Icelandic sagas


Yesterday I finished Njal’s Saga – or the Saga of Burnt Njal, if you prefer – a book I first started four months ago. I very rarely struggle with a book for so long. I either finish it much more quickly or I abandon it. But under the circumstances, I had to finish it. It’s an Icelandic saga, written in around the thirteenth century, one of the longest ones, one of the best known and one of the best loved. It deserved the effort to finish it.

However, it does contain entirely too much of stuff like this:

Thorkel Bully had set up that booth. He was the son of Thorgeir the Godi, the son of Tjorvi, the son of Thorkel the Long, and his mother was Thorunn, the daughter of Thorstein, the son of Sigmund, the son of Gnupa-Bard. Thorkel Bully’s mother was Gudrid; she was the daughter of Thorkel the Black from Hleidrargard, the son of Thorir Snepil, the son of Ketil Brimil, the son of Ornolf, the son of Bjornolf, the son of Grim Hairy-cheeks, the son of Ketil Haeng, the son of Hallbjorn Half-troll.

A lot of very similar names, a lot of family trees thrown in there and a cast of hundreds make it very difficult to keep track of who’s who and who’s on whose side. Basically, the plot is that two families feud because one man married a psycho who hates the wife of his best friend. Various friends, relatives and neighbours get dragged in until virtually the whole of Iceland is in on it. Then, after 150 chapters, the survivors go off to Orkney and then Dublin and fight a battle to kill King Brian. Coming after names like the above, Gizur the White, Gunnar of Hliðarendi, Skarphedin Njalsson, Lambi Sigurdsson, Mord Valdarsson etc, Brian is a bit of a culture shock.

It’s the third saga I’ve read, my favourite by a long way being the Volsung Saga, and I’ve concluded that where things always go wrong is with a bad marriage. Every single time someone marries someone they shouldn’t. And then things like this happen:

Man: Can I marry your daughter?
Father: Only if she doesn’t mind. Daughter, would you like to marry him?
Woman: No, he’s a bastard and I hate him. But I recognise that in this day and age, if you order me to, I have no choice.
Father: Good! I order you to!

Supposedly, the match is good politically and financially. No. No, it’s not. Because a marriage that begins like that invariably results in multiple murders. Other than occasionally going off on a tedious tangent about the correct legalities, Icelandic sagas tend to be quite fun, action-packed, blood-soaked epics but life would be easier for the characters if they recognised that the trouble always begins with an arranged marriage.

I recommend the Volsung Saga, by the way. It’s virtually the blueprint for the Lord of the Rings, containing a broken sword reforged, glowing swords, a cursed ring, dwarves, Valkyries, talking birds, a dragon guarding a hoard of gold, werewolves, Old Norse rap battles, incest, infanticide, Odin stirring up trouble every few chapters, Loki getting into trouble, magic horses descended from Loki, a pregnancy that lasts six years, cannibalism, prophetic dreams and of course, feuds. And remember, it predates Tolkien by nearly a millennium, before you start thinking it sounds a bit derivative. No one knows exactly who it was written by but I’m fairly sure it passed through the hands of Snorri Sturluson at some point – an Icelandic politician and writer (the only saga writer known by name) who was born in the twelfth century. This book, which is so little known in the English-speaking world, has had a bigger influence on modern fantasy literature than you can imagine. I don’t think George R R Martin ever read any of the sagas but the impression I get from A Song of Ice and Fire (without actually having got around to reading any of it yet) is that the Laxadal Saga and Njal’s Saga are a fairly similar sort of thing.

So in short, if you like any kind of fantasy, there’s probably an Icelandic saga out there to suit you.