Are the Viking sagas the greatest stories ever told? Fans of Shakespeare and the Bible might be willing to argue the toss, but the exploits of the Scandinavian warrior clans must be up there with the best.
Erik the Red was one of the last Vikings to hold out against the unstoppable tide of Christianity. He’s credited with establishing a colony on Greenland and is the father of Leif, the explorer thought to have been the first European to discover and settle on the east coast of the continent of North America.
In Søren Mosdal’s version of the story, Erik is a brutal, frustrated man. Banished from his homeland for killing a family because of an argument over the ownership of some decorative bedposts, he ends up building a community on Greenland more out of necessity than anything else. He dispatches his son Leif on a suicidal mission to discover new lands, only to have him return a Christian with a preacher in tow, which leaves the stalwart believer in Norse gods plotting to destroy the Christians.
While it’s violent and scary, Mosdal treats the peculiarities of Erik’s saga with dark humour. There’s a farcical comedy of errors about the plot and, while you start the book thinking it’s going to be dark and gruesome, you’ll find smiles cracking across your lips as you read about the absurdity of the bedpost murders and the haphazard way Erik rules, such as his decision not to join Leif on his journey of discovery just before they’re about to set off, because he falls off his horse on the way to the boat and decides it’s not a good sign.
Despite the humour, Mosdal’s illustration is dark and foreboding throughout. Erik is a mammoth of a man, built for fighting battles and surviving extreme environments. His northern world is dark and smokey, surrounded by dark volcanic rock but bathed in firelight. There’s little beauty in this world, it’s a frugal, unforgiving environment and Erik is a product of that, as is the gritty, scratchy illustration.
It’s perfectly pitched at Viking fans, then, all the more fascinating for being further entrenched in history than the average slice of Viking fiction.