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.
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.
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.
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.
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→
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.