What I’m Reading: Örnólfur Thorsson (ed.) – The Sagas of Icelanders

Pretty much the first thing that struck me about these sagas is how immediately accessible they are – I have read medieval texts before (even if not very many), and usually (i.e., unless one happens to be a medievalist) it takes a lengthy introduction and extensive notes for any modern-day reader to even get the point of any tale from that period, not to mention any deeper significance or wider-ranging connotations. Not that one should expect a penetrating exploration of the conditio humana from those tales, but they are  rousing good read, and I doubt there are many medieval texts out there of which one can say that.

The Penguin edition which I read, titled The Sagas of Icelanders, does have a lengthy introduction that covers all kinds of aspects of Icelandic sagas: their historical context, the role they played in the society of their time, the poets and their audience, it even offers an analysis of various formal elements commonly found in those tales. It is all extremely helpful, and without a doubt did considerably enrich my reading experience of the sagas – but you could just as well simply skip all the introductory stuff and jump right into the tales themselves, and would likely enjoy them just as much as I did after dutifully having made my way through all the editorial material. This is no small feat, for texts that are almost a thousand years old to be able to grip a twenty-first century reader on such a basic, simply-enjoying-the-story level.

Which is most emphatically not to say, however, that those sagas read like contemporary texts. I feel a bit uncertain about the translations – with texts this old I am always somewhat worried that the translators might sacrifice precision to readability, creating a false sense of familiarity in a misguided attempt to make an ancient text accessible to a modern-day reader and producing what is effectively a streamlined version of the original. Not being particularly proficient in Old Norse,  I really cannot say whether this is the case here, but my entirely subjective and completely uninformed impression was that the translators of the Penguin edition did a pretty good job at making the sagas immensely readable while still retaining their essential strangeness to a reader in the early twenty-first century.

The area where this strangeness made itself felt most keenly (for me at least) was neither in the matter-of-fact attitude towards supernatural occurrences that most of these tales show (with the extent of the supernatural element varying greatly, from the simple use of runes for healing to outright visions of ghosts and the battling against mages that would not be out of place in any Sword & Sorcery tale) nor in the sometimes weird customs of the Northlanders (I remember a particularly large WTF moment when someone attempted to kill his house guest because he had drank too much of his host’s ale, and nobody seemed to think this in the least bit excessive), but in the way subjectivity is treated throughout all of this tale – or rather, is not treated at all, as subjectivity is something does not really happen here.

There is no interiority to the characters in these sagas, no inner space in which their thoughts and emotions could resound, no psychological motivations, in fact no psychology at all. The people the Icelandic sagas tell of are pure exteriority – we get to know their actions, but never their thoughts or feelings, everything is told from a strict outside perspective. Possibly it is that which gives events in the sagas their distinctive air of inevitability, of its protagonists marching down a prescribed road with unwavering fatalism – a fatalism, however, that is not all perceived as tragic, at least not by the protagonists of the tales; it might be very different for a listener / reader who in a way has to supply the emotions here, using the sagas as some kind of projection surface.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the characters in these tales are flat or two-dimensional just because they are lacking an inner space – they emphatically are not; quite to the contrary, many of them are very memorable and multifaceted. They derive their plasticity from other sources, their personalities do not resonate in an inner, but an outside space, namely that of their interpersonal relationships. The Icelanders in these sagas appear to define themselves mostly by way of their relation to other people – their family, their clan, their neighbours. It is their actions and interactions that give them resonance, seeing themselves reflected in others rather than reflecting on themselves like a more contemporary subjectivity would.

It is easy to see how for a subject that defines itself by how it relates and appears to other, fame would play an important role, and by extension how the sagas themselves would serve that purpose. Even with all the supernatural elements, the sagas at their core are historical writings, chronicles that serve the remembrance and propagation of the names of Iceland’s famous men. This also gives them a slighty metafictional slant, an underlying consciousness that the deeds reported are already destined to become part of a saga even as they unfolding.

This selection from Penguin is missing what seems to be considered as the best of the sagas, Njal’s Saga, but otherwise presents a very generous selection, containing among famous ones like Eigil’s Saga and the Vinland Sagas also some lesser-known ones and several short tales; all presented in texts that appear to be excellent translations from authoritative sources with an extensive introduction and the occasional footnote where it is necessary. The only issue I had was the weird placement of maps and genealogical tables right in the middle of text (rather than at paragraph breaks) but that is just a minor distraction from an overall very much recommended edition.

(This post is part of my Iceland and Beyond reading project.)



  1. Disappointed to discover that you don’t actually speak Old Norse, Heloise – it’s just not good enough! 😛

    It sounds as though these sagas are not only very good tales (best absorbed around a roaring fire with a horn of ale in hand, no doubt), but also provide a useful context for a certain other book we’re reading together at the moment. They might not offer that much inner psychology, but it seems that they give a very good idea of the psychology of the culture as a whole. I’m sorely tempted to get a copy of this and find out more, as for me the Vikings have always been people who are represented more by objects than stories. What you said about the emphasis on fame and the propagation of the hero’s name made me think. Could the importance of bards, as a result of this, be one reason why our friend Arnor is always accepted and given safe conduct, regardless of political allegiance? The bard’s role as creator of memories gives him an almost ritual significance and protects him from harm, perhaps? Something for me to think about, maybe…

    It’s reassuring too that you think the translations are reliable. There’s always a fine line to tread between keeping the spirit of the original and making it accessible to modern readers, but it looks as if they have it spot-on here. Funnily enough the cover of your edition is almost exactly the same as the cover of my “Hammer of the North” book about Viking history and legends. Which I haven’t yet read and, obviously, need to!

  2. Hehe, it was actually my wondering about Arnor in said certain other book that gave rise to that particular thought. Something I have not touched upon in my post is how many of the saga heroes are also poets, and the generous smattering of skaldic poetry you get in some of the tales – poetry, which unfortunately has not kept as well as the sagas it is part of and which I found pretty much incomprehensible (although it seems to have inspired William T. Vollman in his Ice-Shirt… but more on that in another post).

    For that other book you’d probably want to read the Orkneyinga saga (in fact it probably would have been a good idea to do that before tackling the novel – one always knows better in hindsight) which also is not included in this collection. I really can recommend The Sagas of Icelanders, though – it probably does not come across as well as I would have liked in my post, but I was hugely surprised to find out just how much sheer fun reading those tales was.

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