The Ice-Shirt (1990), Vol. 1
Before we get started here, the author (William T. Vollman, hereafter WTV) who will be calling himself William The Blind, tells the reader he’ll be dreaming seven dreams – and each corresponds to “the Seven Ages of Wineland The Good”. Because man thought he should improve on things as he found them each age was worse than the last. We just can’t help ourselves. And anyway. What follows is a “pack of lies.” Legends and myths often are insulated in this package.
Wineland, or Vinland is our own North America. We grow up learning our history from a more southern route. Christopher Columbus, launching out of a Castilian port, discovered North America (then there’s the Amerigo Vespucci contingent) on his three voyages, making landfall on various islands in the Caribbean. If there is mention at all, there is sometimes grumbling recognition of “The Vikings” as possible first discoverers: Erik the Red, son Leif and all that lot. WTV takes up the chronicles from the Northern perspective – and he unfolds a fascinating history, a dream history in seven parts (only four of which have been completed).
Who are we? What is our heritage? It may be that our “culture” is Eurocentric, but what of our true selves, what of our motivations? What lies deep, deep within our souls as a people? Our atavistic selves? WTV proposes a new look, a comprehensive and more complete look at our “history” as a people. The chronicles presented here show an inexorable move west, as former kings (reduced to earldom) and their peoples fled before the more powerful, conquering kings, peopling new lands.
West and west again they went, finding water-girt lands whose doubtful existence became sure forever when they waded onto them, as flocks of gulls took wing astonished, screaming and retreating west.
Sounds familiar, huh?
I. The Changers, or How the Bear-Shirt was lost, and the Ice-Shirt was found
Do we come from peoples that sought relief from persecution, mostly religious and economic? Sure. But this is only part of the story. WTV takes us back to the myths and legends of our creation, to the time of shape-shifters of Norse legend. We spring from the Tree of Life – in Norse legend the World-Ash. These shape-shifters first took the form of bears, a ferocious proposition. This changing allowed powerful men, men with the gift, to subdue and vanquish their enemies. Allowed them to become something other than themselves. Allowed then to live in another skin, in a new way, and with a new identity. It could be said that this is the very essence of America, The land of opportunity. The land where a man could transform himself. This changing may reside in that dream portion of our brain/soul that tells us that anything is possible in a new world.
Oh, that game of changing! The players did not really want to be anything; they only wanted to be what they were not.
It’s an interesting phenomenon to see how these myths recede. WTV is masterful at showing this gradual falling away. It came to pass that there were fewer and fewer with the ability to do this. Gradually, there were only the symbols of shift-shapers: Hairy Bear shirts that men put on. Sometime about the year 650, King Ingjald eats a roasted wolf’s heart and begins wearing the wolf-shirt in a show to consolidate his power. Between 650 and 930, the torch passes. In this work (1990), WTV writes in an astonishingly poetic style that I’ve not seen in his later work. A lot of what he writes here really deserves to be savored.
Between King Ingjald and King Harald Fairhair now passed seven generations, in which Bear-Kings were spear-thrust, Wolf-Kings went a-Viking, and the ringing of shields told the hour more reliably than bells, for these had not yet been invented. Yet everything was congealing. The Bear-Shirts were wearing out [he means this literally}, and the Changers were only men.
Eirik the Red settled Greenland in about the year 985. Eirik, having made an unhappy marriage, was now in his third banishment – an outlaw, or a Viking as men who could not live among other men were commonly called. Back at this time Greenland really was (more or less) green. Land was open and could be productive. At least until about 1200, when the “little ice age” commenced. WTV waxes poetic here again. See, weather does change! Despite the deniers. The earth is not flat either, ‘ya know.
WTV throws in a one-paragraph section out-of-the-blue but well placed: Oxney Island 1987. A short look at the marks that Eirik the Red left on the landscape here. He had built a stone house and wall on the island at the time of his second exile sometime along about the year 978.
Brown and black horses graze by this wall, and purple flowers grow on the stones of it. One horse mounts another, and then both graze again. After a while, the horse-herd raises its half-dozen heads and canters away, over Eirik’s wall. A chilly breeze blows. Birds call faint and querulous against a cloud. A semicircle of pink moss campion smiles from a stone.
Besides the weather changing, there were the Skraelings. Skraelings is a catch-all term (much like “Vikings”), used to describe variously the Inuit of Greenland and the Red-skinned Indians of Vinland. There are always indigenous peoples, people who were there first to throw a monkey wrench into dreams of westward ho! Inconvenience for the blue-eyed and fair-haired. Such is the way.
II. BLACK HANDS, OR HOW THE SKRAELINGS PUT THE WHITE-SHIRT ON
WTV has brought the story to Greenland, to Vinland, to the engagement with the indigenous peoples: The Skraelings. WTV decides The Skraelings deserve a closer look. Back to before 30,000 BC. In the beginning was….Elder Brother and Younger Brother. Of his origin, Elder Brother knew nothing. The ice had always been there, and he had always been on the ice. A time before consciousness he could not remember. There was only Self and Other. Other was Younger Brother who had come up through a seal hole in the ice. Maybe that was how he had come into existence?
He nurtures Younger Brother. Teaches him the way of the ice. But Younger Brother has his own ways and they sometimes quarrel. He teaches him how to walk on thin ice as the polar bears, as Nanoq does. WTV continues as a master of observing nature:
Polar bears give an impression of white snowiness, but incongruous with this is the almost triangular head, which the bear nods like a napping seal, in order to deceive other seals into thinking that he is one. Most of us want to be what we are not, but the clever ones, the predators pretend to be what they are not, stalking and sneaking until their victims discover the deception too late.
WVT’s theme of transformation as a signifier of our continent continues gather evidence. In our Christian myth, a rib from Adam becomes his companion Eve, a being out of male, a fe-male. On the Ice, Elder Brothers very own Garden of Eden, a storm arises, and the Spirit Woman transforms Younger Brother into a true Other: A woman, the Hermaphrodite creation. Cut briefly to “San Francisco Transvestites 1987”.
In Christian myth, Elder Brother (Cain) slew Younger Brother (Abel). On the Ice, Younger Brother (now his ‘wife’) slays Elder Brother – conflating the story of Adam and Eve with that of Cain and Abel. Before this though, in a section called The Woman-Shirt, WTV expresses a rich profile of the relationship between men and women:
Before, Elder Brother and Younger Brother had been the same. Now they were different, and difference called to difference, so that they needed each other, but at best this yearning could only unite them for a space; it could not reconcile them. She was more capable of loving constancy than he, for, having been the younger, the inexperienced, having trembled so often in the face of his quick intolerance, she now basked in his new need of his for her [sex]. Whenever he wanted, she laid her head down for him, smelling the bitter smell of dead leaves and earth…those brilliant black eyes in her pale face, hurt him so happily. It was his need that he enjoyed, however, not she herself, although in that first moon he thought that she was everything to him….- What is loneliness? Does the lonely space between two rocks vanish when spanned by a spiderweb?
They learn how to live as man and wife. They build a home. Sister begins to question her being. Why is it that she was “supposed’ to be a woman, different, an Other? It wasn’t just that she didn’t want to be a woman. She wanted to be several things at once.
A woman was not all she was.
Elder Brother begins to resent the sex in some way. He looks at it as empowering her and making him weaker. He did not like it. Sister learns to fly like a bird and does so. Flies away to her freedom.
The Spirit Woman misses Sister. She gives birth to wolves and dogs in her grief. The wolves and dogs bear children who become humans. They learn to make tools, the cross the ice, they migrate. They populate. Greenland.
III. VINLAND, OR THE CUTTLEFISH IN THE CURRENT
Dressmakers’ Patterns (30,000 BC – AD 1007)
This short, transitional chapter edges us closer to what we refer to as the “new” world: Vinland. It also obliquely transition us from thinking about the shirts (ice shirt, bear shirt, etc.) as myth, to thinking about them as actual garments. Who would wear what? A new shirt was cut. Norway’s King Olaf (circa 1015 AD) produces many black shirts with white crosses on them.
Meanwhile, we learn of Bjarni Bardarsson who had bumped into (probably Vinland) but was not at all interested in going ashore – setting sail northward instead for nine days – and discovered what is probably Labrador and Baffin Island.
WTV proposes to write a more complete picture of this period, a history with a central focus on the three sons of Eirik the Red, Gudrid, the wife of one of these sons, and Eirik’s bastard daughter, Freydis.
Next, the final Chapter of The Ice-Shirt.
IV. Freydis Eiriksdottir, or, How the frost came to Vinland the Good
Or, more directly, Freydis Eiriksbastarddottir. That’s what they were called until recent times. And if Freydis was the bastard daughter of Eirik the Red, then Gudrid is her foil, her opposite. Gudrid married the second son of Eirik the Red, Thorstein, (her second marriage). Known as Gudrid the Fair, she was everything that Freydis was not: kind, loving to her husband, she treated people with good intentions, and respect. While Freydis holds to the old ways, Gudrid (like much of Scandinavia around this time has become a Christian. Never have two such strong women been the focus of an historical novel, and WTV gives them both to the reader in full glory. This is the hook for this final and longest section of The Ice-Shirt. These two, and their clashes, are what make this book memorable, raising it a level above just an interesting view of the early Scandinavian explorers (and settlers).
Circa 1000, Leif Eiriksson (Eirik’s eldest son) is commanded by King Olaf to bring Christianity to Greenland, but on his mission he is blown off course and comes ashore in Wineland, “a place without frost.” It’s here that he builds a few structures for shelter – structures which will later become a point of conflict (as if they needed another one) between Freydis and Gudrid.
Circa 1002, Leif’s youngest brother Thorvald wants a taste of the explorers’ life and sails for Vinland. Here, he and his men battle Micmac Indians, Thorvald is wounded and dies. He is perhaps the first white man to be buried in the New World. The settlement is abandoned.
Throughout the novel, WTV interjects chapters of his own visits to these same places: “Spring on Baffin Island, 1987”, “In the West Bygd, 1987”. Like looking at history through a pair of binoculars, first focused on the past and the focused on the present, it’s a very effective distancing that shares a perspective with the reader. WTV engages with his own story, and as a result reengages the reader along with him. Just in case your attention was drifting….
Circa 1007 Gudrid and Freydis sail for Vinland the Good where the rest of the drama unfolds – bitter rivals with separate agendas.
I’ve read some of WTV’s later works, but don’t recall his writing being this beautifully evocative as here. Especially in descriptions of nature and place. Here is just one example of many. The 1007 voyage (from “Wineland The Good” (pg. 215)…
The sun arose upon the sea and made it gold. A little later, when the water was pale blue and translucent, the sky was still gold, flaming like another world beyond the highest pitch of the Greenlanders’ yearning. Still they sailed south, upon the wrinkled blue plain of the sea, so that their vessels scarcely trembled. Their long wake-road vanished into the sun’s golden spangles, while a low white cloud lined the horizon. When the sun was fully up, the sea was a dark, dark blue, foaming and hissing beneath their keels. The white foam lay upon the water like ice.
Where did they land? Astronomical observations “pinpoint” the land fall somewhere in what is now New Jersey. But others say Cape Cod, or Maine, Newfoundland. Possibly as far south as North Carolina. History. Six parts ‘factual’ (at least as related by ‘dispassionate observers), Two parts speculation and two parts myth just because myths make a good story, myths make history easier to remember, myths give history a purpose.
The conflicts between the two camps are apparent immediately. Freydis takes a proprietary interest in Eirik’s abandoned buildings. Freydis shows her brutal nature, the darker side of our race with her hatred and bloodlust. She wants to massacres natives, Skraelings. And she does. This put the entire camps in jeopardy and set a course of genocide that the white race has inflicted upon the native population since we first set foot upon the soil.
Almost metaphorically, the new world’s climate begins to changes. The frost returns. Before there was global warming, there was a warm globe, with a frost age in between. The so-called Little Ice Age begins circa 1200. Here ends Vollman’s “First Dream”.