Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published the first of two articles written by famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. You can access the article here. Knausgaard gives an account of his North American adventures, which begin in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northeastern tip of Newfoundland. The Canadian locale is the site of the only known Viking settlement in North America and dates to the year 1000. Knausgaard tells us that his New York Times editor asked him to drive from Canada to Minnesota, where he could view the Kensington Rune Stone, an artifact which many believe to be proof that Vikings visited the region in the 14th century. Knausgaard somehow managed to lose his drivers license and was forced to find alternative means to continue his “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville” sojourn across North America. By the end of this first article, he had made it as far as Detroit.
Among his many observations about American life, Knausgaard writes about the intersection of myth, place, and identity.
“Identity is not something we invest in the landscape, not in the lake or the forest or the mountain. Identity lies rather in our notions about the landscape and in the names we give it, names that are densely layered with meaning. Naming is obviously a way of making the unknown known, of creating a sense of belonging, but the names soon take on a life of their own, embodying history, myths, conceptions and misconceptions — “New York,” I write, and what you are thinking of is not the daily changing of diapers, the stomach upsets or a damp coffee filter that rips so that the grounds spill onto the floor. Seen in that light, it was irrelevant whether the Kensington Runestone was authentic or fake, for what it testified to was the fact that some people wanted it to be seen as authentic, some people wanted the Vikings to have made it to Minnesota and these people were in all probability Scandinavians, who thus would no longer merely be destitute peasants driven to the new country by need but people with a proud past who were directly descended from the very first Europeans in America, who had not simply been content to spend a winter on a spit of land way up in the northeast, but had made their way as far as the Midwest, where almost all Scandinavians ended up, and who wanted in this way to endow themselves with a history, which is one of the many forms that a sense of belonging takes.”
Knausgaard touches on the central theme of my forthcoming book, Myths of the Runestone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. In this book, I tell the story of why so many in the twentieth century wanted to believe the Kensington Rune Stone was authentic despite strong evidence to the contrary. In his first article, Knausgaard assumes that it is merely Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants who have found appeal in the runic artifact discovered in a Minnesota farm field in 1898. Indeed, Swedish and Norwegian Americans were enchanted by the Midwestern Viking saga that emerged in the aftermath of Olof Ohman’s discovery. However, my book shows how the rune stone myth attracted a wide variety of characters including Yankee-born small-town boosters, Catholic bishops and priests, and those looking for a way to commemorate the deaths of white pioneer settlers during Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps Knausgaard will consider more of the complex cultural and religious dimensions of this fascinating part of American folklore. The second installment of Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” will be released March 11.