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Golden Notebooks


Let’s assume you deplane in a foreign country, in the dead of night, in the dead of winter, and get into a cab. The driver speaks lightly accented but excellent English. You ask about the weather lately and what follows would do a professional meteorologist proud: an avidly comprehensive report, involving a high-pressure area to the east and a low-pressure area to the west, or maybe vice versa, which, in conjunction with atypical precipitation patterns in neighboring countries, and slight divergences in the usual ocean currents, have contributed to the highly uncommon weather of late. (You’ll have to take on faith that the weather’s peculiar; the sky outside the cab is black and you can’t see a thing.) Next, the cabbie learns that you’re an English teacher and he holds up a Modern Library edition of Izaak Walton’s seventeenth-century classic, The Compleat Angler, which he’s enjoying hugely. He solicits your professional opinion (“But do you think Walton has a graceful style?”), and you mumble in reply, “I haven’t read it, I’m only an English teacher, not a cab driver”—or something of the sort. What country are you in?

Odds are, you’re in Iceland. It’s a place where meetings of this variety—chance revelations of improbable pockets of erudition—seem to happen all the time. It makes sense, somehow, that this would be the land that, per capita, boasts much the greatest chess expertise in the world. On my last visit I felt, on listening to my Izaak Walton– reading, night shift–driving cabbie, less surprise than confirmation; here was just the sort of incongruous, winsome encounter I’d come to expect in a country which, since I first visited it sixteen years ago, has drawn me back almost annually.

As it happens, this particular brand of pleasure—meeting up with an improbable intellectual flowering—has a retrospective component. The more you look into the history of Iceland (a record of frightful weather and chronic poverty, punctuated by decimating epidemics and natural disasters), the more admirable its achievements become. Nowhere is this more true than in that great literary culmination commonly known as the Sagas of Icelanders, whose heyday arrived in the thirteenth century and which to this day remains the country’s most noteworthy, durable export.

They were anonymous scribes, the authors of the sagas, who worked—presumably—in the enclosing dark of arctic winters, recording onto calfskins their tales of heroes and heroines, brave feats and bitter blood-feuds. When winter descended and travel became impossibly hazardous, their island nation would be cut off from the rest of the world for months at a stretch. They put their heads down and kept working. They flourished in an age when literature in much of Europe was stagnating or nonexistent. Indeed, some critics have argued that there were periods during the saga’s golden age when the most significant European literature was Icelandic.

In any case, there can be no arguing that the recent publication in English translations of the five-volume Complete Sagas of Icelanders, by Leifur Eiriksson Publishing in Reykjavik, erects a milestone on the international publishing scene. Iceland today holds roughly 270,000 people, and even if one estimates generously the number of offshore speakers of Icelandic—expatriate Icelanders as well as medieval scholars—there can’t be even a third of a million people in the world capable of reading the sagas in the original. Housed in handsome, durable, sewn bindings, complete with maps, tables, illustrations, diagrams, a glossary, a bibliography, and a cross-referenced index, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders presents, in specially commissioned translations, a wealth of materials previously either difficult to obtain or never available to the English reader. The landscape of the sagas—a forbidding terrain, populated by brooding sword-wielding farmers and their spirited, recalcitrant wives, tireless horses, and an occasional ghost—has never come through so clearly, in all its conflicted, haunting complexity. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders offers, to a wider world, nothing less than a world.

The word “saga” might be translated as “something said”—a definition whose elastic generality befits a group of prose narratives diverging markedly in terms of length, subject matter, and artistic aims. Over the years, they have been variously regarded as social histories, proto-novels, and folklore. The Complete Sagas of Icelanders contains forty sagas and forty-nine shorter tales, although the distinction between the two genres is not always apparent. The sagas range in length from 16 to 220 pages.

For all their diversity, it could fairly be argued that the core theme of the sagas is the emergence of Law—specifically, the establishment of a legal system in a nation of warrior-farmers who lacked a central military, social, or religious system.* The sagas are settlement tales, akin to our often bloody, harum-scarum accounts of “How the West Was Won.” (The analogy’s all the more apt when you recall that Iceland once was the West: the extreme, ramshackle edge of Europe.) Many of the sagas—and most of the best of them—were written in the thirteenth century, concerning events at least a hundred and often two or three hundred years old. The first permanent settlers, Norwegian Vikings, are reputed to have arrived in Iceland in 874, making Iceland the last country in Europe to be inhabited, and most of the sagas look back to an era when the founding fathers, figures of preternatural strength and endurance, parceled up and tamed the land.

One might simplify still further, and say only a little facetiously that the core theme of the sagas is the need for zoning ordinances, since so many of the stories have their quiet origins in a dispute over land use: the grazing of one’s sheep on another’s fields, the taking of scarce timber, and so on. The original settlers were in an unusual position in dealing with national security and military threats. Because their land, so isolated and impoverished, offered few temptations to marauders and little prestige to empire builders, most of the dangers they faced arose from internecine struggles, which were constantly threatening, as the sagas attest, to ramify into unstoppable, multigenerational feuds.

A sense of social fragility pervades the sagas. The Law looks like a rickety source of self-protection, and yet without it men fall into a Hobbesian state of nature, lives “brutish and short,” and all the more terrifying because nobody could ever expect to flee from this island nation without the cooperation and assistance of others. Hence the psy- chological power of outlawry—an official declaration whereby the accused was expelled from the legal system and thereafter could be killed without redress. (The Icelandic word for outlaw suggests “sleeping outside”—no better sheltered than an animal.) As one of the greatest saga heroes put it: “With law our land shall rise, but it will perish with lawlessness.”

The result was an extraordinarily complex and punctilious legal system, undergirding a society temperamentally prone to swift and impulsive acts of violence. This point was made exactly a hundred years ago by the legal scholar James Bryce, who marveled over “a body of law so elaborate and complex that it is hard to believe that it existed among men whose chief occupation was to kill one another.” A typical saga passage runs something like this: “Sigurd entered an amended counter-pleading against Magnus, seeking to clarify the jurisdictional issue, but then, despairing of the final success of his argument, went and stove in Magnus’s rib-cage with a halberd.” If that fabricated account sounds farfetched, it’s not many steps removed from this authentic one, taken from “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal”: “And though we are not well versed in the law, we will render this case void with our axe-hammers.” Or even better, this from “Killer-Glum’s Saga”: “Bard took on the case and went to serve the summons. And when he met Hallvard he brought his case to a prompt conclusion by chopping his head off.”

Violence in the sagas often materializes with an unheralded, unsentimental explosiveness that, no matter how many times you encounter it, is dependably startling. It’s in marked contrast with the depictions of battle in the classical epics, to which the sagas are frequently compared. Especially in Homer—and especially in the Iliad—every fighter of prowess seems entitled to a, so to speak, glint of sun. The life of some tough, courageous man is about to come to a close, but before he goes down into the dust Homer momentarily holds him up and illuminates him for our admiration—cites some particular skill he possesses, or traces him back, perhaps, to an immortal forebear—as though to compensate him for his imminent, premature loss of breath and daylight. In the sagas, such transitions are swift. One moment, somebody is rounding up a few horses, or mending a frost-heaved wall, or binding hay, and the next moment he’s lying face down in the turf, his free-flowing blood steaming in the frosty air.

There’s a random, faintly absurd, modern feel to this sort of violence. Mayhem is afoot and anybody could be a victim. In the Iliad, no matter how many dozens or even hundreds of Trojans assemble against him, there’s simply no way they can vanquish Achilles, who will not—cannot—die until he has avenged Patroclus’ death. Likewise, the Aeneid‘s Turnus cannot fall, even when helplessly surrounded in the Phrygian garrison, until Aeneas himself arrives on the scene to deliver the deathblow. The gods themselves oversee these combats, and in large matters they will brook no capricious or unseasonable or illogical outcome. Although the saga figures, too, speak of fate (Karl the Red’s observation that “things will happen as they must,” in “The Saga of the People of Svarfavardal,” strikes a characteristic note), their world feels far more unpredictable and chancy. The gods are further away. On these battlefields, prayers are not regularly offered and answered. In addition to fate, saga characters speak frequently of luck, which apparently has little to do with one’s merits or piety. The brief anecdote about young Skeggi in “The Saga of Grettir the Strong” is telling. This golden youth, seemingly born for a hero’s fate, enters and exits the saga with a falling star’s rapidity:

Skeggi was distinguished from all his brothers and sisters by his strength and build. By the age of fifteen he was the strongest person in north Iceland, and then his paternity was attributed to Grettir. Everyone thought he would grow into an outstanding man, but he died at the age of sixteen and there are no stories about him.

The sagas are on a human scale. When the Greek armies congregate on the Scamander plain in the second book of the Iliad, the very earth trembles. In the tenth book of the Aeneid, Aeneas reinforces his beleaguered troops with thousands of men packed into thirty ships. By contrast, the editors of The Complete Sagas refer to a “major battle” that “leaves dozens of men slain.” Some of the most memorable military clashes involve single-digit casualties. Achilles may slaughter so many Trojans that the very god of the Xanthus River has to struggle to bear their blood, but Grettir the Strong, perhaps the most doughty of all Icelandic heroes, is forced to acknowledge that while he feels comfortable battling three men simultaneously, four might overwhelm him. Or, as “The Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet” tells us, “Nothing can beat numbers.”

  1. *

    For a detailed explanation of the political realities facing the earliest Icelanders, see Jesse L. Byock’s Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power (University of California Press, 1988).

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