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The Farfarers: Before the Norse Paperback – December 1, 1999
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Farley Mowat's niggling doubts began in the summer of 1966, while he was tooling around the Canadian Arctic aboard a single-engine Otter float plane. The previous year, he had published the influential Westviking, a book that presaged the now widely held opinion that the Norse arrived in North America some 500 years before Columbus. But what Mowat found that summer of '66--troubling evidence that would be buttressed by determined research and field work over the next 30-odd years--convinced him that he had gotten it all wrong. Another group of Europeans, whom Mowat calls the "Albans," beat the Norsemen to the punch by a few hundred years, arriving in North America as they were both fleeing the rapacious Vikings and pursuing precious walrus ivory.
A professional scientist but an amateur anthropologist, Mowat likes to stir the pot--and he does it well, with a combination of scientific rigor, good-natured wit, and old-fashioned storytelling. (It's easy to imagine Mowat as an ideal companion out on the monotonous tundra, spinning endless stories over wine and cigarettes.) Interspersed among discussions of the Albans' culture, ethnography, and use of technology, Mowat's speculations on their trips and travails in fictional "vignettes" fill in the "immense lacunae" in the historical record. But his reasoning is always so sound--and his narrative so captivating--that you'll find it hard not to join Mowat's speculative journey with the Farfarers. --Paul Hughes
From Publishers Weekly
A veteran investigator of early European voyages to North America, Mowat (Westviking) has conjured up a vision of pre-Viking settlement by a people he calls the Albans. Originating in what is now Scotland, Mowat's Albans were displaced in stages between about 700 and 1000 A.D., first to Iceland and Greenland, and finally to the western coast of Newfoundland. The author sees the Albans as driven westward by two forces: the search for valuables such as sealskin and walrus tusk, and the remorseless pressure of Viking raiders. To support his thesis, Mowat presents what scant evidence exists-mainly, stone constructions, like tower beacons and foundations for shelters, which Mowat believes cannot be attributed to the Norse or to native inhabitants of Greenland or Atlantic Canada, and which resemble stonework found in the Orkney Islands. On this basis, Mowat accepts that the Albans existed and sets out to imagine what their migrations were like. Scattered throughout the book in italicized passages are stories set in that era, telling how the Albans might have explored their new surroundings and survived, even prospered, in the Arctic. The Albans lost their separate identity, Mowat believes, by merging into the aboriginal population of Newfoundland. This account rests on informed speculation, as Mowat explicitly acknowledges, and is not intended as a formal exposition of all the evidence for and against the author's thesis. The book is best enjoyed as a richly detailed and imaginative reconstruction of how a long-vanished European people may have been the first of their kind to venture into the New World. Illus. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
The Farfarers tells the tale of the Albans. It follows their westward migration from their origin in Gaul, from which they are forced to retreat to Scotland by Caesar's armies, through their subsequent movement to the islands of the north Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and finally the coast of North America as they seek both safety from Vikings and other pirates and more favorable hunting grounds for the walrus and seal.
Based upon the scant evidence that remains, the history the Mowat relates of the Albans' exploration and colonization of Iceland, Greenland, and the North American coast seems plausible enough. But even if the evidence ultimately does not support Mowat's conclusions, the story that he weaves is thought-provoking and I found myself fascinated by his interpretation of the events underlying The Greenlander's Saga and the Saga of Eric the Red.
The "historical" chapters in the book are interspersed with Mowat's fictional tales of Alban life. Although entertaining, I found that these fictional stories detracted from the flow of his "historical" account. I was much more interested in Mowat's detailing of the evidence that supports his historical reconstruction of the westward migration of these early Europeans.
Nevertheless, in this year of celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the discovery of America by Leif Ericson, The Farfarers makes especially appropriate reading. I highly recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in early northern European history, Vikings, or the discovery of North America.
In 1963 when he published his classic Never Cry Wolf, *everyone* knew that wolves were dangerous, even depraved killers. If it is now widely known that wolves are *not* dangerous to man, that they typically live in close-knit family groups, that they are intelligent, personable animals, it is largely thanks to Mowat, who consented to be dropped, alone, into the Canadian wilds to spend a season in close proximity with wolves in their natural habitat (at a time when experts agreed that to do so meant certain death). Nearly single-handedly, he changed the way the world thought about a species alongside which man has lived for millennia.
Similarly, in 1965 [note, not 1990 as another reviewer here indicates], when he published Westviking, Mowat's examination of the evidence convinced a theretofore skeptical modern generation of the veracity of the Norse claim (in the Vinland Sagas) to have visited the North American continent.
However, his continued examination of the evidence over the subsequent thirty years -- both archeological and literary -- convinced him that the Vinland Sagas told only a *portion* of the story. And, indeed, after reading The Farfarers, I am convinced that once again, where Mowat has led, mainstream scholarship will duly follow, this time to the conclusion that the Greenland Norse did not blaze the trail to Vinland any more than their forebears had blazed the trail to Iceland; in both cases, they followed a pre-Celtic European people Mowat refers to, collectively, as the "Albans."
It should be obvious, since it is largely his own theory that he is debunking, but I should nevertheless note that Mowat is a fact-driven rather than a theory-driven thinker. That is, he did not first propose the idea that a farfaring culture existed, and then seek evidence which could be interpreted as supporting the theory; rather, he has spent years considering the evidence, identified the places where existing theories lacked plausibility, and constantly sought more adequate interpretation. In what follows I will summarize, but radically simplify, his observations.
The first piece of the puzzle, chronologically if not logically, is that early medieval and even ancient maps frequently place a roughly Iceland-shaped island called "Ultima Thule" in the right area of the North Atlantic to be Iceland. The implication is that the Europeans knew about Iceland from antiquity, long before the island's ninth-century settlement by Northmen. Indeed, given the evidence, it is strange that scholars and historians could ever have concluded otherwise. Such is the power of Received Wisdom. [Note that Mowat never claims that ancient and medieval Europeans were aware of North America, as another reviewer here indicates.]
The next piece of evidence that Iceland was inhabited when the Northmen arrived is a great example of Mowat's ingenious "common" sense. There are references in the Vinland sagas to small numbers of white-robed people who were on Iceland when the Northmen arrived; the saga-writers claimed that these people "went away," not wanting to share the island with the newcomers. Scholarship has, from the beginning, made two inquiry-framing assumptions: (i) since Iceland was theretofore unknown to Europe, either the prior inhabitants were Irish monks who had drifted to Iceland on coracles or they didn't exist at all, and (ii) either the saga explanation that the clerics didn't want to share their solitude with brash newcomers can be taken at face value or the handful of monastics were slaughtered out of hand. However, no combination of these assumptions was ever truly plausible; the Irish "green martyrs" did not wear white robes, and where did all the early settlers' slaves come from, whose existence is well-attested in the sagas? Mowat's answer is that Iceland was occupied not by a handful of male clerics but rather by a people he calls the Albans (white-wearing people), who, he argues, had fled to Iceland to escape the depredations of the Northmen in the first place. Once expressed, it seems obviously more plausible than any prior explanation, but over centuries of scholarship and speculation, no one ever saw past the blinders of history.
Of more interest to Americans, of course, is the question of what evidence there is that these "skrælings" preceded the Norse to North America. Here Mowat relies on his re-interpretation of new world archeological evidence, informed and educated (unlike the views of most academic archeologists) by years of experience as a sailor and as a wilderness survivor. Briefly, he shows that what has always been interpreted as the foundations of Norse-style turf houses is more plausibly interpreted as the stone foundation of an Alban-style "boat-house," in which an inverted skin-boat is incorporated into the architecture of a semi-temporary dwelling. In addition, he shows continuity of structure among tall cairns of stones found in the new world and in the North Atlantic, as well as discontinuity between the new world cairns and anything produced by the Inuit or other native American peoples.
In sum, Mowat has done it again. My only quibble with this book is that each chapter is accompanied by a section of speculative fiction, a sort of imagined history of the Alban people. Mowat may have felt inclusion of the fictional account provided an intuition-priming illustration of his ideas, but the lack of support for the kind of speculative detail he alludes to in the fiction sections nettled my scholarly sensibilities. However, this is a minor point, and does not detract from the overall magnificent effect of the whole.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The wrong way to read this book is to start with the assumption that it is presenting an accurate...Read more