In Iceland, the age of the Vikings is also known as the Saga Age. A unique body of medieval literature, the Sagas rank with the world's great literary treasures - as epic as Homer, as deep in tragedy as Sophocles, as engagingly human as Shakespeare. Set around the turn of the last millennium, these stories depict with an astonishingly modern realism the lives and deeds of the Norse men and women who first settled in Iceland and of their descendants, who ventured farther west to Greenland and, ultimately, North America. Sailing as far from the archetypal heroic adventure as the long ships did from home, the Sagas are written with psychological intensity, peopled by characters with depth, and explore perennial human issues like love, hate, fate and freedom.
Most of the medieval or ancient literature I've read features very large-scale action, adventure of epic proportions. You've got Achilles and Odysseus enlisting the gods to help them battle their larger-than-life adversaries, Beowulf trudging out of the blood-spattered hall to slay great monsters and their mothers, or impossibly pure-hearted knights wooing sickeningly pure maidens. The Icelandic sagas have adventure too, and a good deal of trudging, and a fair amount of bloodshed, but there's something intriguingly domestic about them as well. They are about settlers to a forbidding new place, hardy men and women who claim homesteads and raise families in a climate even harsher than the one they left behind in Norway. Although much of the stories are devoted to feuds between clans, which usually end up being settled by multiple murders, just as much space is taken up with the everyday lives of families, how hard-as-nails farmers gradually increased their wealth and made lives for themselves, showing proper hospitality with presents and feasts when neighbors or family members came to visit, how these farmers' equally tough wives bore them children and how these children gradually came of age as Icelanders. I love the contrast between the outlandish scenes of bloody battle, in which men with berserker blood shift into fierce monster-animals, and the proto-novelistic tales of everyday life. The Sagas portray the birth of a nation as the merging of these two contrasting elements, which is a profound view of history that seems surprisingly contemporary.
The characters, in some cases, are more dynamic than any other medieval literature I've read, starting out as Norwegians who claim they would never emigrate to "that god-forsaken fishing hole," but ending up as Icelanders with lives and roots on the island. Whatever they are, it is never near-divine heroes or rose-scented virgins, just strong, flawed people doing their best given the circumstances. Gender roles are also surprising at times, some of the fiercest and most warlike characters being women. In addition, whether it's because of my Norwegian ancestry or my kinship to the novelistic form and the history of the everyday, these stories seemed oddly familiar to me, despite the gap of 800 years and as many miles separating me from their composition.
And, of course, there is the fact that nearly all the men in these stories have "Thor" somewhere in their names, which should win points for them if nothing else does. Who wouldn't want to read about Thorstein's travels with his brother Thorgrim and son-in-laws Thorarin and Thorkel? I ask you.
The world described herein is fantastical: Berserkers shape-shift and transform into invincible killing machines; longboats full of furious men ply the grey waves, striking fear at every fjord and islet in Scandinavia; men kill each other over bad poetry. And the names are themselves riveting: Finn the Squinter fathered Eyvind the Plagiarist. Norweigians and Icelanders came in every shape, size and fiendish temperament: Atli the Slender, Bard the Peevish, Hallbjorn Half-troll, Berg the Bold, Asbjorn the Fleshy, Olvir Hump, Thorvald the Overbearing. Some characters have names that feel like an entire story: Halfdan Eysteinsson the Mild and Meal-stingy, Hallfred Ottarsson the Troublesome Poet. In fact, Hallfred does have his own entire saga.
Unlike other oral tradition, which gives us the beautiful pacing of Homeric epics, for example, the Icelandic sagas are prose narrative. What sweeps one up here is not the style, which is sort of blunt and chronological, but the landscape, the bravado and the relative insanity of everyone involved.
Now we've talked about the charming parts. The rest? In a word: Yikes. Egil's Saga, one of the most foundational of the set, was nearly 200 pages of gore and ferocity. Death was the default outcome of encounters. Oh, yes, and a stunning amount of drinking. In one typical scene everyone got way too drunk, and this is how things turned out (fair warning: this passage is graphic):
Egil started to feel that he would not be able to go on like this. He stood up and walked across the floor to where Armod was sitting, seized him by the shoulders and thrust him up against a wall-post. Then Egil spewed a torrent of vomit that gushed all over Armod's face, filling his eyes and nostrils and mouth and pouring down his beard and chest. Armod was close to choking, and when he managed to let out his breath, a jet of vomit gushed out with it.
The next day, Egil was still annoyed with Armod and so 'gouged out one of his eyes with his finger, leaving it hanging on one cheek.' This led to a dispute that was quite drawn out and got several dozen folks killed.
Gak. This stuff is not for the easily-nauseated. But it is a riveting insight into a strange and intruiging culture.
The Penguin edition which I read, titled The Sagas of the Icelanders, does have a lengthy introduction that covers all kinds of aspects of Icelandic sagas: their historical context, the role they played in the society of their time, the poets and their audience, it even offers an analysis of various formal elements commonly found in those tales. It is all extremely helpful, and without a doubt did considerably enrich my reading experience of the sagas – but you could just as well simply skip all the introductory stuff and jump right into the tales themselves, and would likely enjoy them just as much as I did after dutifully having made my way through all the editorial material. This is no small feat, for texts that are almost a thousand years old to be able to grip a twenty-first century reader on such a basic, simply-enjoying-the-story level.
Which is most emphatically not to say, however, that those sagas read like contemporary texts. I feel a bit uncertain about the translations – with texts this old I am always somewhat worried that the translators might sacrifice precision to readability, creating a false sense of familiarity in a misguided attempt to make an ancient text accessible to a modern-day reader and producing what is effectively a streamlined version of the original. Not being particularly proficient in Old Norse, I really cannot say whether this is the case here, but my entirely subjective and completely uninformed impression was that the translators of the Penguin edition did a pretty good job at making the sagas immensely readable while still retaining their essential strangeness to a reader in the early twenty-first century.
The area where this strangeness made itself felt most keenly (for me at least) was neither in the matter-of-fact attitude towards supernatural occurrences that most of these tales show (with the extent of the supernatural element varying greatly, from the simple use of runes for healing to outright visions of ghosts and the battling against mages that would not be out of place in any Sword & Sorcery tale) nor in the sometimes weird customs of the Northlanders (I remember a particularly large WTF moment when someone attempted to kill his house guest because he had drank too much of his host’s ale, and nobody seemed to think that the least bit excessive), but in the way subjectivity is treated throughout all of this tale – or rather, is not treated at all, as subjectivity is something does not really happen here.
There is no interiority to the characters in these sagas, no inner space in which their thoughts and emotions could resound, no psychological motivations, in fact no psychology at all. The people the Icelandic sagas tell of are pure exteriority – we get to know their actions, but never their thoughts or feelings, everything is told from a strict outside perspective. Possibly it is that which gives events in the sagas their distinctive air of inevitability, of its protagonists marching down a prescribed road with unwavering fatalism – a fatalism, however, that is not all perceived as tragic, at least not by the protagonists of the tales; it might be very different for a listener / reader who in a way has to supply the emotions here, using the sagas as some kind of projection surface.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the characters in these tales are flat or two-dimensional just because they are lacking an inner space – they emphatically are not; quite to the contrary, many of them are very memorable and multifaceted. They derive their plasticity from other sources, their personalities do not resonate in an inner, but an outside space, namely that of their interpersonal relationships. The Icelanders in these sagas appear to define themselves mostly by way of their relation to other people – their family, their clan, their neighbours. It is their actions and interactions that give them resonance, seeing themselves reflected in others rather than reflecting on themselves like a more contemporary subjectivity would.
It is easy to see how for a subject that defines itself by how it relates and appears to other, fame would play an important role, and by extension how the sagas themselves would serve that purpose. Even with all the supernatural elements, the sagas at their core are historical writings, chronicles that serve the remembrance and propagation of the names of Iceland’s famous men. This also gives them a slighty metafictional slant, an underlying consciousness that the deeds reported are already destined to become part of a saga even as they unfolding.
This selection from Penguin is missing what seems to be considered as the best of the sagas, Njal’s Saga, but otherwise presents a very generous selection, containing among famous ones like Eigil’s Saga and the Vinland Sagas also some lesser-known ones and several short tales; all presented in texts that appear to be excellent translations from authoritative sources with an extensive introduction and the occasional footnote where it is necessary. The only issue I had was the weird placement of maps and genealogical tables right in the middle of text (rather than at paragraph breaks) but that is just a minor distraction from an overall very much recommended edition.
The binding is gorgeous, the book feels good to hold.
The content is amazing. I remember when Egil and his brother were fighting for a kind (Alfred I think), another group of soldiers (led by someone else) retreated. Egil, seeing this, went on a
Read Egils Saga & Saga of Laxardal (to p. 270) - Jul 2005