Seeing a man about a saga


The Sagas of Icelanders Penguin edition
I needed someone to speak to about sagas. I found a lecturer in Icelandic Literature, Thorsteinn.   His office was on the top floor of the old building of the University of Iceland. Rather unsettlingly, this reminded me a little of my trip to Berlin to research my 1930s novel: it had a touch of the Nazi Gothic about it.

Thorsteinn’s office was small and academic, with the exception of an unexplained Barbie doll on the top shelf. Nothing in Iceland is ever completely serious. There was a view over Reykjavík City Airport to Thingholt and the Hallgrímskirkja.

Just in front of the university is a rather elegant statue of an early Icelandic academic, Saemundur the Wise, and a seal. Like many future Icelanders, Saemundur studied abroad, at the Sorbonne in Paris, specializing in the devil and black magic. In the eleventh century, travel from France to Iceland was tricky, so Saemundur did a deal with the devil, who promised to take the form of a seal and give him a lift home. Saemundur hitched the lift, but as soon as he made landfall in Iceland he whacked the seal over the head with a bible. I suppose the moral of that tale is be careful about giving lifts to academics in Iceland, especially if they are carrying bibles.

I mentioned to Thorsteinn that my story was going to involve Tolkien and a lost saga. Back in England, I had read a lot of sagas, and a little about Tolkien. I was not at all surprised to discover that Tolkien was an expert on them and that The Lord of the Rings was indeed inspired by one. For my story, I needed a lost saga. I had some ideas, but I wanted to check whether they made sense to an expert.

The sagas are a series of stories written down in Iceland in the later Middle Ages in Old Norse. They fall into several categories. There are the lives of the saints, the lives of the Kings of Norway and histories of Europe – there is even a saga about Thomas Becket.

There are a couple of sagas that deal with ancient Germanic myths, including The Saga of the Volsungs, which tells the story of a cursed ancient ring, the Andvaranaut, which is passed around various gods, heroes, dwarves and dragons, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The story inspired Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and of course Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The most famous sagas are The Sagas of the Icelanders, which are stories about the families that settled Iceland in the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Forty of these survive; some are short, some stretch to a couple of hundred pages. They are not exactly histories, they are more historical novels, even thrillers. They are expertly told, with deft, sparse characterization, plenty of action, legal disputes, wagers, stallion fights, people falling in love with other people’s husbands or wives, pride, jealousy, grief. It truly is all there, and in a modern translation they are real page-turners. I love them, although I must admit that some are written better than others, and they could all do with a good editor cutting out chunks of repetition and digression.

The big four are Njal’s Saga, Egil’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga and The Laxdaela Saga.

My favourite is Njal’s Saga, which is basically a legal thriller. Njal is an expert lawyer who advises his friends on how to solve disputes at the Althing without resorting to swords and battleaxes. They don’t always listen, people die, houses burn.

Egil was an extraordinary man and definitely deserves his own saga. He was born in Norway, and from an early age started beating people up unnecessarily. He got kicked out of the country, and went to Iceland, where he settled near Borgarnes on the west coast – his farm still stands at Borg a few kilometres to the west of town. He became a warrior, and fought for the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in York. As well as being a thug he was a brilliant poet, and when imprisoned by Athelstan, he wrote a beautiful poem to secure his own release. He returned to Iceland, grew old and a little dotty, and buried his treasure. It has never been found.

The sagas are emphatically not just about men. Some of the best characters are women, such as Gudrun of The Laxdaela Saga, who was beautiful, very clever and very dangerous. It was not a good idea to be either her husband or her lover. The women in the sagas are not necessarily the peacemakers: they urge their husbands to get off their fat arses and take revenge against thieving neighbours if they ever want to have sex again.

By the way, these names – Njal, Egil, Grettir, Erik – bring all kinds of difficulties to someone writing in English about both ancient Vikings and modern Icelanders. The conventions are different and inconsistent. I mentioned that Icelandic grammar is a nightmare. Well, even the names need to be declined depending on what case they are. The likes of William Morris, being classically trained, decided to lop off the suffixes which give the names their case, and refer to just the root. So Njáll becomes Njal, and our old friend Eiríkr hinn raudi becomes Eirík the Red, which is further anglicized to Erik the Red. However, modern translations of Icelandic always use the full nominative form of the name: Njáll and Eiríkur (Eiríkr is Old Norse). So, in the same book I can refer to a modern Icelander as Egill and the old Viking poet and thug, Egil. Icelanders hate it. Copy editors hate it.

If you haven’t read the sagas, you might imagine them to be like the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf or the tales of the court of King Arthur. In fact, they are much more straightforward and down to earth. In the original Old Norse, the language is sparse, the word choice precise, more Hemingway than Proust. Unfortunately, the nineteenth-century translations into English by William Morris and Eiríkur Magnússon are quite wordy, and there are quite a few dodgy renditions out there. Magnus Magnusson’s translations are much more readable, and the current Penguin translations are excellent. This is a case where it’s definitely worth paying for quality; be wary of free, poorly translated editions on the internet.

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