Gone Viking by Bill Arnott
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
I met Bill Arnott at an Indigo book signing in Vancouver. He had discovered me through my copious Facebook postings about the first leg of my cross-country book tour. Tall and blue-eyed with an infectious smile, Bill could very well have been one of the Vikings, to whom he devotes his travel saga. He quickly launched into an explanation of the word Viking. It is more a verb than a noun, he explained, and was used to describe the rite of passage undertaken by young Scandinavians to explore the world, often at the tip of a sword. I was intrigued.
Gone Viking has already acquired some literary fame, making the shortlist for non-fiction for the Whistler Book Awards, and rightly so. The book is an excellent attempt to revive the historical travelogue genre at a time when few authors venture in this direction. Recounting his personal pilgrimage to discover the remains of the once vast Viking world, Arnott takes the reader from the British Isles through the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, the circumpolar world to his final destination, the remains of Leif Ericsson's settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Sorry, Columbus, you were number two.
The book corrects the Hollywood stereotypes of Vikings as horned-helmeted pillagers seeking eternal drunken debauchery in Valhalla, and instead highlights the Norsemen's intrepidness, advanced knowledge of navigational science and sophisticated ability to establish far-reaching trading networks. Perhaps, the most intriguing chapters were those set in the Mediterranean where the Vikings having succeeded in passing through the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) left their mark on the centuries-old cultures and political orders of the nations of the Middle Sea.
I can't say that the book is without imperfections. In as much as Arnott demonstrates a clearly creative mind, he sinfully digresses. His exposition of facts often branches into extraneous details, events and thoughts, much to the detriment of his saga. More than once, I resorted to Wikipedia to round out half-finished introductions to the multitude of Viking kings and settlements throughout Europe and the new world. Despite this, the book opens wells, closes well and leaves the reader with an authentic sense of knowing its author.
An extremely well-documented travelogue with beautiful imagery, Gone Viking is published by Wonderful Magical Publications Canada.