THE SAGAS OF ICELANDERS
Edited by Jane Smiley et al.
Viking. 782 pp. $40
The Icelandic sagas might be likened to a sort of literary Stonehenge, a palpable and towering accomplishment that remains forever inexplicable. We know where and approximately when these works were created--medieval Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries--but the who, the what and the why of the matter continue to elude us.
Scant biographical material has come down about the authors of the 40-odd sagas in the Icelandic canon, and much of what we know of the civilization they evoke is contained in the texts themselves, a closed circle that only enhances the mystery. Moreover, because of Iceland's physical and spiritual remove from the rest of Europe, the sagas have been fairly described as the most obscure of all great bodies of world literature. Nevertheless, many "mainstream" authors have been influenced and stimulated by these stark, runic and often brutally realistic masterpieces, among them Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sigrid Undset.
A contemporary devotee, the American novelist Jane Smiley, has done much to bring the sagas to public attention, through epical volumes such as The Greenlanders, as well as her championship of the late Icelandic master Haldor Laxness (whose Independent People from 1946 is in many ways a neo-saga). Now Smiley has contributed a preface to The Sagas of Icelanders, a generous collection of 11 full-blown sagas and six shorter tales that also includes a long, stirring, scholarly and altogether absorbing introduction to the genre by Robert Kellogg, a professor of Icelandic studies at the University of Virginia. The book also contains maps, ancient calendars, family trees and diagram drawings of ships and farmhouses.
The first thing that will likely impress any new reader of the sagas is their genuine and profound strangeness--indeed, the word "strange" runs through saga criticism like a particularly insistent mantra. Most of the described events are supposed to have taken place some three centuries before they were written down, making for a marked distancing of author and subject. And even those works named for specific characters, such as "Egil's Saga," are more generally group portraits, whether of families or bands of early settlers. We don't even meet Egil until the the 31st chapter of "his" book, after we have been told many and various tales about his lineage--and, for that matter, the lives and lineage of many other characters who may or may not have had anything to do with him.
Despite their chimerical mixture of history, fiction, genealogy and proto-encyclopedia, the sagas could hardly be more linear and straightforward in their utterance. And yet that very directness can be disorienting, due to the curiously detached vantage point from which the narrative is relayed. Although there is masterly storytelling going on, it is relentlessly chronological, often monochromatic and almost shockingly unsentimental, particularly in its depictions of mortal violence. The authors make little effort to charm us, nor do we find the personal asides that are so endearing in, say, some of the early Greek writers. The abiding tone in Herodotus and Plutarch might be described as "This is what I have heard" or "This is what I witnessed." The Icelandic authors are content to say, for the record, "This is what happened."
The multinational editorial board that assembled The Sagas of Icelanders elected to leave out the most famous of the lot, the uniquely tender and multi-dimensional "Njal's Saga." Although this is rather akin to putting together a book called "The Tragedies of Shakespeare" and heaving out "Hamlet," "Njal's Saga" has always been readily available, and several of the works included in its stead will likely be unfamiliar to all but the most confirmed aficionado.
And what a dark, mysterious richness there is to explore! Those given to novels of fantasy and adventure should start with "The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal," which, as Kellogg accurately trumpets it, "moves swiftly from one colorful episode to another, with its Viking expeditions, sea battles, pagan temples, berserk fits, witches and sorcerers, monstrous cats, murderous attacks and beautiful women." "The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi," despite its simple story, is open to such a multitude of meanings that it has been hailed variously as a Christian parable of humility, a pagan fable of moderation and even a quasi-Machiavellian meditation on pride, power and politics. And such marvelously promising titles as "The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue," "The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck" and "The Tale of Sarcastic Halli" do not disappoint in their realization.
Blunt, grim, fatalistic and forever cognizant of a desperate struggle for life against death, these sagas will not be to everybody's taste. But those who take to The Sagas of Icelanders will likely never forget them.
Tim Page is a cultural critic for The Washington Post.