Yesterday, I discussed how Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Peoples (1555) provided a source for the younger Nicolò Zeno in creating his hoax narrative about how Prince Zichmni founded a colony on Greenland in the shadow of a (fictitious) volcano. This got me wondering how other parts of the Zeno Narrative can be related to literary antecedents. I wonder whether Zeno was attempting to reverse and rework the adventures of King Arthur and the Argonauts in the North.
The next summer he fitted out a fleet, and made an expedition into Ireland, which he was desirous to reduce. […] After an entire conquest of Ireland, he made a voyage with his fleet to Iceland, which he also subdued. And now a rumour spreading over the rest of the islands, that no country was able to withstand him, Doldavius, king of Gothland, and Gunfasius, king of the Orkneys, came voluntarily, and made their submission, on a promise of paying tribute. Then, as soon as winter was over, he returned back to Britain, where having established the kingdom, he resided in it for twelve years together in peace.
Arthur, being informed of what they were doing, was delighted to find how much they stood in awe of him, and formed a design for the conquest of all Europe. Then having prepared his fleet, he first attempted Norway, that he might procure the crown of it for Lot, his sister's husband. […] As soon as Arthur arrived on the coast of Norway, king Riculf, attended with the whole power of that kingdom, met him, and gave him battle, in which, after a great loss of blood on both sides, the Britons at length had the advantage, and making a vigorous charge, killed Riculf and many others with him. Having thus defeated them, they set the cities on fire, dispersed the country people, and pursued the victory till they had reduced all Norway, as also Dacia, under the dominion of Arthur.
Arthur’s battle for Norway took place twelve years after his conquest of Ireland and Iceland. Zichmni, reversing this, set out for his eastern territories many years after his Norwegian adventure. Where Arthur subdues Ireland and Iceland, Zichmni fails to subdue either Estotiland or Engroneland (Greenland), and must devote himself to a peaceful colony on Greenland. Just as Arthur is “carried to the isle of Avalon,” surrendering his kingdom to Constantine, but from which island he is expected to return, Zichmni remains alive on his distant island as well.
I’m not sure there is any direct connection here, though. Certainly other explanations are possible. For example, Adam of Bremen records the sea voyage of Harald III of Norway across the Northern Ocean, and Zichmni’s adventures bear more than a passing resemblance to those of St. Brendan the Navigator in the Navigatio, including the chance discovery of Christian monasteries on Atlantic islands.
Perhaps, though, the closest resemblance is to the Orphic Argonautica, an ancient epic poem that had been rediscovered and published in the 1400s. This poem was believed at the time (falsely) to be the oldest record of the Argonauts (it’s actually Late Antique), and it tells of how Jason and his crew sailed to the Cronian Sea, usually the name of the Adriatic but which in this context was frequently identified with the Arctic Ocean or the North Sea, and traveled around Ireland and some mysterious, unknown lands in the cold Arctic wastes. They visited, for example, the Hyperboreans and the Cimmerians—and the Cimmerians, as Homer had explained in Odyssey 11.14ff and the Orphic poet repeats, lived beside the gates of Hades, which in the Renaissance were identified in turn with Hell and thus volcanoes, just like the two volcanoes the Zeno Brothers encounter. (We know that these mountains are volcanoes because Zeno likens them to Vesuvius and Etna).
In fact, the fabulous monastery and village beneath the first Greenland volcano answer admirably to the blessed land of the Macrobii, where life is easy and everyone lives to one hundred years, and the just land of Hermioneia, where well-built villages house men so blessed that the souls of all their dead weigh so little that a single ship can carry them to the land of the dead. (The Macrobii of Orpheus have the same characteristics as the Hyperboreans of Pliny [Natural History 4.26] and Pindar [Pythian 10].) Translating that as a monastery of Christian saints seems a good fit. This is backed up by the fact that Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the Life of Merlin, borrows Isidore of Seville’s description of the Fortunate Islands, themselves paralleling the blessed islands of the Argonautica, for Arthur’s own Avalon:
Of its own accord it produces grain and grapes, and apple trees grow in its woods from the close-clipped grass. The ground of its own accord produces everything instead of merely grass, and people live there a hundred years or more. There nine sisters rule by a pleasing set of laws those who come to them from our country.
It’s possible that Zeno had such ideas in mind in describing his fantasy Greenland. (He probably knew from travelers’ tales that Greenland and the Arctic were currently icy wastes, but he would not have known that in the Medieval Warm Period they were more habitable.) To a Renaissance mind, it must have seemed strange to have blessed isles in an Arctic hell. How to fix this? Zeno is ingenious, suggesting that the volcano makes it possible. The monastery uses volcanic warmth to heat what are essentially greenhouses and “they produce flowers and fruits and herbs of different kinds, just as in other temperate countries in their seasons, so that the rude and savage people of those parts, seeing these supernatural effects, take those friars for Gods”—just like the blessed, godlike Arctic inhabitants of Greco-Roman myth.
The second volcano’s rivers of pitch and flaming base, while drawing on the imagery of Olaus Magnus, seem also to answer nicely to the poisonous rivers of the Underworld appropriate for a gateway to Hell. If so, then this would also strengthen the idea of Zichmni as a reverse Arthur, since this hellish landscape, on the opposite side of Greenland, would be the inverse of Arthur’s blessed Avalon.
In this location, the Argonauts encountered the same fierce kind of storm that destroyed the Norwegian fleet in Zeno’s tale, and in both stories the heroes’ ship just barely escapes the storm itself. Then they found an uncharted island surrounded by a black cloud, answering well to the smoky cloud covering the Greenland coast where Zichmni lands. Weirdly, in both the Orphic Argonautica and the Zeno Narrative, the main characters do not land on the cloudy shore but spy it from a distance, though Zichmni does Jason one better and sends a search party to explore the place.
Another important similarity is that the Orphic Argonautica tells the epic tale of its hero, Jason, in the words of the ship’s helmsman, Orpheus, just as the Zeno Narrative tells the epic tale of its hero, Zichmni, in the words of the ship’s captain, Antonio Zeno.
The point, I suppose, is that I can’t find anything in the Zeno Narrative, either in fact or in story, that does not have a more or less direct antecedent in the literature available to Nicolò Zeno the younger in 1557-8. Among Arthur, the Orphic Argonautica, Olaus Magnus, and other travelers’ tales, the whole story could be—and almost certainly was—concocted from whole cloth.