Tag Archives: sagas

The Best Icelandic Saga

What’s the best Icelandic saga? You asked yourself that just the other day, didn’t you? Yoav Tirosh says it’s the Brennu-Njáls saga largely because that title could be taken two ways.

It’s the story of a couple fun-loving vikings who want to take over their district. Everything goes swimmingly until someone dies, there’s a power struggle, and then some zealots off the one guy everybody loves. Blood-relatives or not, those zealots are going to have to pay. Lars talked about it more in an earlier post.

Tirosh praises some of the saga’s virtues and suggests the duality in the title clues us into the story’s greatness, because Brennu-Njáls can mean either Burnt Njáll and Njáll the Burner. It’s the story of the burner and the burned, both embodied in one character.

‘The Eyrbyggja Saga and the Story of the Heath-slayings,’ trans. by William Morris

Eyrbyggja Saga

And therewithal Bardi nameth witnesses, and gives forth that he putteth from him Gudrun, Biorn’s daughter “and for this cause,” says Bardi, “that thou art by a great deal too much of a miser for any doughty man to put up with having thee for a father-in-law; nor shalt thou ever have back from me either dower or jointure.”

I figured it was time to read the Eyrbyggja Saga again, and that was before I even knew I’d be speaking to the Icelanders in a week. I like Laxdaela Saga a little better, because it has stronger characters, but the two sagas are often paired, as they share a general locality and several major players.

The big problem with reading any saga is keeping the actors straight. Every saga volume should include a detachable card with a list of characters on it (this is a particular problem with ebooks). And since about 2/3 of the characters have names that start with “Thor,” the struggle is real. I’ll confess that, supposed expert that I am, I lost track of who was who much of the time, and only guessed the teams by who they were fighting against.

Eybyggja means “the Eyr builders,” or the people who settled at Eyr. Eyr is a locality in northwest Iceland, and I visited the area on my one Icelandic trip. The gist of the narrative is that proud men tend to step on each others’ toes, and in an honor culture that leads to bloodshed. Accident leads to insult, and insult leads to blows or seizure of property, and then honor is offended and the killing starts. This continues unabated until the death of the mighty chieftain Arnkel. With him out of the way, his rival Snorri the Chieftain (or Priest, a character who appears in my novel West Oversea) gains power. Snorri is clearly not regarded as highly as Arnkel by his neighbors (or by the saga writer), but it must admitted his sometimes devious schemes tended to promote peace, and the area finally gets some rest from killing under his influence.

The really fascinating thing about Eyrbyggja Saga is its fantastic elements. There are a lot of ghosts in this story – the Norse kind of ghost, which is corporeal like a zombie (but does not, it should be noted, eat brains). Nevertheless these ghosts have a malign influence wherever they walk, and people tend to sicken and die – or even be assaulted – when they encounter them. There’s Thorolf Halt-foot, a malicious and greedy old man whose body must at last be burned to stop him walking. There’s Thorgunna the rich widow (who appears in West Oversea while still alive). There’s Thorir Wooden-Leg and his crew, who also appear in West Oversea. They provide the saga with a somber flavor that makes it unforgettable.

Appended to this edition (William Morris’s translation) is also The Story of the Heath-Slayings, a fragmentary saga which features (again) some of the same characters, at least in bit parts. The section we have largely involves a raid by northern farmers against southern farmers (for revenge, of course). The story advances by choreographed stages (reminding me, for some reason, of The Magnificent Seven), and also leaves a strong impression on the reader (or at least on this reader).

I’m not sure I recommend William Morris’s version. His intentions were good, if I understand them correctly – to use a lot of antique diction and obscure words to give an impression of the flavor of the Icelandic originals. But frankly, the sagas are hard enough to follow as they are, without all those obsolete words. Eyrbyggja is not the greatest of the sagas, but it’s one the saga fan will not want to miss.

‘The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga

I’m scheduled to give a lecture on the Icelandic sagas for a Sons of Norway lodge next month. Consequently, in an unaccustomed spasm of integrity, I thought I ought to check out the latest scholarship, since the information I’ve been operating on is a decade old or more. I chose The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross. I think I chose well.

I had learned from my efforts translating Torgrim Titlestad’s work (still awaiting publication in English, dash it all) that there has been some upheaval in saga studies of late. This Cambridge Introduction concentrates mostly on different aspects of saga studies from those Titlestad does (he’s mostly interested in the use of sagas in historiography), but it reinforced the impressions I got from him.

During the 20th Century, scholarly interest concentrated mostly on what are often called “the Icelanders’ sagas” (designations of categories seem to be a continuing problem in the field), the famous “wild west” stories of individuals and families involved in feuds and lawsuits, sometimes over generations. But Ross reminds us that there are in fact many different kinds of sagas – the sagas of ancient times, the chivalric sagas, the saints’ lives, the historical sagas, etc. Scholars are beginning to appreciate the other genres, and to admit that a) the earlier sagas aren’t necessarily better, and b) they’re not sure which ones are earlier anyway. As in biblical studies, textual critics in the 20th Century got a bit grandiose in their certainties about the evolutions of textual variants and which variants have priority. Scholars today are becoming a little less snobbish, and are broadening their range of tastes.

I enjoyed The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. Recommended for anyone looking for a fairly accessible, up-to-date guidebook.

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.

Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli

I’d been meaning to check out the 1981 Icelandic film, Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli, for some time. Not a great film by any means, it has genuine pleasures and rewards for the saga enthusiast.

Gisli Sursson’s Saga is one of the best sagas, and offers interesting distinctions when compared to others. It’s a tragedy of fate, like all good sagas, but in this case the legal and ethical rules by which the Norsemen lived create unintended (and insoluble) problems for a decent man. If your blood brother and your kinsman get into a fight, whom do you support?

Gisli has sworn blood brotherhood with his friend Vesteinn. But Vesteinn is murdered by Gisli’s brother-in-law. Gisli feels obligated to avenge him, thus keeping his honor (as he sees it) but turning almost the whole world against him. He is outlawed, which in Iceland meant that any man could kill him without penalty, and no one was permitted to assist him.

There are a few people who help him, though, notably his faithful wife. And with their help he manages to survive as an outlaw — without fleeing the country – longer than any other man, except one (Grettir, who also has a saga). Continue reading Reviews: ‘Gisli’s Saga:’ Book and movie

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.

The Sagas of Heidrek, and of Lars the Far-Travelled

Dale Nelson passes on this link to the blog Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, passing on information about the upcoming re-release of Christopher Tolkien’s translation of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise.

I’m particularly happy about this since HEIDREK’s is my favorite saga, and the first one I read (back when I had to get special dispensation from the college library to check out books there, since I was still in high school). Though it came as a bit of a shock to discover that Heidrek himself was the ‘hero’ of the saga only in the sense of protagonist: a kin-slayer and wife-murderer and generally dangerous and disagreeable person to be around. The most striking character for me was (and is) not Heidrek but his mother, Hervor*, who summons her own dead father from the grave to demand the family heirloom, the cursed sword Tyrfing (made by Durin & Dvalin), which had been buried with him. This scene was one of the first bits of Old Norse lore to be translated into English** at the beginning of the revival of interest in old legends and mythologies and literatures in the mid-18th century. Tolkien fans will probably be more focused on the Riddle-game, which was surely one of Tolkien’s main sources for Gollum’s riddle-game (along with two lays in the ELDER EDDA): one of Gollum’s riddles (“no-legs”) actually appears in one of the HEIDREK manuscripts. There’s also the famous battle between the Goths and the Huns that ends the saga, although this occurs after Heidrek’s day and in fact is set in motion by his children.

In personal news, blogging will be light next week, as I’ll be heading out Monday for my annual migration to Minot, North Dakota for the Norsk Hostfest. I hope to keep you posted to some degree, as I’ll be taking my laptop and they do have WiFi, which sometimes works.

Back next Monday, but I make no promises about posting that day.

Njal’s Saga

I just finished reading Njal’s Saga again today (actually Magnusson’s and Pálsson’s translation, not the new one pictured above). It would be pointless to review such a classic, but I thought I’d jot down a few reader’s impressions, fancying myself (as I do) a fairly knowledgeable reader.



Njal’s Saga
is often named as the greatest of all the Icelandic sagas. It’s not my favorite; I prefer the more action-oriented sagas like Egil’s and Grettir’s. That’s not to say Njal’s Saga lacks action. There’s plenty. The body count piles up like kills in a Stallone movie. But Njal’s is perhaps the most reflective saga, the saga that worries most about its soul.

The central character, of course, is the title character, Njal Thorgeirsson. He’s not the hero; there are actually two heroes, Gunnar and Kari, both mighty warriors of whom Schwarzenegger is not worthy. Njal, by contrast, is a man of peace. He’s famed for his wisdom and shrewdness, not for his martial skills. He can’t even grow a beard, a fact that makes him the target of some contempt. In spite of his efforts, his family gets caught in a cycle of killing and revenge that leads to his death (and his family’s) by burning, in his own house. Continue reading Njal’s Saga

Njal come back now, ya hear?

I’ve seen the artifact pictured above, in an exhibition. It’s one of the main reasons we believe the Vikings wore “nasal” helmets like the one I wear, even though none of that sort from the period has ever been found in Scandinavia.

I’d seen it pictured in books many times before I saw the real thing. Its size surprised me. It’s only about as big as a man’s thumb, an object somebody probably carved for fun out of a piece of antler, for no reason other than to pass the time.

A friend who reads this blog recently complimented me, in a personal note, on my “erudition” in Viking studies. I suppose I know a fair bit, when graded on the curve (I describe myself as a knowledgeable amateur), but I keep getting surprised by things.

Grim of Grim’s Hall has been moderating a reading of Njal’s Saga this summer, over at his blog. I drop in my two cents now and then, but I’m constrained slightly by the fact that a lot of things that confuse ordinary readers actually confuse me just as much. Especially when it comes to Norse law. Continue reading Njal come back now, ya hear?