We open on a shot of an icy coastline. We hear low, eerie music and also some sort of musical chanting in a strange language. It’s as beautiful an opening as this show has ever produced, as Leonard Nimoy starts telling the story of the Vinland Saga – aka the Lost Vikings.
The Vinland Saga is an interesting story because it’s one of the rare instances where the crazy theory actually has considerable support. Basically, some Viking Sagas were interpreted as possibly meaning that Vikings crossed the Atlantic hundreds of years before Columbus. Beginning in the 1960s, archaeological evidence started piling up supporting this interpretation. In the immortal words of Philip J Fry, “Crazy theories: 1. Regular theories: 1 000 000!”
Let’s see how In Search Of deals with an odd theory that has actually become respectable. I think it will be illuminating.
After some stock footage of Reykjavik, we catch up with Nimoy in what looks like the living room of a hunting lodge. He tells us the story of the ‘old style Viking’ Erik the Red. The footage takes us to Iceland, and I’m expecting it to move onto Greenland. Instead, the narration starts talking about Leif’s paganism, especially his worship of Thor. Instead of Greenland, we get a little vignette about Neopaganism in 1970s Iceland. We get footage of Icelanders in some kickass knitwear going to a sermon by this old guy who looks like a cross between Karl Marx and… and someone else with a big white beard?
Note to self: edit that joke.
Anyway, we see what’s meant to be a religious procession, but which has a suspiciously SCA-y vibe to it. As cheap thunder SFX play, Nimoy explains how Thor was the chief god of the Vikings, and you don’t need to know much about the Vikings to know that’s not true. The beardy priest guy is even holding a spear, symbol of Odin, as if to make this very point. Music that sounds like it came out of a 1950s Hollywood historical epic plays while the priests drink a horn of mead.
Now we’re looking at an Icelandic horse show, which Nimoy tells us used to be a major political gathering, which doesn’t sound impossible.
And we’re moving on to Greenland, where Erik went after being forced to leave Iceland. We see ruins of Viking longhouses in Greenland, and we’re told that Mrs Erik the Red converted to Christianity and made Erik convert too. The thought of a murderous Viking looking sheepishly at his boots and mumbling ‘yes, dear,’ is a strangely pleasing one.
Past footage of icebergs and Greenlanders paddling wooden boats, we’re told that the Greenland colony failed. The distance between Europe and Greenland meant that there was little commerce. Gyrfalcons were their most valuable export, we’re told and… Holy crap! Narwhals! The Greenlanders are shown hunting the narwhal, except you never see the narwhals and the whalers in the same shot.
Shot of a medaeval manuscript of the last known mention of the Greenland colony before the colony was discovered to be abandoned. We are shown a grave in the south of Greenland, full of the skeletons of people with severe disabilities. Nimoy wonders whether inbreeding caused the end of the little colony – or just the people who were left behind.
An Inuit guy in a motorboat looks onto the windswept coast of Canada. Look a caribou! More importantly, three stone cairns. Talk about the ‘primitive Eskimos’, good, that’s my shudder factor taken care of. Apparently, the Inuit couldn’t have built these rock monuments, because they were four foot tall and, as everyone knows, no one can build a monument bigger than themself.
Moving onto Professor Thomas E. Lee, who we’re told has a weird theory developed in part from stories told by the local Inuit. There’s some slightly depressing footage of the Inuit settlement as we’re told that they are forgetting their old ways. But they do have legends about giants and dwarfs and so… Well, so what I wonder? Just about every culture has legends of giants and dwarfs. Legends about ordinary people are lame. Legends about huge and/or tiny people are awesome.
Anyhoo, we see this young Inuit woman translating her grandmother’s stories, that the grandmother heard in her youth. Lee transcribes. The story seems consistent with Inuit ancestors meeting Vikings, or just stories they made up. Granny is awesome, btw.
We see Lee take a trip through icy waters to an island where he found the remains of what look very much like Viking longhouses. He talks about social organisation along Norse rather than Viking terms. He suggests that this was a Viking hunting base, and that the Vikings intermarried with the locals.
Nimoy explains that Lee’s findings have been disputed. Other archaeologists believed (and, I gather, mostly still believe) that Lee’s discoveries were Inuit in origin. Nimoy brushes aside the objections, arguing firstly that the Inuit were too primitive to build these longhouses and then that they were too sophisticated to build anything so drafty. Lee explains his theory further, proclaiming a ‘kingdom’ of Norsemen on the Canadian coast. Nimoy calls it a kingdom of Viking rulers and Inuit followers, and I really hope that wasn’t what Lee was saying.
Lee – who has a beautiful accent – point out that the his site is accessible from Greenland by longboat. We are shown three skulls, supposedly of an Inuit, a ‘medieval white male’ and a ‘mixed blood’. The 1970s folks. It was an odd time.
Back in his hunting lodge, Nimoy tells us that Lee’s theories have met with resistance, which is true. He claims – less accurately – theories suggest “that past cultures lived and died in strict isolation” and… what? Who said that? Who? Nimoy says that the descendants of the Norse/Inuits were “bigger, stronger and more skilful” than regular Inuit and, like, what? From memory, there’s a large population of Greenlanders who are of mixed Norse/Inuit ancestry, and they really don’t look much like Canadian Inuits.
Back in Canada, we see some modern Canadian Inuits setting up a base for hunting. They paddle plywood canoes and hunt caribou with guns (one guy brags about his .22 magnum). Lee, standing nearby, talks about the Norse presence in the area, claiming that there’s more evidence to find.
Above the camp, we see a stone monument, which Lee claims to be a Thor’s hammer, taking us back to the little setup in Iceland.
It really doesn’t look that much like a Hammer of Thor. Or, rather, I guess if you squint, it does. Anyway, the consensus nowadays seems to be that it’s a fairly common sort of Inuit stone marker called an inuksuk.
So here we are with a very weird episode. This was made in the late 1970s, by which point the Viking colonisation site at L’Anse aux Meadows was well known. In fact, it was made a World Heritage Site in 1978, so it was probably in the news around the time this episode was made. And yet, the episode doesn’t mention it even once.
And this answers the question I posed at the beginning of this article. How does In Search Of… deal with the golden dream of every crackpot theorist – the unlikely theory that turned out to be true? The answer is: it deals with it by skipping the well supported central evidence for the theory and goes with a strange, disputed researcher on the fringe of the real issue.
I can’t tell you how vexing this is.
“History’s tides have swept past Man’s fingertracks leaving only scattered patterns that seem to lead nowhere.” – Nimoy
I wrote this down because it sounded stupid, but the more I think about it the more profound it seems. That probably means my head’s getting soft from watching too much of this show, but I guess it could also be really profound. Perhaps.
Awesome footage of the frozen North: 10/10, Cool Canadian accents: 9/10, Music: 8/10, Understanding of Norse religion: 5/10, Actually getting the point: 0/10. Overall: 32/50. Credit.