Icelandic Sagas

A long time ago when I was first researching and writing Martin of Gfenn, I was wandering around Hillcrest in San Diego with my friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan (RIP). He bought me a book and made a wisecrack, “If you’re so interested in medieval shit you’d better read this.”

It was Njal’s Saga.

I did. I loved it. It’s Beowulf on steroids. I didn’t know much about Icelandic sagas then but then last year I took an online class which was pretty tedious and academic about “Space in the Icelandic Saga.” But I learned about more sagas and something about Norse mythology and I finished the class “with distinction” and that was cool.

In two weeks, I will be in Iceland. What drew me to Iceland in the first place wasn’t the sagas but the horses. I saw them in a movie Beowulf and Grendl which was filmed in Iceland. I was amazed at the little horses that hung around like buses or cars waiting for Vikings to ride them. I began researching the little horses and learned where they were.


Then I began to put the country together with Njal’s Saga and that added a whole dimension of interest. Now I’m reading Egil’s Saga which is about Egil (duh) but also about Norwegian history, telling of the tyrannical king, Harald, who drove many good people out of Norway including Egil’s father, Skallagrim. And, as it happens (quite accidentally!) I’ll be staying not far from Skallagrim’s original homestead.

I did a little research into saga sites, too, and found one I would love to go visit but it doesn’t seem practicable for this trip. One of the responses I got, though, asked me if I were a teacher or something that I was interested in the sagas.

I thought about that and felt sad. The sagas are popular literature — folklore that was written down in the 13th century by a guy with the most awesome name: Snorri Sturllsson. But now, because of their age and obscurity have been relegated to the grey/brown realm of “literature” much like Beowulf and the Odyssey. Really and truly, though, these are adventure stories that are nine million times more accessible and fun to read than anything by Richard Brautigan, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel and I dunno, the Game of Thrones guy. They are wonderful.

Egil is a big, violent, dark, bald guy; he’s a superlative viking. He fought for the English King, Athelstan against the Scottish King Olaf (Olaf?). Through this I see a lot more clearly how the British and Viking cultures became inextricably connected during the years of viking raids. I’ve also learned that viking raids were the normal activity of the “hot bloods”  — restless young men trying to make a fortune. Most of them settled down on a farm when their viking years were over. I’ve learned about going “berserk” as a viking quality.

Egil was a poet and the saga is filled with his spontaneous verses. The book is fun to read and an object lesson on basic human nature (jealous, vengeful, passionate, hard-working, longing for home).

Let’s follow a friendlier
Feeder of wolves:
Let’s beat the oar-blades
Of our shield-adorned boat
That sword-bender won’t shun
Me, seeking his company:
Let’s sling our shields
Aboard, let’s make sail.


Icelandic Sagas — Njal’s Saga

I’m reading an Icelandic saga, Njal’s Saga, at the moment. I love it. From it I’ve seen the writing style that best appeals to me. There’s no description of scenery. Characters are described so we know what they look like and something about their basic personalities. When the saga will not follow the adventures of a character any more, the saga says, “And Hrothjoxvellids is now out of this saga.” There were times with the Schneebeli Brothers Go to Church I wanted to do just that. “And Katarina is now out of this novel.” But, we don’t do that any more.

There are hundreds of characters with strange unpronounceable names, like Thojostolf. In the saga, as in Garrison Keillors’ “Powdermilk Biscuit Flour Hour,” the men are all good looking and brave and the women are, I forgot. In fact, women in the saga are pretty devious and complicated so far. I haven’t met a good one yet, but some of the men are pretty nasty, too.

The saga doesn’t tell anyone what to feel. Death comes like a drink of water and the main problem it causes is that someone has to pay compensation. “He gave Thjolswulfson 200 pieces of silver and Thjolswulfson was happy.” This is for the death of Tjolswulfson’s son (names are being invented at this moment because it’s just fun to make up fake Icelandic names). No one is wrangling in existential angst over anything. The big problems are flour, dried fish and money.

There are witches — so far the one witch has been a man and his powers are very cool. He’s able to protect a runaway axe murderer by using fog and darkness to bewilder the axe murderer’s pursuers, causing them to lose their weapons and horses.

The fact that I like this style of writing isn’t going to help me sell novels because, you know what? I write this way. I’m actually stunned. Everything the modern reader would complain about in the sagas was imputed to my prose in my erstwhile workshop. “Too many characters with unfamiliar names.” “Not enough description. I need to see where they are and what it looks like.” “Too much dialogue.”

My philosophy as a novelist (I do have one) is that the people in my stories are familiar with their world. I should write about it from their perspective; it’s a place they know — are they going to belabor that for the benefit of someone else? Since they’re not, why would I? I don’t. To me it interferes with the sense of immediacy I try to create. This is probably one reason I’m the bestselling writer I am today. 🙂

The sagas have no plot. They are told in episodes. I LOVE that. I first met that in college, reading Homer and Medieval verse romances. I didn’t like it then. I wanted the smoothness of Thomas Hardy’s atmospheric novels in which I could walk the roads of Sussex with Tess or Jude. I met it again in the 1980s reading The Water Margin, a 14th century Chinese novel about a group of outlaws who overthrow a corrupt emperor, and I discovered that the episodic structure kept me interested, intrigued. By then I knew that most of the time I — and most other people — do not walk through the world with the intense consciousness of the world that modern fiction requires and I know that my life has taken place in, is remembered in, episodes.

The sagas seem, to me, to be completely realistic. Here’s the description of a marriage, “They got along well all summer.” There — three months of a relationship in six words. Isn’t that how we all remember things like that in our own lives? “In fall they began having problems again and Hallgerd asked to go back to her father during the Althing.”

None of this:

“As time passed, Hallgerd felt increasingly alienated from Hrut. Everything he did, even the most charming of his mannerisms, started to get on her nerves. If he brought her tea, it was always the wrong kind or it was cold. If he reached for her in the night, her skin broke out in a sweat and goosebumps covered her arms.” OK, I can see that this kind of description has certain captivating elements, but so what? What HAPPENS? OH! She asks to go back to her father during the Althing. Not, “That night she made Hrut his favorite dinner of dried cod, milk gravy and turnips. She even brought out some dried berries from summer, berries that reminded her of that glorious day above the cove when they had found the wild bushes covered with fruit. They’d picked berries all afternoon and later lay together on the heath, their bodies spent from the wild love-making inspired by the warmth of the day and the splendid view of the fjord. At dinner, her heart sore with regret and longing for home, she begged Hrut to allow her to visit her father during the Althing.”


The sagas focus on action and when someone goes after someone else with an axe, things get descriptive. “He cut through Glum’s shoulder bone and blood poured into Glum’s lungs. Still, before he died, Glum was able, with his short sword, to loosen Thojostolf’s hold on his axe and stab him through the belly. Thojostolf died. And that was the end of Thojostolf.” We’re glad. We’re sorry about Glum, but glad that Thojostolf is dead because he was a really bad man and stupid. Of course, now Hallgerd’s father will have to pay restitution to Glum’s family for the loss of their son, but it’ll only be a few hundred yards of cloth…