“It is good that you have industry, son,” Gudrid said severely. “But do not lower yourself like that. Your men will lose respect for you.”
“This is not Norway, mother,” he had said, patting her face gently. “All men must work here.”
Eyrbyggja Saga is not one of the very best Icelandic sagas, in the eyes of critics, but it’s definitely one of the top second-rankers. Aside from other points of interest, it intersects in several ways with Laxdaela Saga, helping to paint one of the broader narrative panoramas in the genre. It largely concerns itself with a long-running conflict between the two chieftain-priests (called gothis here), Snorri and Arnkel. You may recall Snorri the Chieftain as a character in my novel West Oversea.
Author Jeff Janoda has done a creditable job of turning one portion of Eyrbyggja Saga into a modern novel in Saga. By and large I’d say he’s made an artistic success of it, though he messes up his historical details now and then.
The story begins with Ulfar, a freedman (former slave) under the protection of the sons of Thorbrand, who are rather hostile neighbors to the gothi Arnkel (they are Thingmen of Snorri’s). Ulfar’s best friend Thorgils is one of Arnkel’s chief men (author Janoda does a good job showing how relationships and loyalties get entangled). It is Ulfar’s misfortune to own a farm that Arnkel wants, and to have a wife that every man wants.
After Ulfar goes out of the story (as the saga would say), the focus moves to his friend Thorgils, whose relationship with Arnkel is threatened by his own conscience – though trying to transfer his loyalty to Snorri only makes things worse.
It’s all quite tragic, in the saga style. The characters are complex and hard to categorize morally. I was particularly impressed with the way author Janoda made the heathens’ belief in the elves comprehensible – the supernatural saga elements are presented in a modern way, but with plausibility and no condescension.
Nitpicker that I am, I was annoyed by some failures in research. The author has trouble spelling Norse names – Hauk becomes Hawk, Haflidi becomes Hafildi. He speaks of Iceland as the Island – which is right but wrong. It’s spelled Island in Scandinavian languages, but that still means Ice-Land.
I suspect the author has read Daniel Serra’s An Early Meal (I’ve met Serra, by the way, though I’ve never sprung for his book, which I do want). But he doesn’t know much about Viking fighting – he thinks swords were stabbing weapons. And he makes the common movie mistake of giving them lots of leather clothing. With pockets, which (I say it sadly as a reenactor) they never had. He also doesn’t know how a Viking tent was constructed.
Still l found Saga a successful novel, all in all, though grim. It started a little slow but had me riveted by the end.
Recommended, with cautions for language and disturbing scenes.