 book, "Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth."

But long before I myself was a writer inspired by Iceland, I was fascinated with how this little island in the North Atlantic had influenced Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and so many others, from Sir Walter Scott to Jorge Luis Borges to Neil Gaiman. I read every Icelandic saga I could find in translation, then learned the language so I could read them in the original. Finally, in 1986, I traveled to Iceland to see some of the places where the sagas were set. Since then I've visited the country 20 times.

I've made great friends there. I've learned to ride and love the Icelandic horse, two of which I took home with me in 1997. They are the heroes of my book "A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse," which came out in 2001. In 2005 I had the opportunity to volunteer on an archaeological dig that uncovered a Viking Age longhouse. That adventure appears in my 2007 book, "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," which is a nonfiction account of the Viking discovery of the New World from the woman's point of view. The heroine of that story is also the main character in my young adult novel, "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," just published in June.

I've grown so much to love Iceland it's almost a joke: I wear Icelandic sweaters, I listen to Icelandic music, I have photos of Iceland on my walls, Icelandic horses in my barn--and recently I bought an Icelandic sheepdog. People ask me when I'll have Icelandic sheep and Icelandic goats and Icelandic chickens on my farm. I'll never say never, but it would make it more difficult to travel to Iceland, as I now do every summer.

Tell us about “Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and The Woman Who Made Them.”

My new book, "Ivory Vikings," is a biography of the Lewis chessmen. Using this famous set of medieval ivory carvings as my touchstone, I explore the 400 years when Norsemen ruled the North Atlantic, starting with the Viking explorations in the 800s and ending with Norway’s loss of its Scottish territories in the 1200s. Along the way, I try to bring from the shadows a medieval woman named Margret the Adroit of Iceland, a talented twelfth-century artist who may have carved the Lewis chessmen; at least I'm convinced she could have.

Discovered in the 1830s on a remote beach on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the Lewis chessmen are amazingly attractive objects. You just want to pick them up. A highpoint of my research was when I got to do just that: I was allowed to take four of them out of their case at the Scottish National Museum and actually hold them in my hands. In the book I call them "Norse netsuke."  Carved out of walrus ivory, each one is an individual, though they follow certain types: The kings are stout and stoic, the queens look aghast, the bishops are moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute, shaggy ponies. The rooks are not castles but mail-shirted Vikings, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps, and there are only a few of them--most have been lost. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets, about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Experts call the Lewis chessmen the best-known Scottish archaeological find of all time. At the British Museum, where most of them are kept, they are among the most frequently viewed objects. Songs, fantasies, thrillers, and films feature these quirky figurines. They are Harry Potter’s chess set: Before a life-or-death match in the 2001 film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," Harry learns wizard’s chess from the Lewis chessmen‚ which come to life, a queen rising from her royal throne to throw it at her opponent. They come to life, likewise, in the 2012 Disney-Pixar film "Brave," in which they teach the feisty princess about war and chaos and ruin.

As the earliest chess sets to include bishops, among the first with queens, and the only ones to include Viking berserks for rooks, the Lewis chessmen are “the most important chess pieces in history,” as the New York Times said in 2010. Yet we know so little about them. Were they meant for the king of Norway? Were they made in Norway or in Iceland? When, and by whom? Where did the ivory come from? And how did they end up in Scotland?

To answer these questions, I draw from medieval Icelandic sagas, modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. I link the Lewis chessmen to the Vikings’ luxury trade in walrus ivory and to a Norwegian king’s fondness for wearing kilts. My goal is to present a vivid history of the 400 years when the sea road connected places we think of as culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, Greenland and North America. I want to make people look at the map of the medieval world a little differently--and also to change the way they think about medieval women.

Could you speak to what daily life was like for women during that time?

The lives of medieval women--at least in Iceland--have long fascinated me. The Icelandic sagas are one of the only medieval literatures that actually tell you what ordinary women's lives were like, though even there you sometimes have to read between the lines. In medieval Iceland, women ruled the homestead. In "Ivory Vikings" I mention a woman who managed the bishop's estate so well, one saga says, that "there was enough of everything that was needed, and nothing was lacking at the estate even if a hundred and twenty people arrived, on top of the seventy or eighty in the household itself.” She managed to provide food, clothing, and bedding in a land where everything was made by hand and the only reliable crop was hay.

Women milked the cows and sheep and made butter and cheese. They salted or smoked or pickled the meat, and picked berries and herbs. They sheared the sheep, spun the thread, wove the wool into cloth, and made the clothing. Some women, like Margret the Adroit, carved beautiful things out of bone, wood, and ivory--and she probably also made practical objects, like spoons and combs.

You've also just published a Young Adult Novel.

It's called "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," which is a little confusing because it sounds a lot like a previous book of mine.

I told the story of Gudrid--who was born in Iceland in about 985, married in Greenland, gave birth to a son in the New World, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and died on the farm of Glaumbaer in Iceland--in my nonfiction book "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," which was published in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing another, a novel, about Gudrid.

For the nonfiction book, I had read all of the historical sources about Gudrid. I carefully traced her travels and interviewed archaeologists and historians who could shed light on her story. I even took part in the archaeological dig. But in spite of all my research--or maybe because of it--the story in the novel turned out to be quite different. Some of the details surprised me. That's the fun of writing fiction, when the story takes control and writes itself through you.

For example, I didn't realize until I was well into writing "The Saga" that Leif Eiriksson--her brother-in-law--was the villain of Gudrid's story. Elsewhere I've argued that Leif shouldn't get all the credit for discovering America. He stopped here once--possibly by mistake--and never came back. Gudrid set sail for the New World twice, with two different husbands, intending to settle. She was the real explorer. I'm supposing that's where I got the idea that Gudrid and Leif were enemies.

With that in mind, other parts of Gudrid's story--parts the sagas left vague--fell into place for me. In my story, Gudrid was betrothed to Leif Eiriksson at her birth. All her life she has hated Leif, even though she’s never met this handsome son of the famous Viking Eirik the Red. She has hated the idea of Leif: the idea that she has to be a good wife to this stranger because of a vow her father swore long ago.

So when a young merchant comes to Iceland and asks for her hand, she prays her father will say yes. He doesn’t. As the story opens, Gudrid decides to defy him, running away to Greenland with her suitor. Her impulsive act ends in shipwreck and, within three years, to the tragic deaths of everyone she loves, including her suitor, her second husband, and even her father, leaving her at the mercy of a vengeful and violent Leif.

But Gudrid never gives up. Plucky, resourceful, and always willing to learn something new, she outwits Leif and at 19 marries the man she loves. Together they set out on the greatest of all Viking adventures: sailing into the west to the fabulous new land called Wine Land. Gudrid explores Wine Land for two years, until she meets the Native American girl who will become her friend and save her life‚ by sending her home.

As we speak, you're leading a tour for America2Iceland.

When I first bought my Icelandic horses, in 1997, I joined the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress, the official breed organization in the U.S., and volunteered to work on their quarterly magazine, which I still do. Through my association with the USIHC and "The Icelandic Horse Quarterly," I got to know another Icelandic horse enthusiast, Rebecca Bing, who owns the travel company America2Iceland.

Rebecca is a graphic designer and a wonderful photographer, in addition to running the travel company, and made me terribly jealous by posting photographs of her horseback riding tours on Facebook. At one point, rather than just "liking" her beautiful photos, I sent her a comment: "Don't you need a historian on these trips?"

"Let's talk," she wrote back. I was then arranging the book tour for "Song of the Vikings" and had a stop at a bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, where she lived.

After my reading, we hashed out a plan for a "Song of the Vikings" tour, given that America2Iceland's tours are headquartered just a few miles down the road from Snorri Sturluson's main estate at Reykholt. The tour combines short horseback lessons and trail rides with sightseeing in the western part of Iceland, an area that is especially rich in saga sites. Each year our emphasis is a little different--some years there are more hours in the saddle, other years there are more saga discussions, depending on who signs up. I hope to expand the tour next year to include some places associated with "Ivory Vikings" and "The Far Traveler," as well, though my goal is always to limit the number of hours in a bus and instead get to know a small area more intimately, preferably by horseback.

Photo by Nancy Marie Brown

What makes Icelandic horses so distinctive?

What people notice first about Icelandic horses is that they are so small and cute and fuzzy. But when you ride cross-country in Iceland, they surprise you with how powerful and strong they are, as well as being sure-footed and smooth. Icelandic horses have an extra gait that most American horses lack: it's a kind of running walk called the "tölt." It can be as fast as a canter and so smooth that riders in Icelandic competitions carry a mug of beer--whoever spills the least wins. But it's only when you're out on a horse all day, riding over rugged lava rock, that you appreciate that smooth, fast gait. These horses really cover ground, and the rider doesn't get tired. They are also smart enough not to step into a bog or a patch of quicksand. You can trust them to get you there and back again.

St. Martin's Press will bring out Ivory Vikings this month. Where can we get a copy or hear you read?
I'm reading at Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, VT on Wednesday, September 9 at 7 p.m. Then there's a book launch party at my house, in association with Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville, on Friday evening, September 11; you can contact Kim Crady-Smith at the bookstore (626-5051) for an invitation and directions. On Saturday, September 19, I'll be reading at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT at 7 p.m. And on November 1, I'll be at the Stone Church in Chester, VT as part of Misty Valley Books's Vermont Voices series. I'm also speaking on my previous book, "Song of the Vikings" at Hardwick Library on October 25 at 2 p.m. and will add a little teaser about the new book then.

Want to share with readers what’s next?

You can be sure it will have something to do with Iceland and Vikings, but I'm undecided if it will be fiction or nonfiction. Seeing my first novel, "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," published this year to good reviews makes me want to tell the story of another exceptional young woman from the sagas--and Ingibjorg Swan's-daughter has been whispering in my ear for quite a while, ever since I wrote about her father, Snorri Sturluson, in "Song of the Vikings." On the other hand, a short section on the valkyries in "Ivory Vikings" has left me with a lot of questions I'd like to answer about the relationship between art and myth and reality when it comes to women warriors like the character Lathgertha in the History Channel's popular "Vikings" TV show. Either way, I'll have a lot of traveling to do. One of my college professors once said I didn't have enough imagination to be a writer. In a way, he's right: I'm not an armchair traveler like Tolkien, who never actually made it to Iceland himself. Instead, I like to see the places I'm inspired by before I try to imagine what life was like there a thousand years ago.