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Meadowland: A Novel of the Viking Discovery of America (2005)

by Thomas Holt

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815252,486 (3.5)7
In 1037, a senior civil servant of the Byzantine empire faces a tedious journey to Greece, escorting the Army payroll. His only companions are a detachment of the Empire's elite Guard, recruited from Viking Scandinavia. When the wagon sheds a wheel, he passes the time talking with two veterans, who have a remarkable story to tell--the Viking discovery of America.… (more)



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In 1036, John Stetathus is joined in his march from Constantinople to Sicily by three Canterbury Tales soldiers.
As they guard his money chests, the three fill their days - and his nights - with stories of their ill-fated journeys from Iceland to Leif Erikson's Meadowland.

History and humor intertwine in this imaginative scripting of the discovery of the island of North America.

Though ultimately too repetitive, the give and take of the plot was enjoyable until the recounting of the bizarre murder of the sleeping strangers
and the "horse fight."

That a truly GREAT cover - makes us want to go back to Disney World for The Vikings! ( )
  m.belljackson | Jan 6, 2019 |
A “Thomas Holt” novel is code for Tom Holt novel without mythopoeia (term coined by Tolkien). When Tom Holt moves away from the parody of old legends, he used to write a second string where he would put seemingly ordinary characters into a deeply interesting decade of genuine cultural history and let that person relate the sights and sounds of that era to the reader. I particularly clink with the Greek ones. A few books of this series are thin and gappy, so you’d only read them once, then at the other extreme they have tons of historical research behind them, act as beacons in the memory and you feel good just running your finger along their spines. If you only read ebooks on the commute, try running your fingers along complete strangers’ spines for the same effect. The common factor is that all of these books depict real historical movements, headline people who really lived, then that framework gets infiltrated and illuminated by fictional, vulnerable members of the public who’ve been caught up in the endless eddies of fate and whom you feel might expire at any time. Just as they’re getting the hang of their time period and looking comfortable, history again drop-kicks them into a new situation and that sense of Fate picking on people propels the journey. That’s the Thomas Holt histories in a nutshell.

Meadowland is an example of Holt’s inconsistency and an increasing lack of direction after his early burst of confident quality and occasionally glorious bitter-sweet humour. The reason for the diluted soup is, I think, his background is that of a thoroughly-read classical scholar, so books about these ancient civilisation topics usually reflect that depth of learning, but not all of them – that happens when he departs from his best study areas. I think he’s been exposed to the idea that the Scandinavians discovered North America first (probably in a conversation across an anvil somewhere), thought that would make a really good subject for a book, but, of course, we know almost absolutely, totally, utterly, guessingly, a whole heap of shrugging nothing about it. No expedition records, runes, sagas, zip, just a few post holes and signs of what might possibly have been metalwork activity on a small island in Nova Scotia (see YouTube). By contrast, the records and cultural legacy of Greece and Rome are endless, even their historians are famous and we still use their phrases. Although Ancient Greek script looks like skirmishing ringworm, we still quote from it. The challenge in Meadowland was, therefore, to make the story up from absolute scratch, in the absence of the framework of facts he’d worked from previously.

Couched in campfire storytelling style, the writing is familiar and friendly, easy to read but there’s also a sense of enthusiasm having been lost for the project. The plot is realistic enough, perhaps too realistic. Meadowland is a tale of the kind of necessary onboard friendships that break up when the business agreement ends. It’s also a thrust of opportunistic colonisation, which was what the Vikings from Norway and latterly Greenland did when they found a new pitch that had more attractive prospects for agricultural exploitation than their fjiordy homeland. Five hundred years before Columbus, did the Vikings pitch and yawl in a creaky boat and on some frosty morning drag it up the distant shores of Vinland? Historians and Americans care about this but don’t speculate that the any of these explorers survived and contributed to the native gene pool, so it’s really all academic.

The Norse word for the Americas was only apparently Vinland (Wineland), which Holt tells us is a mispronunciation of the original Veenland (Meadowland, pastures). The explorers came from an overcrowded island where the grazing was on a thin strip of wire-grass between the rocks and the freezing sea. That’s the premise then; opportunity vs. threat. The body of the writing though is conversational. When a Greek clerk of the Roman Empire is drawn into the tale, which is a pretty radical alien input, he’s disinterested in the superfluous doings of barbarian hirelings. He changes though, finding a certain human depth in those the Empire sees as little more than useful hairy hooligans with an axe-fixation.

That, alongside the predictable clashes between the new colonists and Native American tribes, who are about as easy for the slow and heavy Vikings to spike to a tree as drizzle, makes up about a fifth of the density of information and intrigue that I would usually expect from a TH novel. I have to add a note that there’s one of Tom Holt’s classical history series that has this same plot line too, where Greek colonists are doing okay for a while, then get picked off by nomadic Scythians who object to their presence in that land, thus the colony fails. Both stories are by Tom Holt, but one colony is inspired by Plato and the concept that philosophers should gather adherents and go off to found new colonies which agree to put their intellectual ideas into practice, then this more modern example skips the philosophy and represents the settlement as more of a business venture, with a bit of pillage a village, if the opportunity arises.

Despite my critical words, Meadowland is a good example of conversational, storytelling style contrived around a remarkable missing page of history (or it didn’t happen – you choose). If you ignore the wandering Stone Age tribes who arrived across the land and ice bridge in pre-history, my guess is, by weight of probability, that the Vikings may indeed have arrived in North America first. Like the sea though, the evidence is choppy and the objects that have been “found” and presented to prove the claim have so far all been fakes. Viking means pirate, incidentally, showing that the Norsemen of Scandinavia regarded Vikings as anti-social outsiders, so lack of acceptance is another reason why they had to move on.

Do read this book if you’re intrigued by the subject, want to see what Holt does with the idea and if you would like your imagination to be stimulated. Who knows? You might even be a Viking re-enactor with a straggly beard who calls himself Eric at weekends and normally works in HMV. If so, this is definitely your bag. Go ahead and dismiss this next comment as idle guesswork but (unlike his best books) I might be the only person who has ever read this twice because, I mean, why would you? You get everything useful from this on the first pass.

What is this anyway? A triumph for Thomas Holt or just another idea that he worked through and ticked off his long list? Well, I think the author was interested in the proposal and covered it as best he could but I don’t think there was enough known material as a foundation for his usual enthusiastic and chatty narratives to be spun away from. Mildly dramatic, sort of speculative, with forgettable and expendable characters, this story was otherwise imaginative and had plenty of rufty-tufty human interaction but I don’t think it said anything really new about the subject and there wasn’t enough dramatic welly behind the iron axe to satisfy the audience’s remaining expectations.

Please note: It really, really upsets historical re-enactors if you mention that Vikings wore horns on their hats. Always, always make sure you say this because it honours the ancient Norwegian tradition of the trolls. ( )
2 vote HavingFaith | Dec 4, 2017 |
In 1036 a fretful Byzantine civil servant and three Varangian guards are stranded somewhere in the northern Peleponnese when the axle of their wagon breaks. As they wait for help, the guards tell a story: a great tale of adventure and discovery (or, more accurately, the story of the poor sods who had to do all the hard work). In their younger days, these men Kari and Eyvind formed part of a ship's crew, driven off course in a storm, who stumbled across a great island on the edge of the world - which they named Meadowland. Telling the story of the Vinland voyages, this novel takes a look at the hard graft of trying to found a colony so far from home, and the dark threat of a country where all is not as rosy as it initially seems. It's a perfectly good novel, with a couple of endearingly chatty narrators, but it lacks some of the flair and confidence of Holt's classical-era novels, which I prefer.

For a full review, please see my blog:
http://theidlewoman.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/meadowland-thomas-holt.html ( )
1 vote TheIdleWoman | Jul 17, 2015 |
A Byzantine clerk hears story of unsuccessful settlement of N. America from two old Varangian guards. Entertaining and good details of Norse life in colonies such as Greenland and Iceland.
  ritaer | Nov 11, 2012 |
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In 1037, a senior civil servant of the Byzantine empire faces a tedious journey to Greece, escorting the Army payroll. His only companions are a detachment of the Empire's elite Guard, recruited from Viking Scandinavia. When the wagon sheds a wheel, he passes the time talking with two veterans, who have a remarkable story to tell--the Viking discovery of America.

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