Saturday, March 23, 2013

On "The Sagas of the Icelanders" ***

This anthology provides a taste of what Icelandic peoples were writing in the Middle Ages. Most of the sagas here were written down between 1200 and 1400, with the actual tales taking place around 900 to 1100, as Iceland moved from being heathen to Christian. This puts an interesting spin on many of the stories, as the authors sometimes find a need to put a good word in for Christianity, yet they do so largely without saying too much negative about the former ways: those before Christianity were heroes living large. Interestingly, their often murderous actions don't seem all that different after their conversion. Still, I can see why the Icelandics were viewed as perhaps the greatest poets of the era among the Scandinavian peoples. For such a small population, they put together a remarkably interesting body of work.

An interesting trait of all of the sagas is how they weave in history and genealogy. This weaving makes them seem like actual histories, while in fact, so the introduction notes, most of them were to a large extent fiction.

The longest of the sagas in the book is Egil's Saga. It recounts the heroic life of Egil Skallagrimson, but really, the tale starts several generations earlier, with a family in Norway and a man who remarries in old age. By this young wife, he has two children who, upon his death, are disinherited by the family of the first wife. This sets up much of the violence that follows--and the family's move to Iceland. On the death of the holder of the father's land, a man named Thorolf takes over, but the disinherited portion of the family is not given a portion of the land. Two members of this family take positions in the king's court thereafter and spread vicious rumors about Thorolf. Though loyal to the king to the nth degree (paying great amounts of tribute on various raids that he goes on), Thorolf falls into disfavor. It is believed that Thorolf is keeping back riches for himself and is plotting to become king of the northlands of Norway. Eventually, the king invades Thorolf's land and kills the man. His relatives take vengeance, including Skallagrim, and after this, they banish themselves to Iceland for safety. Finally, Egil enters the story, as a child. His father marries back into the Norwegian line, but his descendents are denied inheritance of the land, and Egil reaps revenge. Various viking raids are recounted. And finally, Egil grows old and settles down to full-time life in Iceland, where in one of his last acts he banishes another family who tries to steal his son's land. The Norwegian family disputes that largely escaped Iceland now come to rest in the new country.

The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal focuses more on a community (i.e., a family or group thereof) than any one person. As such, I found it a bit difficult to follow insofar as there was no center around which to focus my interest. Some individual chapters were engaging. Of the most pleasing were the tales of Ingimund and his sons Thorstein and Jokul (causing much confusion here, many relatives bear the same name). Ingimund lives in Norway and has no interest in moving to Iceland, but a seer prophesies that he will, and eventually, he lets destiny persuade him act accordingly. Once there, he builds a notable homestead and later in the narrative, in kindness, takes in a man no neighbors want living with them. This man one day kills Ingimund when he casts a spear at him, others having previously bothered the man about fishing in a certain river. Ingimund returns home, half a spear still in him, and dies. His sons Thorstein and Jokul decide to exact revenge. Thorstein throughout is the reasoned one, Jokul the hothead. Luckily, the brothers get to the man before his mother, a witch, can cast a spell on them--the brothers kill both. Despite such violence, by and large, Thorstein's more reasoned way of living generally wins out, and the family has peace. (In one interesting episode, a haughty man nearly bumps Thorstein into a fire at a festival Thorstein himself hosts. Jokul knocks the man down. For the insult, the men decide to duel. Thorstein, in an effort to put off the duel, in a manner characteristic of his general generosity, actually places himself under the man's onerous conditions for peace, but when the man insults the family in the process, Thorstein's proffered peace is rescinded. Weather keeps the duel from occurring, and later, when the man and his cohorts attempt to exact more ruin, Thorstein and Jokul gather more men and, with mere threats, send the ruffians packing.) Overall, this saga seemed more concerned with families finding peaceful means to live together than with heroic accounts of battles and adventures.

Like the other long sagas, The Saga of the People of Laxardal involves several generations of a family, but unlike those others, it seems to have a more-unifying feature to keep all the parts working together. That feature involves, fairly early on, a prophecy that is made to a young woman in the tale: Gudrun. And unlike the other tales, the women, especially Gudrun, have a a prominent role here. Gudrun is told that she will marry four men and what the features of each man will be and how they will die. The saga then brings each of those to pass, as she marries a not-so-good man, a rich man, and man of great fame, and so on. But she also has much to do with bringing about the events that happen in her life and in the life of the community. Also of note in the story is Olaf. the son of a woman of noble birth--an Irish queen who was sold into slavery. His children, notably two sons, along with a foster child would divide an inheritance. The foster child would prove to be of some trouble, as he would be the object of jealousy among the various heirs. As long as Olaf is alive, he keeps the peace in the community, but his death brings about a constant striving that happens thereafter. And this is where Gudrun and other women come in. For the fights between the men are often not simply male one-upsmanship. They are inspired by--even pushed upon the men--by the women, who will not stand by to allow their husbands, their children, their heirs to be dishonored. Revenge is often sought at the bequest of the women in the story, rather than initially that of the men. This is my favorite of the longer sagas in the book.

The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi is a shorter saga centered around one event and as such memorable reading. Essentially, it tells the tale of a man who vows to kill anyone who rides a certain horse of his that he has dedicated to a god. (It reminds me a bit of a similar incident in the book of Judges, wherein a man promises to sacrifice the first thing that exits his house upon his return from battle if he wins: that thing turns out to be his daughter.) The man ends up regretting his vow, but nonetheless he kills the man who rides the horse in an effort to salvage the owner's sheep. Here, the story becomes the familiar one of revenge by feuding families, as the family of the man killed refuses a very generous offer to pay for the death, instead taking the killer to court, and then, instead of that, eventually killing many of the killer's servants and forcing the killer from his land. Time passes, the killer becomes richer in a new land and returns to take his own revenge and retrieve his land.

The Saga of the Confederates is largely a legal drama, with various peoples taking each other to court rather than fighting things out. The hook here, however, is that the court is hardly a place of justice. Odd is a self-made man who ventures off to travel, leaving his farm and his job as the overseer of his community under the management of his friend Ospak. On Odd's return, Ospak does not relinquish his management role until Odd nearly forces him into it, which leads to some bitterness. Ospak handles things by attempting to kill Odd, but instead kills Odd's brother. They go to court to resolve the situation. However, a couple of people at court are jealous of Odd's success, so they dismiss Odd's suit against Ospak on technical grounds (not unlike, it seems, the way our own American system often works). Odd's father steps in and bribes a couple of judges and Ospak ends up getting his just punishment anyway, to the disgust of the two men who tried to dismiss Odd's suit. These two men learn of the bribe and take Odd to court themselves for bribery. Once again, Odd's father bribes a couple of judges, and Odd comes out ahead. Father and son, who early on do not get along well, are reconciled. This piece reads more like a short story than most of the sagas, focused around a distinct set of events and characters as it is. The author obviously didn't think much of Iceland's legal system in the early Middle Ages.

Gisli Sursson's Saga is a tale of revenge that I could see being easily adapted into a movie (albeit a violent one). It starts off rather predictably, with an account of the various families and with a killing. In other words, it's not unlike the other sagas. However, not too far into it, the story settles on Gisli as the main protagonist, a man who avenges the killing at the start of the tale and who then suffers the consequences. The rest of the saga, which is the majority, recounts Gisli's life in hiding, as the relatives of the dead man continually seek him out. In the end, Gisli has to make one final heroic stand, which cannot be said for most of the relatives, who remain more prone to hire bounty killers--most of whom meet death--to do their deeds than to risk their life to avenge the dead man with their own hands.

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue is the tale of a love triangle that ends in tragedy (and starts, as many sagas do, with a prophecy that comes true). The Saga of Ref the Sly made for lively reading, but by the time that I got to it, it hardly seemed that unique (Ref kills a man in revenge, sails from Iceland off to Greenland for safety, is slandered as gay, kills some men in revenge, is sought out, but ducks away from his pursuers, killing a few in the process, repeat revenge plot in Norway, live to old age and die).

The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga are mostly nonfiction and are interesting as primary documents regarding the Viking exploration of the New World. They don't have quite the rich uniform quality of narrative that some of the better sagas have, however.

The book closes with several tales. I found these interesting, but as long as the sagas sometimes could be, I actually enjoyed those more. The tales seemed like short stories without a lot of character development; the sagas seemed somehow richer.

Introductions and appendixes frame the sagas and tales and provide some very useful background information.

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