Reading sagas

The Icelandic sagas are about family trees and genealogies, hundreds of pages of them. Occasionally something like an anecdote or short scene emerges from the blizzard of names but the reader of sagas must be prepared:

To read the first 30 or 40 pages of names and relations and incidents sprawling over numerous generations, before you even get to the nominal ‘hero’ of the saga (Egil doesn’t appear until chapter 31 of his 90-chapter saga is a third in; Njal only appears in chapter 20 of the 159-chapter Njal’s saga).

For the nominal hero of the saga to die some time before the end and the saga to carry on detailing the lives and actions of innumerable relations and descendants for some decades after the main character’s death (Njal dies in chapter 130 leaving 29 further Njal-less chapters).

For challengingly complex lists of families and wives and children and descendants and the farms they settled and built and bought and sold each other… made very hard to remember because there seems such a paucity of names: there appear to be only about thirty names, so that fathers, brothers and cousins and blood-enemies can all share the same first name – very confusing – lots of Bards and Thorsteins.

For no psychology: one of the appeal of the sagas is the lack of psychology, instead everything is implied. There are sequences of events which unfold at the same relentless pace. Characters comment a little on this or that killing or legal settlement, but you almost never see into their ‘feelings’. Very occasionally, like a gleam of sunlight on an overcast day, there might be a one-sentence glimmer of psychological insight; but there will be at most two such sentences in 400 pages of text. (Gunnar’s mention of the beauty of his meadows, the fateful attraction which makes him turn back from exile and thus seals his fate (chapter 75) stands out as the only psychological moment in the 400 pages of Njal’s saga.) You have to piece together any sense of what the characters are like from a handful of incidents and a nickname; to the casual reader they may all seem like violent psychopaths except some are a bit more cunning than the others.

Instead, dialogue and description are kept to the bare minimum necessary to explain what really got medieval Icelanders going – which is more genealogies and family trees and explanations of who killed who, where, as a result of what grudge, the reprisals the killing led to among precisely which of the victim’s numerous friends and relatives; and then the elaborate legal proceedings it all led to at the Quarter sessions or the Althing.

For phenomenal violence, killing basically, at the drop of a hat. It’s surprising that Iceland was ever colonised considering the rate at which the colonisers from Norway, Scotland or the Hebrides killed each other. Surely they can’t have been representative, surely permanent feuds can’t have emptied whole valleys. In which case the sagas are deliberately omitting most of the behaviour of most of the population for most of the time to focus on just the grudges and fighting and feuds…

Gunnar's single handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal's saga

Gunnar’s single-handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal’s saga

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