1. He was a poet and a novelist.
2. He was born and lived most of his life on Stromness, Orkney.
3. He had incredibly lively hair.
The sum total of this knowledge was gained while watching Owen Sheer's excellent BBC series 'A Poet's Guide to Britain' a few years ago. The program inspired me to load my groaning Amazon wishlist with various of his books, and then promptly forget all about them. Until, that is, I had to come up with a suggestion of a 'viking' novel for my museum bookclub.
I searched high-and-low online for a viking novel that wasn't a) a doorstopper set in Greenland, or b) a romantic saga, or c) an actual viking saga. I toyed with the idea of option c, but balked at leading a discussion on a Classic text from outside my specialism. Finally I spyed the name George Mackay Brown and remembered: Vinland. Eleventh century setting; Viking Orkney; the passing of a pagan way of life and the dawn of a Christian future. Perfect.
Vinland turned out to be a very different book than the one I expected. I expected: longships, raids, daring-dos, battles, axes, raven banners, lots of ale quaffing. And I got some of that. I didn't expect the delicate, subtle and uneventful life of its protagonist, or the gorgeous poetics of the Orkney landscape. Perhaps I should have, what with George Mackay Brown being first and foremost an Orcadian poet.
Ranald Sigmundson runs away to sea when he is eleven years old. Adventures follow his life on ship like gulls. First, he finds himself in the company of legendary Greenlander, Leif Erikson; then, he is amongst the first vikings to make landfall in 'Vinland', encountering native Americans; and then, he is taken into the confidence of the King of Norway on the return journey. And all of this before he is twenty years old. Finally he comes home to Orkney, to take ownership of his grandfather's farm at Breckness (which has fallen into the hands of a viking brigand in his absence) and to rescue his mother from a life of poverty on the hillside. There he lives out the rest of his days, and the next two hundred pages of the novel. At first he takes an active role in the politics of his country, which is ruled over by a sad, fat old Earl and then later by the Earl's four fractious and unruly sons. But as time passes Ranald increasingly retreats from the world, and from the family of wife, sons and daughters that has grown up around him.
It is a weird and leisurely trajectory, woven out of two disparate narrative strands. On the one hand is Brown's evocation of Ranald's personal experiences - the daring ones and the ordinary ones. These are anchored in the landscape of Orkney, or in the rhythms of the natural world, especially the sea. They are imbued with a deep, unspoken emotionality. On the other hand is the detailed story of fifty years of Orkney's history - the machinations of the sons' of Earl Sigurd, their feuds, allegiances and deaths - and the inexorable creep of Christian culture. The two strands are often separate, or seem so, to the extent that the historical content almost seems like a redundant add-on to justify the poetry of Ranald's biography.
Which is to say that no one should read Vinland because they are looking for a ripping plot. It's the writing that is the greatest lure here. At first this seems too crisp and clipped: 'There was a boy who lived in a hamlet in Orkney called Hamnavoe', it begins. 'The boy's name was Ranald. Ranald's father had a small ship called Snowgoose.' It is fairytale-like; almost naive. It barely hints at the suppleness and poetic dynamism that Brown is capable of in parts. For example, later in Ranald's life, when he is at the battle of Clontarf in Ireland:
...a tangled forest of pikes and swiltering ale horns eddied back and fore, this way and that, opposite the quiet, vigilant columns of Ospak the disaffected viking and the sons of King Brian. On the outskirts of the battlefield cooks were busy with pots and hunks of meat and fires, and blacksmiths' hammers rang and stammered, and a few hucksters had even set up their booths to sell fish and cheese and religious trinkets. King Brian's cooks had only fish to grill that day, Good Friday. Crowds had come in from the city and the countryside to see the battle, and in hope to pick up scraps of booty here and there, after the last horns of retreat had sounded out under the first stars, and before the blood-smelling wolves began to stir in the forest.
I like this passage very much, because I think it shows Brown's facility with language, and also the subtle ways in which he uses it to parse out the themes of eleventh century life. We get a flavour of the armies (I love the word 'swiltering'), and their movement on the field; the noise and market atmosphere of the battle-site; and then we also get the opposition of Christianity (only fish on Fridays!) and the distinctly dark (and symbolically pagan) wolves. Throughout this sequence at Clontarf Vinland sketches a society in flux, transitioning from one way of seeing the world - valkyries visit the dead on the field - to another, as Ranald and his friends take shelter in a church during evensong.
It is complex, despite the economy of its expression. The same could be said for the way human relationships are portrayed in the book. Everything is beneath the surface, not so much repressed or unexpressed, but simply not commented upon. At the book group meeting this aspect of the book caused some dissent. There were those who felt that the way Brown glosses over Ranald's feelings - his love for his wife Ragna, his pride in his children, his grief when one of them dies - was unrealistic, and detracted from the book. Then there were others (and I was one) who felt that the feelings left unsaid were incredibly powerful. If you took Ranald at his word - he says very little in the course of the book - and judged him by his outward showing, then it would be hard to understand why he warranted a novel writing about him. Let's be honest, he's pretty ordinary, even a little boring and unpleasant by the end.
Give him a little space to breathe between the lines, however, and his deep love of the landscape, his feelings of guilt, homesickness and loss, his inexplicable longing to be on the sea, are very powerful. Often, it seems to me, the landscape speaks for him, and writs large his inner life:
Ranald said nothing. ... He sat, with his head on one side, as if listening. There had been a week-long gale from the west, that had sent the breakers crashing into the base of Black Crag, and among the rocks of Braga. Now the storm had quieted, but the Atlantic was full of noises still - surgings, cries, whisperings, gluttings, moans, sounds of lulling and longing and summoning, little bell-like sounds and occasionally, far off, a thunderous growl. 'It will soon be time for me to set sail,' said Ranald.
Vinland is one of those novels that seems to do very little with itself, when in fact it is doing and saying and demanding a great deal. I can now add another thing to my list of things I know about George Mackay Brown:
4. He is easy to underestimate.