Tag Archives: Flatey Book

Mine, mine, mine!

Among the great joys of life, at least for me (I’ll admit that my joys are somewhat circumscribed), getting a nice book for free is among the chief… examples.

Today when I got home from work (late) I found three volumes like this on my porch, all the way from Norway.

Flatey Book

They are the volumes published so far of the Saga Bok translation of the Flatøy Book, which has never been translated in full before – into any language, I believe. Saga Bok is engaged in producing a Norwegian version in full, in seven volumes. But the first three volumes constitute a distinct unit, with a different writer than the rest. This is the chief historical section of the work, and invaluable for a historical novelist like me.

Flatey Book III

Written in the 14th Century, Flatøy Book was originally compiled for the last king of Norway, who died before it was finished. At that point Norway was united with Denmark. In the 17th Century the book was relocated to Copenhagen, where it remained until 1971, when Iceland got it back, to great national rejoicing. It did spend a number of years in Norway, though, in the home of the scholar Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719), who lived at Avaldsnes, Karmøy, where my great-grandfather was born. Torfæus used it as a source for his great Latin history of Norway. So I feel some kinship with the book.

An English edition is planned, but I won’t be involved in that project. An Icelandic translator will, quite properly, handle that important job. But in the course of my ongoing translating relationship with Saga Bok I employed my ninja negotiating skills to request and receive these volumes.

Booty! I got booty! And not in the hip-hop sense.

The Saga of Tormod

Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719) was accustomed to more comfortable lodgings. An Icelander who had lived many years in Norway, he was an officer of the king and used to being treated with respect. But this old Danish inn offered nothing but cheap beer and food, and a room he had to share. He was bone-tired and wanted his sleep, but another Icelander kept blundering into the room and trying to turn him out of his bed.

The year was 1671. Tormod had sailed home to Iceland to clear up some estate matters following the death of his brother. He decided to return home by way of Copenhagen, but his ship was wrecked near Skagen, though the passengers all survived. They had to make a long foot march to get passage on another ship, and then bad weather forced the new ship to seek harbor on Samsø Island. And that was how Tormod came to be overnighting in this miserable hostelry.

Every time he began to fall asleep, the door would open, and a drunken Icelander, Sigurd, would come barging in and try to push him out of his bed. Then they would fight, and the landlord would come and tell Tormod to go back to bed. Finally Tormod begged the landlady to give him a different room. She complied, and he lay down with some hope of a few hours’ sleep. But he’d grown suspicious of this establishment, and lay his rapier on the table, near at hand. Continue reading The Saga of Tormod

Heathen? Thank a Christian.


A page from the Flatey Book.

Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.
–G. K. Chesterton, “The Ballad of the White Horse”

It’s pretty well known that Norse mythology is far better preserved than any other European pre-Christian mythology. This is largely because the great saga-writer and poet Snorri Sturlusson, a Christian, persuaded Icelandic churchmen that the old Norse Eddaic poetry was worth preserving, and that a knowledge of the old myths was necessary to preserve it.

In my translation work on the brochure I’m doing for the Flatey Book publication project, I learned about a further debt that Icelandic culture (including modern, reconstituted heathen culture) owes to the church.

Here’s an excerpt from Prof. Titlestad’s essay in the brochure:

In the farthest north of Iceland, at Hólar in Skagafjord, dwelt the mathematician, cartographer, culture-builder and bishop Guðbrandur Þorlaksson (1541-1627). He was the first to draw a good map of Iceland. He had a printing press at his disposal and published/edited 80 books. A graduate of the University of Copenhagen, he was the first to publish extracts of the Bible in Icelandic. In this way he established a more secure basis for a national language than Norwegians possessed – they had to get along for centuries in Danish.

It’s often stated that modern Icelandic is the same language spoken by the Vikings. That’s only approximately true — the language has changed a little. But it’s close enough for general purposes. If Jarl Haakon, who time-travels to the 21st Century in my novel Death’s Doors, showed up instead in Reykjavik, he’d get along fine making himself understood.

But the reason that old language was preserved in its early form, as we see above, is because a Christian bishop wanted to have portions of the Bible printed in Icelandic.

The Flatoy Book

I hope I’m not out of line quoting a paragraph from my own translation, in progress, of a promotional booklet for the Norwegian Flatøy Book project. This passage discusses the decision of the Icelandic bishop Brynjolv Sveinsson to turn the big manuscript (two volumes) over to King Fredrik III of Denmark in 1556. The original author is Prof. Torgrim Titlestad:

Brynjolv built on insight that had been developed within the Icelandic culture ever since Arngrimur’s pioneering work in the 16th Century, but he was possibly more aware than the others of the unique civilization-building impulses contained within the Norse heritage, as especially expressed in Flatøybok. Flatøybok can be understood as a kind of “Noah’s Ark” of ideas, stocked with the fundamental concepts of the Norse world in order to survive as a time capsule in a threatening future. This distinguished Flatøybok from older saga literature. The book was a “generational ship,” laden with the experiences of many people over many generations. The Norse culture had grown up outside the sphere of Roman dominion, and thus was different from European feudal culture with its comprehensive, hierarchical class structure. The Icelandic author Bergsveinn Birgisson (1971-) has expressed himself on the message of these medieval authors to the world (2015): “We had our own unique culture up here in the North, with a value of its own, which we desire to preserve for future generations.” And as his spiritual ancestor Brynjolv might have said, “And we would wish that the world would learn from it.” Brynjolv desired to send this “ark” to Copenhagen so that the book might be published and made available to European readers. Flatøybok was meant to sail out into diverse intellectual harbors and then cast off again for further voyages around the world.

More Viking stuff. More or less.

My life is suddenly full of Viking stuff again. I just got a commission to translate, not a book, but a brochure, for a Norwegian foundation devoted to the translation and publication of a complete edition of the Flatey Book, the largest and best preserved saga manuscript we have from Iceland, and incidentally one of the most beautiful medieval illuminated manuscripts in existence. The publishers are my old friends at Saga Bok publishers, with whom I’ve worked before. It gives me a wholly undeserved sense of importance to be involved in such a project at any level.

Also it occurred to me to share the movie trailer below, a soon-to-come Norwegian adventure film about the Birkebeiners, a legendary Norwegian rebel army that overthrew a king of questionable pedigree to replace him with another king of questionable pedigree. The new king was a baby whom two Birkebeiners (the name means “birchlegs,” because in the early phases they were sometimes so poor they had to wrap their legs in birch bark for lack of warmer leggings) rescued by carrying him over the mountains by ski.

The trailer, alas, is in Norwegian, but I think you can follow the sense of it. This isn’t strictly a Viking story, as it takes place in the 12th Century, after all the pillage and plunder stuff had been pretty much worked out.

Personally I’ve always been ambivalent about the Birkebeiners, because I like to imagine that one of my ancestors might have been a leader of the opposition party, the Baglers. But, like any modern Norwegian, I imagine I had ancestors on both sides.

I have no idea if there are plans to release this movie in English. I just do these things to frustrate you.