This is the chronicle of the odyssey of a middle-aged Viking Grandson (20th century American Midwest branch) as he made his way through the Scandinavian lands of his forebears late in the sullen winter of 1970. It is a modest work.
The classic chronicler of Vikings was Snorri Sturluson, a 13th century Icelandic scholar who spun out tomes about the mythical and historic deeds of gods and kings and bloody warlocks. Snorri collected long and chilling tales of Odin, the cunning lord of dead warriors who sometimes led good men to undeserved death so they could spend eternity with him in Valhall ("slain-hall"), fighting like lunatics by day and feasting like hogs by night. Snorri wrote at length of the fates of such royal persons as Eirik Bloodaxe and Halfdan the Black, of Harald Fine-Hair and Harald Blue-Tooth and Harald Grey-Coat and Harald Hard-Ruler. He preserved the verse of such heroic poets as Thorarin Praise-Tongue. He told of dwarfs' curses and of toasts quaffed in eagles' blood, of dead men's skulls silver-plated to make banquet goblets and of swift swords with names of their own such as "Lightning Flash of Blood" and "Icicle of the Baldric."
Nothing in the saga of the Viking Grandson 1970 will approach Snorri Sturluson's grand narratives, you can be sure of that. If you fancy eagles' blood, this is not your kind of chronicle. The Viking Grandson is native to the pasteurized Velveeta cheeseburger and the cherry-flavored Coke. He is not so long ago removed from cornfield towns of Minnesota where there are no swords, only plowshares which carry no name but that of Deere or Allis-Chalmers. Even his claim to a Viking heritage is dim: all of his ancestors migrated to America from meager farms in southern Norway, except for his paternal grandfather, a Swede, who had sailed aboard the Clipper ships of the mid-19th century before settling in the American Midwest as a farmer and a writer of devout Lutheran tracts. It did not seem likely that Odin had held a reserved seat in Valhall for the Viking Grandson's kind (although one could never be certain, since Odin was famed for his mercurial changes of mind).
Nevertheless, whatever the legitimacy of his claim to the bloodlines of the likes of Eirik Blood-axe, you can be sure that it was a strange and bone-chilling trip he took, entirely arbitrary in its preparation and all but aimless—even antic—in its direction. He went to such disparate spots as the Lofoten Islands, the Swedish tundra near Abisko, the lamplighted ski trails in the hills above Oslo, the eerie Arctic Highway in Finnish Lapland. He traveled by jet plane, coastal steamer, speeding train, cross-country ski, rowboat and Hertz rental car. He feasted upon codfish tongues, reindeer steaks and sheep's head. He drank homemade beer, heimebrent, which is Norwegian moonshine, and kaffee kark, which is a Norwegian form of sweetened dynamite with only slightly less mystical qualities than eagles' blood.
Let it be said at this point that the account of the Viking Grandson's tour will, of necessity, be chronologically disconnected. It may even have tones of surrealism on occasion. That cannot be helped, for that is the way I conceived of it in retrospect upon my return to the New World—a disjointed, kaleidoscopic looking glass of memories, many vignettes clearly recalled, oddly unrelated, yet surely all occurring within the same brief context of this single tour—1,000 miles over 10 days or so—through the Scandinavian Arctic in the late winter of 1970.
It was all alien, icy, bleak. Yet I found it all to be idyllic—particularly the very nearly supernatural silence and prehistoric purity that prevailed over the haunting terrain. One afternoon, aboard the train that runs daily between Narvik, Norway and Kiruna, Sweden on Scandinavia's northernmost railway line, I was gazing out the window at the low marshmallowy mountains of the Norwegian Arctic. Idly I wondered if perhaps this desolate section of the earth had once been cursed by dwarfs, earmarked for eternity as a wasteland where in winter only the tough Arctic birch could thrive, gnarled and mottled trees that have grown for perhaps 100 years and yet stand scarcely 25 feet tall. It occurred that maybe the dwarfs had in fact laid on a blessing rather than a curse, for such "wastelands"—vast empty acreage scorned by industry and commerce—were really now becoming the planet's rarest treasures: they were among the last, the only, areas left unstained by civilization's pervasive progress. Then I felt a tugging at my sleeve. I turned in the train corridor to find a very pale, very short man (well under five feet tall) gazing up at me. The tiny man smiled and said in Swedish-accented English, "I see you are admiring the scenery. Nothing grows big in the north, but what grows is very strong."
I gulped and could find nothing to say except, "Who are you?" The tiny man replied quite pleasantly, "I am a sailor. I have been everywhere on earth. Nothing is so beautiful as seeing the Arctic here in winter. Not so many people know that."
The little man then ordered two bottles of Top Ol beer from a lady vendor who came through the car. He gave me one and we looked out together at the round-shouldered mountains which were now turning peach-colored in the nearing sunset. The little sailor said, "If you had come a few weeks ago it would have looked like this at noon." Then the train stopped at a quaint and lonely quasi-Victorian brick building labeled Vassijaure, which is the northernmost railway stop in Scandinavia. The little man picked up a seabag and departed, saying, "Be thankful you have missed the dark months. Some say there are phantoms...."
Well, it was mid-March when the Viking Grandson made this trip, a remarkably good time to travel above the Arctic Circle, as it turned out. Though it is bitterly cold, it is light for perhaps 12 hours a day. The sun is pale and chill and by no means a constant comfort, but the darkest season has passed. From mid-November to early February it is midnight black almost all day long; it is twilight at high noon. I had wondered how it would be to spend weeks in an endless night. One evening, over Scotch at the Turiststation at Abisko, Sweden, I spoke with a woman who had just completed her first winter of darkness.
A cheery, sturdy person of middle age, she said she had long been an ardent cross-country skier, perhaps having traveled 20,000 miles or so on skis since childhood, and that the trails around Abisko were among the best she had known. Yet, she said with a puzzled expression, she had scarcely skied at all during the winter darkness. Why? Was it the cold? Was she afraid of wolves? Of bears? Of getting lost in the night? "No," she said, "I was afraid of the dark. I do not know why because I had never been afraid before. But when it is always night—without a ray of sun in all the hours of a day—strange things happen. In every shadow I saw things that were not there. I could not bring myself to ski." Her face was quite pinched.