Shippen’s account of the life of Eriksson may only loosely be defined as biography. Her only source, the Karlsefni Saga, is not a historical document. It was written down at least three hundred years after the events that it records, and its author drew from folktales that had been handed down by word of mouth for many generations. Although most modern scholars would agree that the sagas are based on real events and real people, they would also point out that much distortion and invention crept into the sagas during the years when they were recited by wandering bards and passed from parents to children. Although Eriksson is mentioned in four other Icelandic sagas, Shippen did not use them in her account of his life.
Shippen is obviously anxious that her readers accept Eriksson as she sees him: as a hero, an intrepid explorer, and a compassionate man who loved his family. Her dearth of sources relating to Eriksson’s life, however, prevents his personality from ever forming clearly in her pages. Shippen is also determined that her readers accept the proposition that Eriksson was the first European explorer to set foot on the continent of North America. Her book was written before the extensive archaeological excavations at Lancy’s Meadows in Newfoundland (begun in 1963) uncovered evidence that relegate Eriksson to the status of latecomer to America. Those excavations uncovered an entire Norse village of more than eighty dwellings that dates...
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Shippen’s book was written at a time when interest in the Viking explorations was becoming pronounced in the United States. The discovery of the so-called Beardsmore weapons (typically Viking weapons found in Canada in 1936) coincided with the publication of Halldor Hermannsson’s The Problem of Wineland. Hermannsson’s book, also based on the Icelandic sagas, made a powerful and scholarly argument for the Norse discovery of America five hundred years before Columbus. Shippen’s book prepared young readers for the books published in the 1960’s that established a pre-Columbian Norse presence in North America beyond any reasonable doubt.
Shippen’s contentions received powerful support during the decade following its publication with the appearance of such works as Adam of Bremen’s History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (1959, translated by Francis Tschan); R. A. Skelton, G. D. Painter, and T. E. Marston’s The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1965); and Helge Ingstad’s “Vinland Ruins Prove Vikings Found the New World,” published in National Geographic in November, 1964. The young readers who had first learned of Vinland in the pages of Shippen’s book found that she was right and that their teachers and history books had been wrong.