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.