The Farfarers: Before the Norse Summary
In The Farfarers: Before the Norse, Mowat revisits a theme he previously discussed in Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (1965) and The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966): the pre-Columbian exploration and settlement of North America. He begins with the Celtic invasion of northern Europe in the seventh century b.c.e., when the Celtics killed, drove out, or enslaved the people who were already there. Mowat names these earlier people the “Albans” and cites as examples the Aquitainians, the Picts, and the builders of Stonehenge. He speculates that the Albans eventually fled to the Orkney and Shetland islands off northern Scotland. He further theorizes that they developed a maritime culture that used advanced oceangoing fishing boats with hulls made of hides, rather than wood. Mowat calls these boats “farfarers,” which, he says, enabled the Albans to sail to and eventually colonize Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Labrador.
Mowat observes that Iceland appears on ancient maps centuries before it was discovered and settled by the Norse. He argues that the Albans got there first because they were following the walrus herds to harvest their ivory. His sources include the Norse historians, who mention that the Norse found people on Iceland, and the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed from the Mediterranean to Iceland around 330 b.c.e. Mowat argues that the Norse eventually drove out the Albans, who drifted to Greenland. A few generations later, the Norse followed them to Greenland and from there to North America. Unfortunately, the Albans could not roam further west because the aggressive Thule people, a Native American nation who were the ancestors of the modern Inuit, were moving into the area as well.
On an expedition to northern Canada in 1966, Mowat saw low stone walls in northern Quebec, which, after a visit to the Orkney Islands, he concluded provided a foundation for upturned boats to be used as winter dwellings on the beaches there. While in the Orkneys, he had observed such structures still in use. He also cites the similarity of stone structures found in North America and the British Isles. He then argues that the Albans settled Newfoundland after they were pushed out of Labrador by the Thule and the Norse. Finally, Mowat speculates that the Albans were gradually driven into the interior of Newfoundland by the English and French in the seventeenth century and that a group of Newfoundlanders known as the Jakatars, thought to be a mixture of French and Native American ancestry, might actually be the last genetically distinct Albans. Otherwise, the Albans disappeared into the gene pools of other peoples.
Some scholars dismissed Mowat’s theory, charging that the book was highly provisional and that Mowat drew radical conclusions from limited evidence. Some people also disqualified the book as a scholarly work because Mowat included fictional passages to describe the Albans. For his part, Mowat acknowledged that his book made “no pretence at being history in the academic sense” but he believed it to be a “true story” of a “vanished people.”
Goddard, John. “A Real Whopper.” Saturday Night 111, no. 4 (May, 1996): 46-54, 64.
King, James. Farley: The Life of Farley Mowat. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2002.
Lawrence, Keith. “Farley Mowat: Overview.” In Twentieth Century Adult Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.
Lucas, Alec. Farley Mowat. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Moss, John. “Imagining the Arctic: From Frankenstein to Farley Mowat, Words Turn the Arctic Landscape into Unreality.” Arctic Circle 1, no. 5 (March/April, 1991): 32-40.
Mowat, Claire. Travels with Farley: A Memoir. Toronto: Key Porter, 2005.
Orange, John. Writing the Squib: A Biography of Farley Mowat. Toronto: ECW Press, 1993.
Patterson, Eric. “Farley Mowat: Overview.” In Contemporary Popular Writers, edited by Dave Mote. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Shepstone, Joe. “Farley Mowat: On Writing Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Autobiography.” CM Magazine 20, no. 6 (November, 1992): 290-292.
Thompson, Eric. “Farley Mowat.” In Canadian Writers, 1920-1959, edited by W. H. New. Vol. 68 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.