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Vikings!

10/15/2011

The night of the Tall Tales opening at Swarm, I received more comments about “Balladeer” than any other piece. Some people enjoyed the Viking-history element. Others wondered if the story was true. Since it elicited so many reactions, I thought I’d post the work here. This is one of three collaborative pieces with John Casey that isn’t in our Call & Response book, so if you’d like to see the pair in person, visit Swarm by November 6th.

Here is John’s drawing, which came first:

Balladeer by John Casey

And here is my response:

Did you know that the Vikings sailed to Hawaii? I didn’t. But it’s true. Look it up.

Viking raids, slave-trading, and exploration began to decline in the 11th century, mainly because Norway adopted Christianity and became involved in the European Crusades—none of which interested Olaf Ragnarsson, captain of the busse-class longship Narhval and leader of a small Viking league still interested in traditional plunder and profit. In 1107, this independent faction refused to return from the Labrador Sea to join Norwegian King Sigurd I on his Crusade to Jerusalem. This refusal was deemed treasonous by the king, who placed a bounty on Ragnarsson’s head.

In a desperate flight to evade capture, Ragnarsson’s fleet sought the infamous Northwest Passage. But unlike many others who followed in their wake, these fugitives accomplished the dangerous Arctic crossing. Their apparent escape inspired eight centuries of subsequent naval exploration, but because the Norsemen never returned to their homeland, their specific route remains unconfirmed.*

The Narhval emerged in the Beaufort Sea, above the Canadian Yukon, but Ragnarsson’s ship arrived alone, having lost her companion vessels to ice, weather, and illness. The Vikings may have set ground near Kaktovik, Alaska, where Kaktovikmiut legend tells of giant, horned spirits who traveled by sea and departed with the northern lights. Were the Norsemen these mythical beings? There are no accounts of invaders in the region, which suggests that if Vikings did stop there, their layover was limited to repairs and provisions. But why no plunder? Could it be because they were treated as gods? Historians speculate that because an Arctic passage would only have been possible during the summer thaw, Ragnarsson was facing the onset of winter and may have felt pressed to find a southerly route. This “Southern Escape” theory, as it is called, is perhaps the only explanation for what occurred next.

Ragnarsson continued around Alaska and through the Bering Strait. At this juncture, the Narhval could have followed the lower Siberian coastline, but, remarkably, the ship sailed due south into the open Pacific and landed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. By the time they hit ground near Kilauea, Ragnarsson’s crew had been halved by starvation and disease. The once-fierce conquerors arrived not as plunderers but as beggars. At the time, Kauai had been settled by Polynesians, who lived in agricultural communities. Had the Vikings been in good health, with the full force of their original party, they would have attempted to sack the island. And if they had succeeded, how might history have differed? Instead, the bedraggled crew, estimated at a mere twenty survivors, threw themselves on the mercy of the island’s inhabitants. Yet even with assistance, many Norsemen died on land, captain Olaf Ragnarsson among them. Only a handful of Vikings lived to recount their perilous and historic journey.

Little physical evidence remains of Viking interaction with the Polynesian settlers. However, anthropologists and historians agree that these two very different cultures’ mutual interest in exploration, seafaring, and woodcraft could have eased a Viking integration. Norse artifacts of the period include coins, metal buckles and clasps, and the remains of two helmets with indisputable Scandinavian provenance. The Narhval herself is lost to history, perhaps sunken offshore or salvaged for wood. But even today, prospectors troll the waters of Kilauea and excavate its beaches, searching for the legendary Viking ship that made the first Arctic crossing.

* The next successful Northwest Passage crossing was made in 1903-1906 by another Norwegian, Roald Amundsen.

As with Three Faces of Frustration, I spent a lot of time in John’s studio with the drawing before knowing what to write. Once the idea of historical fiction set in, the pieces fell into place right away. The image made think of Hawaii (and Vikings of course), so I began researching facts that could be used to support the idea of an Arctic crossing. Luckily, there were enough real people, events, and places to hang my fabrication on. And once I had the basic plot laid out, I followed up with several rounds of revision and detail. It was fun to play at faux History Channel content and adopt a pop-historian’s tone for the tale.

“Balladeer” is a bit of an odd duck in this collaboration. It’s drier than most of the other pieces, but I still see it as a comic entry. It isn’t as overtly funny as its counterparts, but it’s also lighter than much of the other work.

Writing this story also inspired my contribution to John’s other collabortive project, Hands & Pants, which is also at Swarm right now. Starting with the hand drawing that John provided, I mapped out the Vikings’ trek to Hawaii using tiny symbols that each correspond to one of the Call & Response pieces. I wanted to include a legend with the map, but there just wasn’t room to do it. If you’ve read the stories in the book and show, you can figure it out.

Hands & Pants

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From → Art, Books, Oakland

2 Comments
  1. Man… Cool story, but I wish it were true. Vikings ruled. Nice job!

  2. mkc permalink

    Thanks. I had fun doing it. When I saw the drawing, I thought of Vikings and Hawaii, and the only logical way to connect them was via historical fiction. I tried to channel my inner David Attenborough.

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