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.”
The sagas’ world of reticence, of brooding male violence, of plucky bravado in the face of hopeless odds, all narrated in a clipped prose that offers few judgments and ventures few forays into its characters’ inner lives, has sometimes been compared to Hemingway’s. Both worlds disdain “gush.” The famous passage in A Farewell to Arms where Frederic Henry dismisses as cant all abstract talk of patriotism, and insists on the innate dignity of unadorned place names as suitable memorials to fallen soldiers, would surely have resonated for the anonymous saga writers, who loved few things better than place names. But as I made my steady way through the five volumes of the Complete Sagas, the American writer who most frequently came to mind was Raymond Chandler, with his hardboiled humor and lovingly ritualistic deliveries.
The sagas’ heroes often have, like Helgi in “The Saga of Droplaug’s Sons,” a one-liner at the ready when things turn harrowing. After Helgi’s lower lip is “taken off” by a sword, his reply to his assailant is, “I was never beautiful, but you’ve made little improvement.” Chandler would surely have appreciated the no-kidding-around, matter-of-fact gruesomeness of this: “They broke the neck of the old woman Skjaldvor and it was a difficult job for them because she had a very thick neck.” Or the wry callous understatedness of this: “He twisted the tail of his cloak around Thorbjorn’s throat and bit through it, then snapped his head back, breaking his neck. With such rough treatment Thorbjorn quietened down considerably.”
But perhaps the deepest connection lies in a preoccupation with characters always at the edge of the legal system—equally fearful that it will come down upon their guilty heads and that it will fail to protect them from their enemies. They share a vision of justice as both impossible and indispensable.
If the sagas are settlement tales, the process they chronicle isn’t merely one of drawing up boundaries, clearing land, building farms and sheds. It’s also a matter (as in Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright”—“The land was ours before we were the land’s”) of investing the terrain with anecdote, lore, and language. Many of the sagas are really How Such-and-Such Got Its Name stories: tales of the heroes, ghosts, trolls, martyrs who lent their names to a countryside they shaped and were shaped by. To its pioneers, Iceland must have presented an unnervingly unstoried terrain—a land of glaciers and mossy lava fields, stunted trees and blasted, black moraines. Stories softened the landscape.
In much the same way, poetry softens the prose of the sagas, whose style is famously unforthcoming about characters’ thoughts and feelings. In his foreword to the five volumes, Jonas Kristjansson, former director of the Manuscript Institute of Iceland, characterizes the typical saga style as a “completely objective narrative approach,” in which “everything is observed from the outside, and only those events are related which could have been seen or reported.” True enough—though one might add that it’s often through poetry that we come closest to an intimate glimpse into somebody’s inner life. By way of explaining themselves, saga characters are forever breaking into verse—sometimes brief snippets and sometimes long and complicated compositions.
Many of these glimpses remain notoriously opaque. Admittedly, this poetry is often deeply hermetic stuff, laced with recondite or remote kennings—those little conundrums by which, say, an “ocean horse” stands in for a ship. Heavily annotated texts are the result, translations that effectively require a further translation—as when we’re given a line like “of wound-wasps’ sweat,” and a gloss explaining that “wound-wasps” refer to arrows and “sweat” to blood. These verses can be maddeningly elusive, and it’s probably true that no reader will respond wholeheartedly to the sagas who doesn’t enjoy riddles. For those who do, the frustrations inherent in not-always-explicable texts will be compensated by numerous little pleasures, as where a “prow’s meadow” turns out to be the sea; “scabbard-icicles,” swords; “love-hair’s island,” a vagina; “dark beer,” blood; and the “drink of the giant’s kin,” poetry itself.
Underneath the riddles, what deep longings do the poems reveal? I’m reminded of an anecdote that a friend of mine, an academic, tells about studying Anglo-Saxon some forty years ago. According to his recollection, Anglo-Saxon consists in its entirety of some two hundred words, of which one hundred mean “warrior.” Whenever he found himself in a tough spot on a quiz, he would fill most blanks with warrior and usually come out okay. In a similar spirit, one might fill in gold whenever coming upon an inscrutable Icelandic kenning. It’s remarkable how often gold appears, as image and as object, in the poetry—all the more so when one realizes that any gold an Icelander ever came upon would have been mined elsewhere. As one of the geologically newest, rawest countries on the planet, Iceland is all but bereft of precious minerals.
Of course scarcity may well be the point: gold must have had a special imaginative gleam and magic to a people for whom it invariably symbolized the bounties of foreign, faraway, necessarily southern lands. The sagas are, in comparison with their classical forebears, notably reticent about sexual matters, but gold is linked to images of feminine desirability, like Helga the Fair in “The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue”:
Helga was so beautiful that learned men say that she was the most beautiful woman there has ever been in Iceland. She had so much hair that it could completely cover her body, and it was as radiant as beaten gold.
(The sagas generally are far less sensual than their classical counterparts. There’s nothing in them to compare, for example, to the joyous sumptuosity of feast scenes in Homer and Virgil—a reflection, perhaps, of the comparative bounties of a North Atlantic versus a Mediterranean climate.)
In addition, the allure of gold may speak to Iceland’s location, just below the Arctic Circle. Anyone who has ever spent a December or January in Iceland, or at some comparable high-northern latitude, knows that the most striking thing about an arctic winter isn’t the brevity of the day but the seeming feebleness of the sun—a pale, wistful disc that, even at the height of noon, hugs the low horizon and hardly looks capable of warming an old cat dozing on a windowsill. To the medieval Icelandic farmer, who regularly went hungry at winter’s end as his autumn food stores ran out, that low gold coin on the southern horizon was the only reserve he had to stave off starvation.
The sagas represent a sizable portion of the nation’s cultural patrimony and modern Icelanders in all walks of life have spirited preferences among them. To my foreigner’s eye, the two most memorable are among the most famous: “Egil’s Saga” and the longest of them all, “Njal’s Saga.” Egil Skallagrimsson, the spiteful, greedy, moody, ugly hero of “Egil’s Saga,” is a rarity among saga characters in being rendered in extensive, idiosyncratic visual detail:
Egil had very distinctive features, with a wide forehead, bushy brows and a nose that was not long but extremely broad…. He was well built and taller than other men, with thick wolf-grey hair, although he had gone bald at an early age. When he was sitting in this particular scene, he wrinkled one eyebrow right down onto his cheek and raised the other up to the roots of his hair.
He’s rare as well, in a culture that esteemed the stoical and uncomplaining, in constantly verging on self-pity. For all his physical power (he swims vast distances through freezing water, his weapons tied to his back) and unswerving brutality (at one point he gouges out an enemy’s eye “with his finger, leaving it hanging on his cheek”), he’s subject to paralyzing funks. When he isn’t stirring up mischief, or conniving for gold, or composing beautiful poetry, he’s apt to be sunk in a brown study. From the vantage of the twenty-first century, we see in Egil Skallagrimsson a possible manic-depressive—a man caught in tides of emotion larger than he is. Even so, his titanic sulks and lyrical outbursts are as durable, down the centuries, as the peculiar skull that housed them—as we discover when, long after his death, he is disinterred:
Skafti Thorarinsson the Priest, a wise man, was there at the time. He picked up Egil’s skull and put it on the wall of the churchyard. The skull was astonishingly large and even more incredible for its weight. It was all ridged on the outside, like a scallop shell. Curious to test its thickness, Skafti took a fair-sized hand-axe in one hand and struck the skull with it as hard as he could, to try to break it. A white mark was left where he struck the skull, but it neither dented nor cracked.
As the longest of the sagas, “Njal’s Saga” was probably destined to attract many defenders, even if it had offered nothing more than a loose stringing-together of shorter tales. But as it happens, “Njal’s Saga” isn’t simply longer, but larger. The four tales it tells, over more than a half-century, are powerfully interwoven. It has in addition that mysterious transformative component—something to do with a tempered balancing of passion and dispassion, with a quirky, discerning eye for the universal in the particular—by which the merely outsize becomes the epic.
Much of its power derives from the layered psychological portrait of its hero, who is also sometimes known as Burnt Njal, because he dies when his enemies set his house afire. The usual saga practice of quick deaths is not followed in this case. Njal goes to his end in a protracted and haunting series of exchanges in which his wife, sons, and grandson choose to go down with him. Njal is equipped with second sight, along with a good deal of simple common sense and worldly wisdom—none of which ultimately suffices either to save his own life or to avert the widening acts of vengeance that, down the decades, devastate the world of his family and neighbors.
Njal is occasionally derided for having no facial hair. He joins a number of major saga heroes of an ambiguous or troubled sexuality—like Grettir the Strong (“the most valiant man who has ever lived in Iceland”), who is nonetheless mocked for having a small penis (“short-sworded”), or Thorgils in “The Saga of the People of Floi” whose breast produces milk, or the various men on whom a curse is laid preventing them from enjoying relations with their wives. Nowhere in the sagas does one find the sort of Byronesque hero who moves insouciantly, irresistibly, from woman to woman. Promiscuity leads, inevitably, to strife and mayhem. (One might conjecture that in the early days of Iceland, as in frontier societies generally, women were in short number and competition for them must have been fierce; in so militaristic a world, the philanderer represented a grave menace to the social order.) Nor does one find in the sagas anything like the comfortable, understood homosexuality linking, say, Nisus and Euryalus in the Aeneid. Njal is renowned not for strength but for vision, and the whole of his saga could be viewed as a rueful confirmation of the limits of wisdom in the face of hotter emotions.
Perhaps the most famous moment in all saga literature arrives in Chapter 75, when Njal’s friend Gunnar rides toward exile. Njal has clairvoyantly counseled him that if he departs Iceland he will prosper, but if he remains he will come to a bad end. Gunnar’s horse chances to slip—once more, that element of luck—and the whole of his life turns on that event:
Just then Gunnar’s horse slipped, and he sprang from the saddle. He happened to be facing the hillside and the farm at Hlidarendi, and he spoke: “So lovely is the hillside that it has never before seemed to me as lovely as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows; and I will ride back home, and not go anywhere at all.”
Tributes to the charms of the Icelandic countryside seldom appear in the sagas—which generally accept the scenery, beautiful or brutal, without comment, as an enormous given. Gunnar’s wondering declaration of allegiance to a landscape that not everybody would describe as “lovely” is touching. It’s also tragic. His doom is sealed.
I found a good many of the five volumes’ forty sagas and forty-nine tales far less strong than “Egil’s Saga” or “Njal’s Saga.” A number of them exist only as fragments. In some, the sagas’ multiple roles—historical account, fictional narrative, genealogical record—contribute to a shapelessness and lack of narrative drive. In others, there isn’t sufficient characterization to encourage a reader to keep the characters straight—a confusion exacerbated by the repetitiveness and similarity of names.
At times I was reminded of that old Monty Python skit in which a British philosopher arrives in an Australia where everybody is named Bruce. (“Mind if we call you Bruce?” he’s asked. “Less confusing that way.”) There are passages in the sagas where it seems everybody’s named Thor or some variation on Thor. In “Gisli Sursson’s Saga” we meet a man named Thorkel who, on the way to the Thorsnes Assembly, accompanied by Thorbjorn’s sons, meets up with Thorstein, the son of Thorolf, who was living at Thorsnes with Thora and their children, Thordis, Thorgrim, and Bork the Stout. But even better, in its hellbent determination to promote domestic confusion, is the man in Njal’s Saga who “had two sons, both named Thorhall.”
For the English reader, some of the names will appear wonderfully, unintendedly funny—encounters with characters like Grim and Glum and Skum and Odd—but this can be a fleeting pleasure where names appear in such relentless profusion. “The Saga of the People of Laxardal” offers, in its scheming heroine Gudrun Osvifsdottir, perhaps the most memorable woman in all the sagas; it also offers, according to an editorial headnote, a cast of hundreds—most of them scrupulously identified by either homestead or genealogy. At times, most readers will probably feel that they are going—or the authors of the sagas already were—a little mad.
Mad, too—marvelously, nobly so—had to be the team who conceived and carried out the decision to publish in new English translations a five-volume Complete Sagas of Icelanders. How many copies could they realistically hope to sell—especially given how high printing costs in Iceland are? I’d fervently urge everybody to read “Njal’s Saga” and “Egil’s Saga,” and there are a number of others almost equally good: “Gisli Sursson’s Saga,” “The Saga of Grettir the Strong,” “The Saga of the Sworn Brothers,” “Viglund’s Saga,” “Eirik the Red’s Saga,” “The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue,” “The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords,” “The Saga of Thord Menace,” “The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi,” “The Saga of Ref the Sly.” A good many of these can be found in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, all of which are drawn from the five volume Eiriksson edition. Still, the number of people destined to feel a profound passion for brooding medieval farmers and their blood feuds will probably always be limited.
And yet for those susceptible to that passion, how powerful it is! Ted Hughes spoke for a small but ardent minority when, in an endorsement of this series, he wrote: “The Icelandic Sagas remain one of the great marvels of world literature, a great human achievement…. All my literate life I have been looking for more English translations of the Sagas…. This is a dream come true.” They are a hard-to-categorize but endlessly fascinating group—those modern writers and artists whose visions have been sizably shaped by Icelandic literature: William Morris, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Jorge Luis Borges, and, among contemporary American writers, Jane Smiley, John Calvin Batchelor, William T. Vollmann. These are cold-loving imaginations, for whom—my guess is—the very word north is invested with richness, akin to what others feel when they hear a word like daybreak or lagoon or rose or heart. (To my mind, the most inviting book title in the history of world literature has to be Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.)
Imaginations of this persuasion will slog contentedly through even the most jumbled or fragmentary saga, always on the lookout for one of those appealing little felicities that seem—in their wry, skew matter-of-factness—typical of a medieval Iceland still occasionally discernible in the often straight-faced modern nation, as when we’re told that Snorri the Godi “was called the wisest of the men in Iceland who could not foretell the future,” or when we learn of Mjoll, the daughter of Snaer the Old, that “she was a pretty woman and nearly the largest of all women who were human.”
In “Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote,” one of his most piercing and lovely meditations or prose poems, Borges compares the “dreamer and the dreamed one,” Miguel de Cervantes and his creation, Don Quixote. Weary of “prosaic places,” both men retreated into the realm of the fantastic—for Cervantes, the ideal environs of the novelist’s imagination, for Quixote, a world of chivalric challenges and conventions. But in the end, Borges reminds us, the prosaic and the poetic turn out to be interchangeable. As the decades pass, the world of seventeenth-century Spain, so drab and mundane to Cervantes and Don Quixote, becomes as colorful and remote and fantastical as the respective illusion-states where both men took refuge.
Few major modern artists have drawn more sustenance from a Norse vision of the world than did Borges, and in no case is the line of artistic influence more improbable on its face. In a South American metropolis, an aging, ungainly man, living in an apartment with his ancient mother, repeatedly turned his imagination to a world on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where he heard—underneath the racket of Buenos Aires traffic—the splash of oars, the contending of metal against metal. He was blind, but he saw no less sharply than the anonymous saga writers the glinting silver of the sword-blades, the beguiling gold of the exploit’s plunder.
As in the Borges fable, the sagas are often at their most affecting when they touch on the humble. Time has a way of adding luster to small and easily overlooked details. Anyone who has ever tried hard to write a poem must sympathize with Star-Oddi, “so skilled in calendar calculation,” who steps out under the night sky after dreaming of having written a poem:
Oddi went out and observed the stars, which he always had a habit of doing when they were visible. Then he thought of the dream and remembered everything in it except the poem that he seemed to have composed.
I was glad to the meet the shepherd Hallbjorn, who wants to write an elegy but can never get any further than “Here lies a poet,” and glad also to meet the king who requests a poem with “sword” in every line. I was glad, too, to learn of the existence of Onund, “the bravest and nimblest one-legged man ever to live in Iceland.” And I was glad to sit down with the two sworn enemies Thorgeir and Butraldi, who, while housebound together one stormy night, manage not to hack each other to bits, but instead to share a meal of “old mutton” and “old cheese.” An unpalatable and uneventful meal—while a murderous blizzard whips and rages over a humble turf house. That wind strips the centuries away.
December 20, 2001
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). ↩