How about some notes about Njal’s Saga, one of the great Icelandic sagas? I have no argument, just notes. On the Pleasures of Icelandic Sagas.
For some reason Iceland experienced a literary boom in the 13th and 14th centuries. Iceland was hardly unique – this is the High Middle Ages. The form of the literature is strange, though, and even unique. The sagas are prose tales that mix history, genealogy, legends, fiction, and anything else the typically anonymous author wants to include. They ought to be incoherent, and I suppose some of them are.
Njal’s Saga begins:
There was a man called Mord Fiddle, who was the son of Sighvat the Red. Mord was a powerful chieftain, and lived at Voll in the Rangriver Plains. He was also a very experienced lawyer – so skillful, indeed, that no judgement was held to be valid unless he had taken part in it. He had an only daughter called Unn; she was a good-looking, refined, capable girl, and was considered the best match in the Rangriver Plains. (Ch. 1)
The sagas I know – not that many – are always written in this kind of plain style. Lots of proper names. Lots of real places, well identified, stops for saga tourists. See Nancy Marie Brown, who writes about Vikings and posts at God of Wednesday, visit the site of the Althing, the annual assembly of the chieftains, where so much of the action of Njal’s Saga takes place (it is an early legal thriller). I have borrowed her photo of the Law Rock, where one-third of the law was recited from memory every summer, and where the characters declare their lawsuits.
I read an edition of Grettir’s Saga that included numerous photographs of the Icelandic sites. The one I cannot forget is a photo of a boulder, the very boulder that the super-strong Grettir moved. I think it also had the ravine where he fought the ghost. There is obviously a lot of fiction in these old identifications, but also a lot of something else.
The plain style is sometimes tedious. I do not believe that the opening above would by itself entice too many readers. But the style sets off the moments of tension or weirdness or wild violence peppered throughout the saga. Or, say, when one of the men tries to avoid violence only to be insulted and goaded to revenge by his wife or mother or daughter.
An example. Hallgerd is the foster-daughter of Thjostolf. She has already had her foster-father kill one of her husbands for slapping her. She has married Glum, and is happy with him, but during a fight he slaps her. Hallgerd forbids vengeance this time, but “Thjostolf walked away with a grin on his face” (Ch. 16).
Hallgerd was outside. She saw the blood on his axe. Thjostolf tossed the gold bracelet to her.
“What has happened?” she asked. “Why is your axe covered with blood?”
“I don’t know how you’ll take this,” replied Thjostolf. “Glum has been killed.”
“Then you must have done it,” said Hallgerd.
“Yes,” he replied.
Hallgerd laughed. “There’s nothing half-hearted about your way of doing things,” she said. (Ch. 17)
There, that is what I am looking for. “Hallgerd laughed.” Yikes.
I am using the Magnus Magnusson translation, the old Penguin edition, now replaced.