The Sagas of Icelanders

sagas of icelandersFor several years now, I’ve adopted a practice of trying to read a major classic during the summer, when I (theoretically) have more time and brain-space for it. This year, I read The Sagas of Icelanders, the collection that Penguin put out 15 years ago with a  preface by Jane Smiley (why?) and an introduction by Robert Kellogg.

Yes, I noticed it’s not summer. Yes, I realize it’s November. Yes, I just finished it.

Sure, it’s 700 pages long, but I’ve tackled considerably longer. The fact that almost every character was named Thor-something was a little daunting, too (Thorstein, Thorodd, Thorgrim, Thorvald, Thorir, Thorolf, Thorgils, and their sister Thora) but after The Tale of Genji, I was up for anything in the name business.

The fact is that I wanted to savor this book. I’ve always been fascinated by Norse mythology because of the way it comes barreling out of left field: The world was licked into being by an ice cow! Odin rides an eight-legged horse, which is Loki’s child! The world will end when a ship made out of dead men’s fingernails arrives! Of course! Why not! These sagas were written mostly in the 12th and 13th century, harking back to a time a couple of hundred years earlier, so they balance on the cusp between Christian belief and Norse belief. The authors, Christians themselves, are writing about the conversation between the old beliefs and the new; the old Viking plundering, the Althing, the feuds and the outlawry; the travelers from Norway to the new land in Iceland, and the new kings in Norway and Sweden and Ireland and England who had a different way of ordering the world.

In one sub-story, two lazy brothers have a slave who is so efficient that he makes a lot of money. The brothers take all the slave’s money several times, to replace their own that they keep spending, but eventually they tell each other, “It’s not fair for a slave to have so much and for us to have so little,” and they kill him. It was at this point that I thought to myself, geez, they are not trying to write Christian parables, are they? And settled in for the ride.

The sagas are meant to be histories: real stories about real people and communities. They are family portraits, and even taking some exaggeration into account, they are lively and personal. In one, a beautiful and well-meaning woman falls in love with a suitor she cannot have. Her frustration leads her into other, unsuitable marriages. In another, a hot-headed, dangerous teenager is also a much-appreciated poet. In another, a man has a dream that his daughter will be so beautiful as to cause the death of two men. He tries to evade this fate by exposing her, but he’s no more successful than Laertes was with Oedipus. These stories are about jealousy and rivalry and greed and love and anger and exploration. People make rash decisions and they regret them; they play tricks and get in trouble; they get married and see what happens next. Some of the stories are violent, others are complex political stories about land, others are love stories, and others are extremely funny.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the sagas as such is that they feel so modern in form. We are trained by novels to expect a prose narrative about people like us — peers, whose everyday actions and thoughts and opinions have significance. We expect that those people’s personal traits will have an effect on the outcome of the story, and that the story will tell us something about social behavior and about the psychology of the people involved. But that form didn’t even begin until the 18th century. The currency of narrative in the Middle Ages was poetry (think about the Song of Roland or the Divine Comedy or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and even then it was about, and for, the nobility. These sagas are about farmers — wealthy farmers, no doubt, but farmers — and farm hands, and strong, gutsy women. They are written for other Icelanders, about exceptional characters. How did this happen? How did they even read them?

I enjoyed reading all the sagas in different ways, but I had two favorites. The Saga of the People of Laxardal has at its center a strong heroine, Gudrun Osvifsdottir. Women are more important in the sagas than in almost any other medieval literature I’ve ever read, as characters with their own personalities and roles to play, and even among these Gudrun stood out. In this saga, she has a dream towards the beginning that foreshadows her four marriages, but the actual circumstances and her reactions to them can’t be foretold. In a scene at the very end, her curious son asks his aged mother which of her husbands she loved best, because now she no longer has any reason to conceal it. Her strangely reluctant answer is very touching.

The Saga of Ref the Sly was (I thought) hilarious. It reminded me strongly of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles. Ref doesn’t boast of his abilities, he simply does everything better than everyone else and leaves his opponents with their mouths hanging open (or dead.) His enemies make a plan: sorry, he’s three steps ahead of you. They go to the king for advice: sorry, Ref has thought of that advice and has come up with a plan so extravagant that the enemies’ grandchildren will be talking about it. I’d explain the best trick Ref played, but it’s spoiler territory, and this is one you need to read yourself, along with the vulgar but side-splitting Tale of Sarcastic Halli.

I learned a lot from reading these sagas about everyday Viking life — what they eat and drink, how they arrange their sleeping quarters, what politics are like, how much it costs in recompense when you accidentally kill a man, or a goat — but mostly I just enjoyed living in this strange foreign world for a while. I enjoyed traveling to see the king of Ireland, or King Athelstan. I enjoyed the marriage celebrations. I enjoyed the seals on the starboard bow, and the glint of fire and gold in the dark. And I expect you would, too.

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13 Responses to The Sagas of Icelanders

  1. Maggie says:

    Jane Smiley has some academic expertise on Iceland — she spent a year there on a Fulbright scholarship back in her college days. And, although Greenland is NOT Iceland, I believe an Icelander “founded” Greenland and Jane Smiley wrote a respected novel about that time in history called The Greenlanders. More here:

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for this! I suppose I still think that a novelist who spent a year in a country in college and also wrote a novel about a different country might not be my first choice to write the preface for this kind of collection of that country’s foundational literature, when there are so many other choices. I do think it’s odd of Penguin. But I read it anyway!

  2. I don’t remember where I first heard of this book, but I tracked down a copy of it a few years ago, and it’s sat on one of my shelves waiting to be read ever since. I have good intentions to read it, but I guess I just want to be in the appropriate mood to in order to appreciate it fully – I don’t want to read it just out of a sense of obligation. In the meantime it looks nice on my dining room bookshelf.

    • Jenny says:

      It does look nice, I agree. But try reading it — just dip into a few of the shorter ones, like the Saga of Ref the Sly or the Tale of Sarcastic Halli. It ought to give you a taste for them, if anything will.

  3. Ed says:

    I have read a number of Icelandic Sagas and I think they are wonderful. I do not have this volume though. I have them in several separate Penguin Classics volumes. The Saga of the People of Laxardal is a favourite of mine as well. I am not familiar with the Saga of Ref the Sly though.

    • Jenny says:

      See if you can find it, if you have the inclination. I thought it was so enjoyable. I’d like to read some more of these myself one day.

  4. Like Ed, I have read much of the longer texts separately but I always meant to scrounge through this book for the shorter stories, but have not gotten around to it.

    Good, good, good stuff.

  5. Scott W says:

    A great book, one of those I keep handy so that I can dip into it from time to time (though I’m impressed that you read it cover to cover, something I’ve never done). Maggie addressed the Jane Smiley question before I got to it, but The Greenlanders has a mighty reputation, with many (if not most) readers considering it Smiley’s masterpiece.

    • Jenny says:

      I think Maggie didn’t explain it in a way I could understand. I suppose I don’t quite grasp how writing a great novel about Greenland gets you writing the preface to Iceland’s literature, any more than writing a novel about Canada gets you writing the preface to Great American Lit. I ain’t mad about it — just a wee bit baffled.

  6. JaneGS says:

    Sounds absolutely marvelous–visiting a distant land, long ago, and finding something familiar and relevant. I think I would find this fascinating as well.

    Wonderful, thoughtful, compelling review…as usual :)

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