I've been wanting to read this novel for a long time, but despite being little more than two hundred pages, it is such a dense reading experience that one is forced to read slowly, to properly appreciate George Mackay Brown's carefully-constructed sentences and sparse, accurate descriptions. And in the end, I found that I took away something very different from it than I had expected. The opening lines are, 'There was a boy who lived in a hamlet in Orkney called Hamnavoe. The boy's name was Ranald.' This deliberate choice of language - much like the opening of Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt - cues the brain to switch gear, to expect something that is more akin to folktale or traditional storytelling than the modern novel. I'm a big fan of traditional stories, and so this would certainly have been something I would have enjoyed - but although Vinland does interweave old tales, Viking sagas and Orkney history into Ranald's tale, it goes beyond the folk tradition.
Ranald Sigmundson, our hero, is initially a man of adventure. Having run away to sea when he is eleven years old, he travels first to the mythical 'Vinland', a land of plenty, but he and his fellow Vikings are driven away by the hostility of the natives. His second escapade takes place at the court of the king of Norway, and this, again, is related in traditional mode. However, after Ranald returns home to farm in Breckness on Orkney, the novel shifts gears into something more complex, more elegiac, and initially, less satisfying. Mackay Brown details the internal politics of Orkney carefully, as the old Earl who ruled the land dies and his four sons compete to carve up the land and rule in their own name. I felt that these political manoeuvrings sat oddly alongside the opening of the novel, and at times, it was almost like reading a history of eleventh-century Orkney rather than a narrative, even though this history is fascinating in itself. Ranald takes less and less of a part in the affairs of the kingdom as he ages, and indeed, as an old man, completely withdraws from the world and lives as a virtual hermit, passing his farm down to his eldest son. This made him a somewhat unsatisfactory protagonist, and enhanced the sense that this was a work of non-fiction.
However, the heart of the novel does contradict this reading, and lends Vinland the emotional power of the best folktales, while calling upon an intellectual sophistication that is not so common in pre-modern texts. When Ranald talks to Abbot Peter, a local monk, about life and his vocation, Peter makes the following speech: 'Imagine, my friend, a great grim keep, in which we wake up and are told "This is the House of Life" - here you must do what you are given to do, told to do, for the time that is allotted to you, and you will obey the rules of the House to the uttermost letter, and there is no appeal, but there will be a measure of enjoyment for you from time to time, if you have the wit and the cunning and the strength to seize what this place has to offer. ... One day... the man finds himself looking out of a little casement upon a garden of great beauty and delight... The rules of the House have said nothing about a garden like this, only about the transient satisfactions of cunning and gain and glut. He opens the door and goes into the garden and takes a flower from a tree and returns with it to his cell... [he] returns worn out with broking and bargaining and getting what he can... and when he lies down on his bed at last he is convinced that the garden was a dream and a delusion. But when he wakes in the first grey of dawn, the man sees the apple blossom on the pallet of his bed...' Throughout the rest of his life, the man may occasionally meet others who have 'experience of the garden... he will chance to meet someone in the great keep - quite an ordinary person, seemingly - and the stranger's coat, as they brush sleeves in passing, gives out the enchanting subtleties of tall grass, dew, rose blossom and honeycombs...'
This beautiful paragraph is the heart of Vinland; I will remember Mackay Brown's beautiful extended metaphor of a keep and a garden for a long time, for I have rarely read something so simple and yet so wise. So, a Viking novel which opens with scenes of derring-do and adventure ultimately becomes very inward-looking, very reflective, and very quiet, with the various earls' political machinations significant only in contrast to Ranald's reflective life. Ranald is no saint; indeed, his withdrawal from the world is, in some ways, selfish, and he admits that he has not been a very good husband to his wife, Ragna. But his early glimpses of an earthly paradise, Vinland, seem to have pre-disposed him to be one of those that seek the garden; and therefore, despite his passivity, he becomes a worthy protagonist with very unusual aims.