The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

‘This is our zone of transit, here we are assimilating our own biological pasts….’ (Dr Bodkin, page 91)

This was Ballard’s second novel and the one which really launched his career, because it is the first one to give readers a true flavour of the strange and eerie, dystopian psychodramas which Ballard was to become famous for.

Mise en scène

It’s a short novel (170 pages) set in the near future. About seventy years before it opens – i.e. in our ‘present’ – the sun began erupting in solar flares. These solar flares:

  • blasted away the layers of atmosphere, including the ozone layer, which protect the world from radiation
  • massively raised global temperatures, so that at the equator it’s now 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more
  • melted the icecaps and all the world’s glaciers, and so
  • raised the world’s sea levels by well over a hundred feet – six storeys of high-rise buildings are now under water

When it comes to the melting ice and rising sea this is something we’ve all become imaginatively familiar with thanks to the widespread publicity surrounding global warming – the one unexpected detail in this scenario is that Ballard says that the melting glaciers and calving ice caps have carried with them into the oceans and across the continents huge swathes of silt, mud and sludge (p.22).

All these factors explain why, 70 years later, the cities of Europe are entirely underwater, but swirled around their submerged cinemas and skyscrapers and town halls are sandbanks of silt out of which huge tropical foliage – rainforest trees and bushes and giant ferns – luxuriously sprout.

What is left of humanity has been forced to retreat to the very tips of the planet at the Arctic and Antarctic as the rest of the world not only heats up beyond human habitability, but is swept by devastatingly violent typhoons and hurricanes.

And an even bigger problem than the heat is the radiation – the loss of the ozone layer has exposed the middle parts of the world to life-threatening levels of radiation. This has accelerated the rate of mutation in the natural world, quickly giving rise to modern-day copies of prehistoric fauna and flora, but it has also, of course, decimated the human population. The birth rate has plummeted. Barely one in ten couples are able to have children (p.23). There are maybe five million humans left alive.

The mapping mission

The novel’s first part describes the work of a UN mapping team which is on a three-year mission to map the abandoned and overgrown lagoons and creeks which is what most of Europe’s cities have been reduced to. The mission has been sent from the home base, Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland (population 10,000, p.23). We quickly meet the key personnel:

  • Dr Robert Kerans – 40, tanned, white-haired, the main protagonist
  • Dr Bodkin – much older, number 2 to Kerans
  • Colonel Riggs – brisk and businesslike head of the military team, which numbers about a dozen
  • Sergeant Macready – reliable
  • Lieutenant Hardman – tough and intelligent
  • Beatrice Dahl – beautiful, langorous rich girl’s daughter who the mission discover living in a luxury apartment in one of London’s drowned hotels – much given to sunbathing in the dawn and evening light beside a drained swimming pool on the roof, painting her toenails, and drinking too much. Kerans is having a sort of affair with her which doesn’t appear to involve any physical element.

To begin with we are introduced to the rather boring routine of the scientists as they go about their mapping work. They have a floating ‘testing station’ (a two-storey drum some 50 yards in diameter, p.40) which is towed along behind the bigger military ship, as well as a flotilla of scows, a catamaran and a helicopter.

This begged the question for me, right from the start, of where they got all the fuel and power this would require. Or food. Or fresh water. Although Ballard fills in loads of other military and logistical details, on the big practical questions he is oddly quiet. But this is because his interest is in setting the stage for a different kind of story.

The double meaning of the phrase ‘the drowned world’

So it is that about 50 pages into the novel we learn the title has a double meaning. We learn that some of the ostensibly sensible, military-type characters have begun to have bad dreams. And they’re not just dreams. Dr Bodkin explains to Kerans that what they’re experiencing is the revival of prehistoric memories.

The world has reverted to the climate, flora and fauna of the Triassic age. And now humanity’s unconscious and preconscious minds are reverting, too. Bodkin tells him that Camp Byrd has received radio messages that something similar is happening to the other scouting mission.

Kerans comes across Bodkin giving some basic anti-reversion treatment to one of the most stolid and phlegmatic of the team, Lieutenant Hardman, who, apparently, has the most advanced dreams. In fact they’re not really dreams. The protagonists are slipping away into a prehistoric dreamworld which makes this one seem less and less real or urgent. They are in the TRANSIT ZONE between modern consciousness and reverting to something ancient and strange.

‘The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm millions of years ago have been awakened, the expanding sun and the rising temperature are driving you back down the spinal levels into the drowned seas submerged beneath the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronal psyche.’ (Dr Bodkin explains what is happening to them, p.74)

What is rising up and taking over their minds is the drowned world of their ancient primeval memories.

Tracking Hardman

Next day Hardman has disappeared. Colonel Riggs can’t let this pass and so they go up in the helicopter to find him, tracking back and forth across the routes through the lagoons and creeks and covering tropical jungle which head north.

Until Kerans has a sudden and utterly plausible insight: Hardman is not heading north back to their base camp and ‘safety’; he is heading south, into the heart of the mystery, into the truth of their condition.

So the team change their area of search and eventually discover a set of fresh tracks in mud leading up to abandoned buildings south of their base camp. They land the helicopter and track Hardman, eventually finding the fugitive, who eerily and wordlessly runs from them, leading them a merry chase through abandoned apartment blocks and then into some kind of town square, higher than the waterlevel, across a ruined piazza and up the steps of a law court or some such institution – in scenes which seem very like a de Chirico surrealist painting come to life.

Hardian ultimately gets away, though not before their helicopter pilot has crashed the helicopter into the facade of one of the buildings – an accident I would have thought would be fatal to the mission’s survival, but which everyone takes in their stride.

Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice stay behind

Through the first 70 or 80 pages we have watched the prehistoric dreams take over Kerans’ mind as he slowly realises that he will, he must stay behind when the rest of the mission returns to base. In fact Colonel Riggs has been ordered to cancel the mission and head back north immediately, apparently in response to the outbreak of dreams among his crew.

The night before the scheduled departure Dr Kerans and Dr Bodkin reach a kind of wordless understanding. Both are far out, now, in the ‘archaeopsychic zone’, half their minds buried in Deep Time. In the depths of the night they scuttle the floating research station and make off in their own boats.

Next morning Kerans is with Beatrice in her luxury hideout as they watch the UN helicopter hovering overhead and Colonel Riggs shouting through a loudhailer at them to join him. The couple keep out of sight and have covered any possible landing site with old oil barrels. Eventually Riggs gives up, and Kerans and Beatrice watch the military team finish packing up and their little flotilla of ships head out of the lagoon, along a creek and out of sight beyond the drowned city’s ruined buildings, heading north back to Camp Byrd.

Now Kerans and Beatrice are alone and obviously facing a dread future. Bodkin has left them under no illusions. The world is still heating up, the temperature where they are will eventually become impossible for human life, not to mention the increased radiation exposure, or the storm belt which is on its way north.

But – and this is the point of a Ballard book, the special atmosphere he and only he can create – they don’t care. They don’t care that they don’t care. They are operating in a different type of mentality or consciousness altogether.

Strangman arrives

I expected them to continue dreaming and sleeping and watching the rooms they’ve rigged up in various abandoned hotels slowly fall to pieces around them in a trippy entropic kind of way.

But no – there is an abrupt change of mood when a massive hydroplane arrives in the lagoon with a trio of supply boats, accompanied by a surreal eruption of thousands and thousands of crocodiles. It is the arrival of Strangman, tall, white, ghostly leader of a crew of blacks under their foreman Big Caesar – who is systematically looting and stripping cities of all their treasure as he heads north.

I thought this might be a brief episode but it turns into the main subject of the last 100 or so pages of the book. Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice realise they have to admit their presence to Strangman and his marauding crew and from that point onwards get caught up in his surreal and bizarre psychodramas.

Strangman has brought luxuries on his refrigerated ship. He holds elaborate dinner parties with chilled champagne. He is a bit like Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an entrepreneur and impresario, who loves showing off his treasures and his loyal pack of devoted Negroes, but whose mood changes in a second to anger and threat.

Strangman’s team have diving suits and Kerans is coerced into putting one on and going down down down to the depths of the sunken world. Strangman wants him to locate the buried treasures he is sure must be down there but Kerans goes completely off-mission, wandering into a sunken planetarium, looking up at the light glimmering through the cracks in the roof and having a typically trippy Ballard prehistoric vision of it as a new set of constellations:

He walked back down the steps and stopped half-way down the aisle, head held back, determined to engrave the image of the constellations on his retina. Already their patterns seemed more familiar than those of the classical constellations. In a vast, convulsive recession of the equinoxes, a billion sidereal days had reborn themselves, re-aligned the nebulae and island universes in their original perspective. (p.109)

Then Kerans passes out from lack of air being pumped to his suit and has to be rescued by some of Strangman’s skin divers.

There is a growing mood of eeriness and wariness and uncertainty and psychic nerviness all round. Then Strangman invites the three survivors to a grand dinner party at the high point of which he performs a magic trick – he drains the lagoon! He has discovered that most of it is blocked by accumulated junk, mud, silt and seaweed, with only a small ingress of water. This he has blocked and now uses powerful pumps to evacuate the trapped water.

In a scene which piles surrealism on surrealism, our protagonists watch the water level slowly drop drop drop, revealing the six or so storeys of long-sunken buildings all the way down to the dripping, seaweed infested pavements, with long-underwater cars and buses alive with expiring fish and jellyfish and starfish, swathed in seaweed and ooze.

And it isn’t just a party trick. For the next few weeks Strangman and his team systematically scour the huge area they have unearthed (or unoceaned) and which turns out to be centred on Leicester Square (the city is London!) by day, and by night get drunk, wandering the deserted stinky streets like medieval carousers, carrying flaming torches and drinking heavily from looted wine cellars.

In these scenes Strangman feels more like Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a resemblance emphasised by the way his drunken, only barely restrained crews are entirely made up of blacks, portrayed as jungle savages ready at a moment’s notice to revert to brutal beatings.

And this is indeed what happens. One evening, pressed into yet another tedious meal with his scary host, Kerans and Strangman notice a silhouette running along the top of one of the mud barrages which keeps the vast pressure of the ocean out of their island of dryness, and realise it is Bodkin carrying a bomb and evidently intending to blow up the barrage.

Strangman’s team start firing at the silhouette but it is Strangman himself who springs into action, runs to the nearest building and up a series of fire escapes, onto the mud barrage and along to the place where Bodkin had deposited his bomb, and gives it a hearty kick into the deep ocean the other side of the dam.

For a moment the reader had had a vivid imagining of what it would be like if the bomb had gone off, destroyed the dam and unleashed a flood of water six storeys high down onto the partying humans sitting at the bottom of the well. Strangman goes off in pursuit of Bodkin and Kerans barely registers or cares when he hears a number of shots out of sight, beyond the ruined buildings.

Kerans the god

But having killed Bodkin damages Kerans’ reputation with the only barely controlled blacks and with Strangman their master. Returning to the ‘party’ they set upon Kerans, beating him unconscious. When he comes to he discovers he has been tied to an elaborate chair and for the next few days he is left there to endure the blazing heat of the days, bleeding, semi-conscious.

At first he discovers he is the votive god at a Feast of Skulls. Piling surrealism on surrealism, Ballard says the marauding parties have discovered a cemetery where bodies long ago came adrift from their burials and, in a scene which must be deliberately echoing Heart of Darkness they set tied and bound Kerans up on a throne before a pile of bones and use other bones to beat out a primitive jungle rhythm which they dance around him to. Kerans has become their god, god of their weird cargo cult.

But this has unintended consequences. The men slowly become afraid of the dehydrated and increasingly delirious Kerans, and Strangman, who had obviously expected him to be beaten to death or die of exposure, also becomes superstitiously wary of him.

At the end of the second day they lash the throne Keran is tied to up onto a cart, force the hollowed out head of a dead crocodile onto his head to turn him into a real fetish god, then the drunk men get between the traces and pull the cart through the high and dry city streets, singing Haitian voodoo chants, until the cart goes out of control down a sloping alley and crashes into a sump of stinking mud, throwing Kerans and his throne head first into it. Still singing and chanting, the drunken blacks stagger off into the night leaving him there.

Slowly the semi-conscious and dazed Kerans realises that one of the arm rests of the throne has broken and so he can slip his bound wrist over the broken end, releasing it to untie his other wrist and slowly free himself.

Not a moment too soon does he stagger off into the darkness, as he sees Strangman and Big Caesar return down the alley towards the mud. Big Caesar is carrying a gleaming machete. Obviously they intended to finish Kerans off.

Kerans rescues Beatrice

Kerans hides out in a fifteenth floor apartment, drinking trapped rainwater and cooking small lizards to get his strength back before making a cautious return to his penthouse apartment at the abandoned Ritz. He discovers Strangman’s men have comprehensively and vengefully trashed it. However, they did not find the hiding place where he had secreted his Colt .45 pistol.

Now, in a passage which suddenly drops into effective thriller prose not unlike one of the James Bond novels which were being published at this time (late 50s, early 60s), Kerans makes his way at midnight silently across the empty lagoon floor to where Strangman’s hydroplane rests on the dry flagstones, and slowly climbs up the propeller and rudder, hoists himself over the stern rail, and tiptoes into the superstructure looking for the stateroom. He is going to rescue Beatrice.

And he finds her sitting at a table alone, in a turquoise dress and covered with fake jewellery spilling out of chests at her feet and idling with a glass of wine. She starts as Kerans moves silently forward through the bead curtains then runs to him. She might almost say, ‘James! You came to rescue me! But it is dangerous, James – Dr No / Blofeld / Goldfinger is after you!’

Instead, there is a flicker of movement out the corner of his eye and Kerans just has time to duck as a machete goes whirling across the room, burying itself in the wooden cabin wall behind him, closely followed by the enormous mishapen Negro, Big Caesar, who hurls himself at Kerans who just has time to lift the revolver and fire. Big Caesar falls to the floor gurgling his last.

Strangman closes in

Kerans hustles Beatrice to the ship’s gangway, and they run down it as the alerted crew take pot shots at them from above, make it in one piece to the ground and are heading across the seaweedy flagstones when out of the darkness looms Strangman and a cohort of his black crew, fanning out to block their way. Turning, Kerans and Beatrice realise another group of crew members are coming up behind and fanning out. They are surrounded.

Stepping forward like the baddie in a James Bond movie, Strangman twirls his thin black moustachios (well OK, he doesn’t, but he might as well do) and tells Kerans to surrender or else he’ll kill the girl as well as him. For good measure he lightly, suavely comments on what a good mask her face would make once separated from her skull. Oooh, gruesome!

Kerans gives up, hands the gun to Beatrice and steps forward as the voodoo crew close in on him, raising their machetes and pangas to strike, when –

The return of Colonel Riggs

Someone catches his elbow and pulls him back and the amazed Kerans watches Colonel Riggs emerge from the darkness accompanied by soldiers with rifles set with bayonets, along with a squad of soldiers who quickly erect a machine gun on a tripod, and another one which turns a searchlight from up on the hydroplane onto Strangman and his crew, who freeze in astonishment.

Riggs has returned and forces Strangman and his crew to drop their weapons. Cut to a few hours later in the stateroom, after Kerans has been tidied up and the situation stabilised. Turns out Riggs got permission from his superiors at Camp Byrd to return to search for Hardman and also to reclaim the biology ship (the one Kerans and Bodkin sank).

Hooray, saved! But Riggs now explains to Kerans that Strangman will not, however, be prosecuted or charged. In fact by draining the lagoon he will more than likely win a reward from the government in Greenland, which has offered rewards for anyone who can reclaim any part of the earth’s surface.

There is more chatter and planning to leave the next day. But Kerans, now in an advanced state of schizophrenia or psychosis, has other plans. He goes searching and eventually finds the secret stash of dynamite he guesses Bodkin must have made all those weeks ago. Now he, too, rigs up a simple bomb with a 30-second fuse, clambers up to 6th floor of a building, over a balcony and onto the thick sludge dyke which holds back the water.

Like Bodkin he is spotted, this time by Sergeant Macready, who fires a burst of machine gun at him, one bullet winging him in the ankle, but Kerans still has time to place the bomb in the middle of the barrage and set the timer. Sergeant Macready makes his way out to the bomb just in time to be blown to smithereens when it explodes, while Kerans throws himself to the floor of the nearest hotel balcony he’s clambered onto.

The dyke is breached and Ballard gives a vivid description of a six-story-high tsunami of water and logs bursting down into the streets below, smashing Strangman’s hydroplane and drowning his crew. Riggs and some other troops are quicker to react, climb up fire escapes, then angrily pursue Kerans through ruined apartment blocks, firing every opportunity they have.

Kerans just manages to keep a few hundred yards ahead of them, limping along on his damaged ankle, before dropping off a balcony onto a raft which it had taken him all his strength to rig up overnight. Now Kerans kicks in the little outboard motor and is 200 yards away by the time Riggs and another soldier emerge into his docking space and fire at him across the water and through the tropical foliage, holing Kerans’ sail in several places, before he turns a corner of the jungle and is out of sight.

Towards the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun

The final ten pages describe Kerans’ weird compelled odyssey south, which finds him extracting the bullet from his leg, patching himself up with a stolen medical kit, and eating bars of chocolate filched from Riggs’s army supplies, as his boat chugs south through the steaming tropical mangrove swamps.

It is a prolonged purple passage-cum-psychodrama of extraordinary, visionary power, utterly persuasive and compelling in taking you into Ballard’s imagining of a sunken London turned into a Triassic swampscape.

Eventually the outboard motor runs out of fuel and Kerans chucks it into the sea, watching it disappear downwards in a wreath of bubbles. He sails on south through archipelagos of tropical islands and sandbanks, finally beaching the raft on a particularly extended bank which stretches off in both directions.

At first Kerans breaks up the raft into drums and planks and tries to lug them over the dunes but eventually gives up, watching an oil barrel disappear into some quicksand. Everything collapses. Everything falls apart.

He comes to a rise with a ruined church at the top and here, in the downpour of one of the approaching tropical storms, by the ruined altar, comes across the shrivelled, sun-blackened body of Hardman who is barely alive, who is all but blinded by cataract cancers, but is staring point blank at the big red sun, far gone in deep time, in ‘chrono-psychosis’.

Kerans builds a shelter and tries to nurture Hardman to health, feeding him with wild berries, but isn’t surprised when he wakes one day to find Hardman gone. With what remains of his strength he has obviously set off staggering south, always south, towards ‘the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun’.

Kerans waits a few days more and then resumes his own ‘neuronic odyssey’, after many days blundering though mangrove swamps and tropical jungle coming to a vast lagoon, dotted here and there with the top storeys of buried high-rises emerging like gleaming holiday chalets beside the calm black water.

Exhausted, Kerans breaks into one of the abandoned apartments and rests, pondering the strange series of events which have brought him to this pass. Tying a strip of bamboo as a splint for his leg, which is now black and seriously infected, Kerans scratches a last message on the wall, words no-one will ever read:

27th day. Have rested and am moving south. All is well. Kerans


The Ballard effect

Any reader of Ballard quickly realises that his interest is not in a ‘plot’ or storyline. In fact it’s barely even about the characters, who interact like zombies or robots.

Ballard’s interest is in the schizoid dissociation of characters from their surroundings, their descent into alternative modes of consciousness – what he at one point calls ‘torpor and self-immersion’ – even as they are fully aware of the changes coming over themselves and retain the capacity to analyse what is happening to them.

But I think another crucial ingredient in the Ballard style is the immensely straight-faced, stiff-upper-lip attitude of the punctilious and correct Brits who all this happens to, who watch it happen to themselves with highly educated bemusement.

It is no accident that so many of Ballard’s protagonists are doctors, who are trained to observe and interpret symptoms and have the correct psychological jargon to hand to describe their descent into the various psychoses and alternative mental states which his books describe.

Ballard’s protagonists don’t fall to pieces like a bunch of shouty American teenagers in a cheap sci-fi shocker. They retain their middle-class manners and politenesses. It is entirely fitting that Kerans has rigged up an air-conditioned room in the wreckage of the former Ritz hotel, that Beatrice has survived with generator-powered air conditioning in her apartments in a building across the lagoon, that Strangman isn’t a hoodlum but a well-mannered psychopath who hands round chilled champagne, that Colonel Riggs observes all the niceties, even when telling Strangman and his men to put down their weapons.

I.e. one of the unsettling aspects of Ballard’s fiction is not only a) the dystopian scenarios or b) the psychological reversals and dissociative states the characters enter but c) the way they do it all in such unnervingly prim and correct Englishness.

Ballard’s purple prose

Novels almost certainly need plots and characters, and maybe themes and symbols.

But at the end of the day, they are unavoidably made of words and sentences – and the easy thing to overlook if you focus solely on Ballard’s themes and weird psychology, is the more straightforward fact that he loves writing fantastically lush, hallucinatory, purple prose.

This novel made an impact back in 1962 not only for its weirdness, but for its luxurious and deeply persuasive descriptions of the strange new world Ballard had imagined so completely into existence:

The last sunlight was fading over the water as Kerans paddled his raft below the fronds of the fern trees dipping into the water around the lagoon, the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon sun giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails. A slack oily swell disturbed the surface of the lagoon, the water clinging to the leaves of the ferns like translucent wax. A hundred yards away it slapped lazily against the shattered remains of the jetty below the Ritz… (p.144)

There are scores and scores of long descriptive passages like this which make the novel more than an experience of science fiction, or experimental psychology, but a prolonged and deeply sensual pleasure to read.


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Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Lewis Chessman by James Robinson

The British Museum published a dozen or so ‘Objects in focus’ books, short paperbacks (60 pages) focusing on one specific object from their vast collection (of some 8 million artefacts). Subjects include the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Rosetta Stone etc.

This one is devoted to the Lewis chessmen, 78 small (10cm high) chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory sometime in the 12th century. They were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and chapter one tells the obscure story of their discovery and sale in Edinburgh and London. The actual finder, supposedly a local peasant, is never interviewed, instead various collectors and antiquaries generated improbable and conflicting accounts of their provenance and discovery.

Number

What is certain is that there are in existence 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen (flat discs with a hole in the middle) and one belt buckle. 82 pieces are owned by the British Museum in London, and the other 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Origin

They’re Scandinavian in origin, but from where? The most popular theory is that they come from Trondheim in Norway because Trondheim was one of the centres of the essentially Scandinavian trade in walrus tusks from further north in the Arctic circle or from overseas in Greenland. As such it was home to a number of walrus-ivory carving workshops.

So what were they doing buried on a beach in the Outer Hebrides? We’ll never know, but an educated guess is that they were temporarily hidden there by a merchant taking them to sell in part of what was then the network of Scandinavian kingdoms and earldoms stretching from Norway across the mainland and islands of northern Scotland, to Iceland in the north and Ireland in the south.

The kings The eight kings all sit on square thrones, hold swords in both hands, have long braided hair and patriarchal beards although two of them, surprisingly, are clean shaven.

The queens The eight queens sit on similar square thrones, their hair covered by lace-like drapery, holding their chins in their right hand, cupping the right elbow with their left hand – is this a stylised gesture of throughtfulness and wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s not uniform as two aren’t i that pose, instead holding a drinking horn.

The bishops Sixteen bishops, seven sitting on thrones, nine standing. All the standing bishops hold croziers and their full-frontal depiction helps date the pieces to after 1150 when this way of representing bishops came in. Also, surprisingly, no earlier known representation of the bishop in the game of chess survives. The arrival of the bishop in the game coincides with a surge in worldly power of bishops in the real world, epitomised by the conflict between Henry I and Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) in England, and warrior bishops who fought in the Third Crusade (1189-92).

The knights The fifteen knights sit on shaggy little ponies and hold kite-shaped shields in their left arms. Apparently, the range of arms, armour and equipment they carry has been a useful source of information on 12th century warfare.

The warders There are twelve warders, or rooks, wearing conical helmets and holding shields in their left hands, swords in their right. Three of the BM warders are biting the tops of their shields in the gesture described in contemporary texts as characteristic of berserkers, Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a psychopathic frenzy before battle. Grettir fights one in the Norse saga, Grettir the Strong.

The pawns The 19 pawns are simple geometric salt cellar shapes.

The book goes on to describe the spread of chess from its origins in India into Persia and on into the Muslim world which, in the early Middle Ages included not only the Middle East and north African coast, but Sicily and most of Spain. It was probably through cultural interaction in these centres that chess spread north through Spain and into France, and up through Italy and across the Alps.

The Indian game consisted of four pieces: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. Rukh was the Persian for chariot, which morphed into our castle. The bishop, who first appears in these pieces, was previously known as the ‘prince’ and, in the original Indian game, ‘the elephant’.

The existence of chess in the West in the 11th century is evidenced by a number of texts, including the 11th century poem Ruodlieb, in which a knightly guest is challenged to a series of games by his king host. The book mentions wills in which various rulers left their sets to religious houses, but in fact the Church had a big problem with chess as a time-consuming distraction from religious contemplation and made repeated attempts to ban it. On the other hand some writers thought the ability to play chess as one of the skills necessary to the elegant courtier. The book quotes texts from the 1100s and 1200s to bring out the pros and cons of what seems to have been a burning issue of the day.

I also learned that the heyday of carving in walrus tusk was from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It expanded to fill a gap in the market caused by the decline of elephant tusk imports, no-one is sure why, maybe because of conflict with the Muslim world. So while it lasted, the walrus ivory trade provided economic underpinning to the Viking settlement of Greenland (settled 985, flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries). When elephant ivory again became accessible during the 13th century, the walrus trade fell off, possibly contributing the economic decline of the Greenland settlement which was abandoned in the 1400s.

Related links

The Saga of Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.
2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.
3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.
4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.
5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.
6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.
7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.
8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.
9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.
10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.
11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.
12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.
13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’
14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.

Related links

Other sagas

The Saga of the Greenlanders

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).

To be honest, neither of them seem to me to have much literary merit and to be mainly of historical interest (which is considerable). The revelation for me is that there wasn’t one big voyage but quite a few trips stretched over a number of years and by a cast of people each discovering different parts and having different adventures. Thus there isn’t the continuity of characterisation you get in even the fairly short Þattrs.

Scholars take this patchiness to prove them closer to the original oral tradition, with less literary ‘shaping’ of the narrative than we see in most other sagas. That said, the anecdotes in Grœnlendinga saga are threaded together by being associated with successive children of Eirik the Red; and an over-pattern of sorts emerges in the contrast between Freydis the psychopath and Gudrun the saint, though only really in the last chapter.

Synopsis

1 – A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson arrives one summer in Iceland to find his father has emigrated to Greenland along with Eirik the Red, so he sets off to follow him. Three days from Iceland they lose their way. Over the weeks he and his crew spot three distinct lands but, since none of them tally with the description of Greenland he doesn’t go ashore. Eventually the wind does blow them back to Greenland where they land and find his father’s farm, settling there. People hear of his travels and criticise him for lack of curiosity in not landing anywhere.
2 – Leif the son of the outlaw Eirik the Red, is interested in Bjarni’s discoveries, buys a ship from him, hires a crew and tries to get Eirik to lead the expedition but Eirik says he is too old. They discover the same lands as Bjarni but in reverse order and name them: Helluland (meaning Stone-slab land), Markland (meaning Wood land) and a much more fertile place they decide to stay for the winter: cattle could graze here all year round, the sun doesn’t disappear in winter, the salmon are huge etc. They build a base and explore.
3 – Leif’s foster-father Tyrkir goes a bit further and finds grapes and grapevines. (Much ink has been spilt speculating whether these really were grapes (unlikely) or a word the Norse applied to some other kind of fruit (gooseberries?). Leif names the place Vinland meaning Wineland and the name was widely enough known to be recorded by the 11th century historian Adam of Bremen.) In the spring Leif sails back to Greenland laden with timber and grapes (?). As he rounds the Greenland coast he comes across a shipwrecked boat and saves the entire crew and stock, from which he is nicknamed Leif the Lucky. (Ironically the captain and most of the rescued crew then die of illness.)
4 – Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. He takes Leif’s ship, sails across the sea, finds Leif’s camp and stays the winter surviving on fish. In the spring the explore further west, finding one grain cover but nothing else human. Next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north, discovering some boats made of skin and people hiding under them, who they proceed to murder (!) The natives, called Skraelings by the Norsemen, return and attack en masse. The Vikings sail off in a defended boat but Thorvald is fatally wounded, dies and is buried in Vinland. His crew return to Greenland.
5 – Thorstein Eriksson goes to Vinland to recover the body of his brother, in the same well-travelled ship, taking his wife Gudrid. The expedition never reaches Vinland, after sailing all summer ends up back at the coast of Greenland, where Thorstein falls ill and dies. Supernatural events occur: The wife of their host Thorstein the Black dies but sits up and talks. Then dead Thorstein speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid, predicting a long and prosperous life for her back in Iceland, and a pilgrimage to Rome.
6 – A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni, a rich man. He falls in love with Gudrid and they marry (her third marriage) and he’s encouraged to lead an expedition to Vinland. The expedition arrives in Leif’s and Thorvald’s old camp and stays there for the winter. Next summer a group of natives or Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons, instead selling them dairy products. —Gudrid gives birth to a boy, Snorri, the first European born in North America.— The second winter the Skraelings come again to trade but this time one of Karlsefni’s men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. Supernatural events occur: As she waited, Gudrid had seen a strange woman approach with enormous eyes who said she was Gudrid; as the Skraeling was killed the spirit woman disappeared!— The Skraelings return to attack and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays the rest of the winter and returns to Greenland in the spring.
7 – Two brothers arrive from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogi. Freydis Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, suggests they all travel to Vinland and share the profits fifty-fifty. They agree to have only 30 men on each ship but Freydis double crosses her partners immediately by taking along 5 extra men. The brothers arrive slightly earlier in Vinland and move into Leif’s house but when she arrives, Freydis orders them to leave. Games which are mean to unify the little colony just lead to further disputes. One morning Freydis wakes Finnbogi to talk to him. Returning to her bed she tells her husband, Thorvard, the brothers abused and beat her and says she’ll divorce him unless he avenges her. Thorvard leads his men in tying up all the men from the other camp while they are still sleeping. Freydis has each man killed on the spot until only the five women remain who her crew are reluctant to kill. She asks for an axe and kills them all. She is greatest psychopath in all the sagas I’ve read. Freydis threatens her crew with death if anyone tells these deeds. They load the ships with goods and sail back to Greenland, telling everyone the brothers chose to stay in Vinland.
8 – Eventually Leif learns the truth and is horrified but doesn’t take it upon himself to punish her crimes. Meanwhile the saga returns to Gudrid and Karlsefni who make land in Norway, trade, then return to settle in north Iceland. When Karlsefni dies their son Snorri takes over running the farm while Gudrid goes on pilgrimage to Rome and returns to become a nun and anchoress. Their descendants include notable bishops of Iceland.

The murderess balances the holy woman – but both are treated with that same flat affect so characteristic of the sagas, so heartless and yet compelling. There is no false sentiment. There is no sentiment at all.

Related links

Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

Other sagas

Eyrbyggja Saga 2

Could be called Snorri’s saga, as Snorri the Priest is born in chapter 12, dies in the last chapter (65) and dominates most of the action in between, if only as peacemaker between the various gangs which come to inhabit the Snæfelsness peninsula in north-west Iceland where it is set. He inhabits a larger proportion of the text than Egil or Njal do of their sagas.

Eyrbyggja as a late, carefully-crafted text

Eyrbyggja uses material from other sagas: chapters  12 and 13 give a brisk summary of the main plot of Gislis saga. In chapter 47 Snorri recounts the story of Gunnar’s last stand from Njal’s saga. The opening chapters about Ketil Flat-Nose seems to come from, or certainly parallel, the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga which also describe the reasons for Ketil leaving Norway for Iceland, and also echo the account in the Landnamabok. Towards the end the text refers overtly to Grettis saga and Bandamanna saga and Heidarviga saga and chapter 24 gives a summary of part of Eirik’s saga. At key moments in the Thorbrandssons versus Thorlakssons sections, the fights at Alftafjord and Vigra Fjord, the author quotes a long poem on the subject, the Lay of the Raven by Thormod Trefilsson, as well as poems supposedly created by the protagonists. Right at the end he quotes Gudny Bodvar’s-daughter as an eyewitness to the bones of Snorri, Bork the Stout and Thordis Sur’s-daughter being dug up and transferred to the new church at Tongue.

Eyrbyggja definitely feels late – it feels as if the author had good written accounts of numerous sagas, long poems and short verses which had been handed down, along with factual accounts of key events and legends and ghost stories, all of which he used carefully to amplify and enrich his narrative. This strength is also its weakness as it lacks the clarity of narrative of Egils saga or Njals saga and suffers, especially in the final third, from feeling like an anthology of interesting legends and anecdotes. Still, for this very reason, its variety of tone and incident, and also because this is a very fluent and readable translation by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, complete with good map and useful notes, I’d be tempted to recommend this as a first saga for the beginner.

Synopsis

The first settlers from Norway
1 – Ketil Flat-Nose is a great chieftain in Norway and married to Yngvild. King Harald Fair-Hair forces Ketil to combat exiles from Norway who are ravaging the coast. Ketil packs wife and sons and sails to the Hebrides where he crushes the Vikings and makes peace with the local chieftains with no intention of handing them over to Harald who promptly confiscates all Ketil’s property in Norway. Ketil marries his daughter to the most powerful chieftain in Britain, Olaf the White.
2 – Ketil’s son Bjorn had stayed on in Norway, goes south to his father’s estates and expels the king’s men. In response Harald outlaws Bjorn and sends men to kill him. Tipped off, Bjorn sails south along the coast to a place named Mostur Island and takes refuge with Hrolf.
3 – Hrolf is a friend of Thor, in charge of Thor’s temple and has an impressive beard so is known as Thorolf Mostur-Beard. Thorolf sends Bjorn with his son Hallstein across the sea. When Harald learns Thorolf has been sheltering the outlaw Ketil’s son, he outlaws him.
4 – Thorolf consults his friend Thor who advises him to go to Iceland. He takes Thor’s temple, timbers and some earth. On sighting Iceland he throws overboard the high-seat pillars and vows to build where they land. They sail into a broad fjord which he names Breida Fjord. The pillars land at a promontory which he calls Thorsnes. Thorolf builds a farm Hofstad and a new temple. On the ness is a mountain which Thorolf declares so sacred that no man can look at it without washing, and he names Helga Fell. He institutes the Thors Ness assembly and the land is so holy no-one is allowed to poo there but must go out to an island just offshore known as Dritsker.
5 – When Bjorn rendevous with his family in the Hebrides, his father Ketil has died. He discovers his mother and brother have converted to Christianity and becomes alienated from them. They call him Bjorn the Easterner.
6 – After two years in the Hebrides Bjorn and his friend Hallstein Thorolfsson sail to Iceland, to Breidafjord where they settle and build farms.

The second generation
7 – Other settlers arrive: Geirrod builds  his home at Eyr, along with Ulfar the Champion and Finngeir. Vestar has a son Asgeir. Bjorn the Easterner dies, succeeded by son 1 Kjallak the Old who marries Astrid and has Thorgrim the Priest, Gerd and Helga – their descendants are many and known as the Kjalleklings; and son 2 Ottar marries Gro, has Bjord father of Vigfus and Osvif the Wise, father of Gudrun the ill-fated heroine of Laxdala saga. In old age Thorolf Mostur-Bear marries Unn and has a son Thorstein, nicknamed Cod-Biter. Hallstein, Bjorn’s sailing companion, has a son Thorstein, fostered by Thorolf and nicknamed Thorstein Surt.
8 – Geirrid sister of Geirrod of Eyr comes to Iceland and Geirrod grants her land. She has a son who grows up to be Thorolf Bjornsson a great Viking. He thinks the land his mother has too small and challenges Ulfar the Champion to a duel and kills him not before Ulfar wounds his leg so that he walks with a limp and is known as Thorolf Twist-Foot. Thorolf has a son, Arnkel (who will squabble with Snorri), and a daughter Geirrid who marries another Thorolf and has Thorarin the Black (who will kill Thorbjorn and be exiled).
9 – Thorolf the founder dies and is succeeded by his son Thorstein Cod-Biter. The Kjalleklings (descended from Bjorn the Easterner) are arrogant. At the Thors Ness assembly Thorgim Kjallaksson announces they will poo where they want and no longer go to Dritsker. Thorstein Cod-Biter, defending his father’s holy soil, musters his men and attacks the Kjalleklings driving them down to the beach where there is a big pitched battle with some deaths.
10 – Thord Gellir, at that time leading chieftain of Breidafjord, is brought in to make a settlement. He moves the assembly to a new location and makes Thorgim half responsible for maintaining the temple, from which point he is known as Thorgrim the Priest.
11 – Thorstein Cod-Biter dies. He had a son Bork the Stout then, aged 25, another baby he calls Thorgrim and dedicates to Thor to become a priest. That autumn shepherds see the north side of Helga Fell open revealing fires and the sounds of feasting and the names of Thorstein and comrades. The next day they learn Thorstein was drowned on a fishing expedition to Hoskuld Island.

Overlap with Gisli’s saga
12 – Thorgrim marries Thordis Sur-daughter of Dyrafjord and goes to live with his brothers-in-law Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim kills Vestein Vesteinsson at a festival and, the following year, aged 25 like his father, Thorgrim is killed by his brother-in-law Gisli at an autumn feast. A few days later Thorgrim’s widow Thordis gives birth to a son named Thorgrim after his father – Thorgrim Thorgrimsson. She marries her brother-in-law Bork the Stout and goes to live in Helgafell. Little Thorgrim is fostered out to Thorbrand of Alftafjord where he is so troublesome he acquires the nickname Snorri, eventually to become the famous Snorri the Priest. Thorbrand has five sons and these Thorbrandssons are blood brothers to Snorri. The fearsome Viking Thorolf Twist-foot has a son Arnkel. Thorgim Kjallakson who started the fight at Thors Ness has three sons: Brand, Arngrim who is so mean he is nicknamed Styr, and Vermund the Slender. Asgeir of Eyr has a son Thorlak who marries Thurid and has sons Steinthor, Bergthor, Thormod, Thord Blig (the Thorlakssons who are going to be involved in feuds) and daughter Helga.
13 – When he’s 14 Snorri travels to Norway funded by his uncle Bork. The following year he returns and there is much joking that his colleague wears elaborate clothes and armour, whereas Snorri rides a plain mare in a black cloak. One day 12 armed men walk into the hall at Helgafell led by Bork’s kinsman, Eyjolf the Grey (son of Thord Gellir, biggest chieftain in the area who made the peace in chapter 10) who announces his crew have just killed Gisli the outlaw. This is as Bork wanted because Gisli killed his brother Thorgrim. But it is bad news for Bork’s wife Thordis as Gisli was her brother. As she goes to serve them, Thordis seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to stab him, only succeeding in gashing his thigh. Bork pushes her and Eyjolf would attack her but Snorri steps in to protect her. Bork gives Eyjolf self-judgement and gives him ample compensation, who rides off feeling very dissatisfied with all his hard work for Bork. This widens the gap between Snorri and his uncle and foster-father Bork.

Snorri’s career
14 – Snorri kicks Bork out of Helgafell which rightfully belongs to him. He surprises Bork by being able to pay the price Bork names. Thordis divorces Bork for hitting her and takes half his belongings so Bork ends up with very little.
15 – Snorri’s farm at Helgafell flourishes and he becomes the priest of Thor’s temple. A widow called Katla lived at Holt, west of Mavahlid with her son Odd, a trouble-maker. Thorbjorn the Stout’s son Gunnlaug often goes to study witchcraft with Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter. He stops in to chat to Katla and she insinuates that he makes love to Geirrid and that she fancies him. As he’s accompanied by Odd on these journeys he often stops off at Mavahlid and Katla always invites him in and he always refuses.
16 – On one of these visits Geirrid warns Gunnlaug not to go home. When he and Odd reach Holt, Katla invites him in and he refuses as usual. The next morning Gunnlaug is found almost dead covered in piercing deep scratches. He has been ridden by a night witch. Snorri and Gunnlaug’s father Thorbjorn ride over to Mavahlid and serve a summons on Geirrid for being a witch. But at the next assembly a lot of her kin support her and the case is rejected.
17 – At the same assembly a big fight breaks out, one side led by Thorgrim Kjallakson over the dowry of Illugi the Black’s wife. Men are killed before Snorri manages to separate the sides and broker a peace for which Illugi is grateful.
18 – Thorbjorn the Stout’s prize horses go missing. A man with second-sight called Spa-Gils strongly implies it was Thorarin the Black, son of Geiridd from Mavahlid. Thorbjorn rides there with a posse. Thorbjorn calls a door court and starts to accuse Thorarin. In a typical moment, it is goading by his mother calling him a coward which prompts Thorarin to leap forward attacking and a fight starts, until the women intervene and Thorbjorn and his men ride away. In the frenzy Thorarin’s wife Aud’s hand is cut off. He rides to where Thorbjorn’s men are recovering and hears them joking about it which drives him wild and he leaps forward and splits Thorbjorn’s skull in half. A fierce battle ensues until Thorbjorn’s men run away. (Odd is protected by the magic tunic his mother has given him.)
19 – Thorarin rides to see Vermund who advises they go see Arnkel. They know Snorri will prepare a case on behalf of Thorbjorn who was married to his half-sister.
20 – Geirrid of Mavahlid says it was Odd Katlason who cut off Aud’s hand. Thorarin and Arnkel ride to Holt: there is a strange folk tale scene where the men search the house for Odd three times but each time Katla bewitches them so they can’t see him. Only when Geirrid arrives do they put a bag over Katla’s head thus stymying her magic and find Odd. They hang him and stone her to death.
21- Arnkel advises Thorarin to go abroad. Message is sent to Bjorn the captain to ready his boat.
22 – On the Summons Days Snorri assembles a big force and rides to Alftafjord to summons the killers for manslaughter. Then he rides to the coast, seizes the Norwegian captain and burns the boat Thorarin was going to flee in. Whereupon Arnkel and Vermund and Thorarin row north across Breidafjord and buy another boat, and Thorarin and Vermund sail away. Snorri attends the assembly and successfully gets Thorarin and all his crew sentenced to outlawry, then confiscates all their property.

23 – Vigfus has a layabout nephew called Bjorn. At a big annual sorting of the sheep Bjorn accuses Snorri’ shepherd Helgi of stealing sheep and attacks him, Snorri’s uncle Mar Hallvardson goes to his defence and injures Bjorn. Vigfus takes the case to the Thor’s Ness assembly, but Snorri counter-charges Bjorn who is found guilty of starting.
24 – At the same assembly Eirik the Red is accused of a killing. His friends the Thorbrandssons gather supporters and Styr asks Snorri not to join the attack on Eirik after the assembly in exchange for his support any other time. They see Eirik off to a boat and he sets sail: it’s on this expedition that he discovers Greenland, in 986.
25 – The Swedish Berserks Vermund and Thorarin the Black arrive in Norway and go serve Earl Hakon the Good. With him are two Swedish berserks. The next year Vermund asks if he can bring them back to Iceland though Hakon warns him against. So he brings them back to Iceland where they soon start arguing. Vermund holds a feast for his brother Styr, Arnkel and other men of Eyr. He tries to persuade first Arnkel, then Styr to take the berserks and at first they get on well.
26 – Vigfus commissions one of his slaves, Svart, to kill Snorri. He breaks a hole in the ceiling of the porch and waits, but he thrusts down with his halberd just too late, misses Snorri and wounds Mar. Svart jumps to the ground but slips and is caught. Svart confesses it was Vigfus and Snorri sets off with six men, surprises Vigfus making charcoal in the woods and kill him. His slaves tell his widow who tries to raise support from Arnkel who refuses, saying it is the Kjallakings and Styr’s business.
27 – Vigfus’s widow Thorgerd goes to Styr asking for help. Styr points out the pledge he made to Snorri in exchange for Snorri not attacking Eirik. So, no help. She goes see Vermund who says, No help. She goes see Steinthor who says I’m too young. Exasperated she goes back to Vermund who says chop off Vigfus’s head and take it in a bag to Arnkel. Which she does and this shames and horrifies him into agreeing to launch a case against Snorri in the spring. But Snorri vigorously launches a counter action for attempted manslaughter and for the wounding of Mar, claiming Vigfus was lawfully killed. Moderators step in and Snorri agrees terms: he pays a large fine and Mar is exiled for three years.
28 – The end of the Swedish berserks One of them asks Styr for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not keen, Styr goes consult Snorri and they go atop Helgafell: ‘plans made there have never been known to fail’. Snorri advises Styr to set the berserks two massive tasks, build a dyke and a sauna. When they enter the sauna Styr kills them. Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis, binding them together.

29 – Thorodd Tribute-trader and Bjorn Introducing Thorodd who goes a sailing trip to Ireland. Earl Sigurd of Orkney has just made a raid demanding tribute from the Isle of Man but is shipwrecked. Thorodd sailing by hears them shouting from the shore and, reluctantly sells them his two boat in exchange for the tribute. So people call him Thorodd Tribute-Trader. Back in Ireland he stays with Snorri at Helgafell and marries his sister Thurid, widow of Thorbjorn who Thorarin the Black killed after the dispute about horses (chapter 18) and they go live in the farm at Frodriver. Soon Bjorn Asbrandsson starts calling on her and rumours start. Thorodd unhappy. One day, going home, Bjorn is attacked by Thorodd and servants – who he wounds – and the two sons of Thorir Wood-leg (the Thorissons), who he kills. Thorodd asks Snorri to mount a case against Bjorn for killing the Thorissons. Bjorn is outlawed and banished for three years. Bjorn sails to Norway, then Denmark, then on to join the legendary Jomsvikings.

Incidents concerning Thorolf Twist-foot, his feuds and ghost
30 – Thorolf Twist-Foot is an old mean man who doesn’t get on with his son Arnkel. Thorolf gets Ulfar’s advice about the weather and haymaking but pays him back badly by getting his men to fetch in Ulfar’s hay as well. Ulfar rushes out to the fields furious, but withdraws in face of Thorolf’s threats and goes to see his son Arnkel for compensation. Thorolf refuses to listen to Arnkel, so he pays Ulfar the compensation then kills seven of Thorolf’s oxen and claims that’s his hay-price returned. Thorolf is livid.
31 – About Christmastime Thorolf has a feast, gets his servants drunk, and tells them to go burn Ulfar’s farm. Over at Bolstad Arnkel sees the fire, rushes over with men to put it out, and seizes his father’s slaves and hangs them in the morning. Ulfar wisely makes over all his property to Arnkel, thus gaining legal support against threats from Thorolf. But this angers the Thorbrandssons, whose freedman Ulfar was and who think the property should revert to them. Thorolf rides to visit Snorri and offers him ownership of the woods on Krakaness if he will take up the case against Arnkel for killing Thorolf’s slaves. Driven by need for the woods, Snorri accepts and prosecutes Arnkel who points out he prevented a burning. Mediators step in and award Snorri 12 ounces of silver per slave ie the minimum which he gives to Thorolf who abuses him. Thus Thorolf is angry, Snorri is angry and Arnkel is angry.
32 – Ulfar’s brother Orlyg dies and Ulfar quickly gets Arnkel to come take joint protection of his property. The Thorbrandssons are cross again, reckoning their freedman’s property should be theirs and go see Snorri who refuses to take up the case against Arnkel, seeing as how his previous case wasn’t a particular success. In the autumn Arnkel gives a feast. Ulfar attends. Thorolf bribes his friend Spa-Gils who needs the money to lie in wait and murder Ulfar, which he does then runs off. Arnkel sees what’s happened and sends men after Spa-Gils. Thorolf sees Spa-Gils running and sends men to the Thorbrandssons so they can get to Ulfar’s property and claim it. Arnkel’s men catch and kill Spa-Gils. Arnkel and his men are at Ulfar’s property before the Thorbrandssons arrive so they fail to claim it again!
33 – Thorolf Twist-foot becomes angry that Snorri is using up too much of the wood and rides to confront him. Snorri calls witnesses to confirm Thorolf giving it to him and Thorolf rides on to his son Arnkel at Bolstad, but Arnkel refuses to get embroiled in another law case with Snorri so Thorolf rides home to Hvamm livid, sits in his high chair and in the morning his staff find him dead. Arnkel knocks a hole in the wall behind Thorolf, has him pulled backwards and his body placed on a sledge pulled by oxen up to a burial place where they build a cairn over the body.
34 – Thorolf’s ghost haunts the valley: the oxen which hauled his body are ridden to death by demons; every animal that goes near his grave goes out of its mind; the ghost kills shepherd and sheep; any bird alighting on Thorolf’s cairn drops dead. The ghost haunts vigorously and drives his widow out of her mind till she dies. First the farm at Hvamm is abandoned, then the whole valley. Arnkel gets recruits, loads Thorolf’s corpse onto a sled and drags it miles away to Ulfarsfell Ridge where they rebury it in Twist-Foot’s Knoll.
35 – Arnkel inherits his father’s property & rights and gets just as cross as his father with Snorri for using Krakaness woods. He waits till Snorri’s friend Hauk is supervising some slaves loading timber onto pack horses, then attacks. Hauk lunges at him but Arnkel deflects with his shield and spears Hauk, takes the horses and wood. Next spring Snorri brings a case against Arnkel for murder but Arnkel argues that Haul attacked him and the case is defeated. Simmering tension.
36 – A man called Thorleif is an outlaw. He comes to Snorri asking for sanctuary; Snorri rejects him but after a long talk. Then Thorleif goes to Bolstad to ask sanctuary of Arnkel and while they’re talking Thorleif takes up Arnkel’s adze and tries to kill him but Arnkel is too fast and kills him. Word gets about that Snorri commissioned him.
37 – Snorri holds a big Winter feast. He gives gifts to the guests. As the Thorbrandssons leave he gives Thorleif Kimbi a fine axe and they make an agreement to kill Arnkel. One night before Christmas Arnkel is working with some of  his men at haystacks. Snorri is tipped off and joins with the Thorbrandssons, 15 in all, to attack. Arnkel holds off a long time but is finally killed.

Arnkel was mourned by everyone, for of all men in pagan times he was the most gifted. He was remarkably shrewd in judgement, good-tempered, kind-hearted, brave, honest and moderate. He came out on top in every lawsuit, no matter with whom he had to deal, which explains why people were so envious of him.

38 – Arnkel’s heirs are all women who don’t pursue the case very well. Only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed.

A new dispute – between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons aka the men of Eyr and the men of Breidavik
39 – Thorleif takes ship to Norway. They are joined at the last minute by a stranger who turns out to be Arnbjorn Asbrandsson, going to look for his brother Bjorn (the one who was exiled and went off to join the Jomsvikings in chapter 29). After landfall in Norway it’s Thorleif’s turn to make porridge but Arnbjorn is still making his so after some argument Thorleif grabs the pot, spills Arnbjorn’s porridge out and walks away but Arnbjorn hits him on the neck with the ladle which was still very hot and marks him. Arnbjorn saild south to find his brother.
40 – After two years exile Thorleif Kimbi returns to Iceland pleased with himself. The same summer Arnbjorn returns with his brother, now known as Bjorn Breidavik-Champion. Together they are known as the Men of Breidavik. Arnbjorn settles at Hakki in Hraunhaven on the south side of the Snæfelsness peninsula. At a big gathering of farmers Bjorn bumps into Thurid, the housewife of Frodriver, over whose affair he was exiled. Bjorn resumes seeing Thurid. An upset Thorodd pays Thorgrima Witch-Face to cause a blizzard. Bjorn is lost crawls into a cave and only just survives three days cooped in the cave.
41 – Fighting between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons That spring at the Thornes Assembly Thorleif Kimbi (one of Thorbrand’s five sons, the Thorbrandssons) makes a marriage offer for Helga Thorlak’s-daughter, sister of Steinthor (Thormod, Bergthor, and Thord Blig, the sons of Thorlak, the Thorlakssons). He is rudely rejected by Steinthor and Thord. Next morning the Thorlakssons are walking by as the Thorbrandssons are playing the turf game. A great chunk of sandy turf hits Thord Blig on the neck and he turns to see all the Thorbrandssons laughing. Both sides draw swords and a fight starts. Eventually Steinthor and Snorri are brought in to make peace.
42 – The Thorbrandssons try to kill Arnbjorn That summer a ship puts in at Hraunhaven on the south of the peninsula. Snorri has business with it and rides south. He is joined by the Thorbrandssons, one of whom is Thorleif Kimbi who was humiliated by Arnbjorn who now lives at Hakki near Hraunhaven. They peel off from Snorri and attack Arnbjorn’s farm, climbing onto the roof but he fights them off, until Snorri returns and tells them to stop which, reluctantly they do. The Men of Breidavik arrive and both gangs are in the market at Hraunhaven in a very uneasy peace.
43 – Egil’s failed assassination attempt The Thorbrandssons tell their slave he will be freed if he sneaks into the autumn games and kills one of the Breidavik men, either Bjorn or Arnbjorn or Thord. People say Snorri advised Egil to hide in the hills until the pass was full of smoke of evening meals then sneak down and kill one. Egil does just that but as he enters the hut where Bjorn and Thord are making dinner he trips and they catch him. They extract the full story of his assassination mission before witnesses then kill him. (The strange incident of the talking head.) It is the custom to pay recompense to the owner of a murdered slave. Steinthor gathers a vast posse of nearly a hundred to ride to give payment. When he learns from spies that Snorri is sitting doing nothing Steinthor decides to reduce the party so as not to provoke anyone. Bjorn tells him he’ll regret it.
44 – The Battle of Alfta Fjord Snorri quickly musters his supporters and takes them to Karsstad telling everyone to behave. Stainthor rides up to the door, dismounts, nails a pich with 12oz of silver to the door, calls witnesses that he has paid the debt. As usual, it’s a woman taunting the men inside who make them furious and Thorleif Kimbi comes rushing out followed by the other hotheads and they start fighting. However Snorri comes out and gets them all to stop and promises Steinthor safe passage. However, he then discovers his 12 year-old son Thorodd has been injured by the very man he’s given safe passage and the red mist descends: they chase after the Thorlakssons and there’s a big fight up a scree called Geirvör. Eventually Aslak of Langadale and Illugi the Strong and Vermund the Slender and all their men come between them and stop the fighting. Snorri reaches out his hand to shake Steinthor’s who abruptly hacks at it with a sword, though the sword hits a gold arm-ring. Everyone pleads with Steinthor to make peace and eventually he does, a ceasefire till all sides get home. Some say Snorri could see the Men of Breidavik riding along Ulfarsfell as reinforcements to the Thorlakssons and that was why Snorri was keen to peacemake.
45 – The Battle of Vigra Fjord That winter Steinthor of Eyr with seven companions is loosing a boat in ice-bound Vigra Fjord when they see six man approaching, their enemies the Thorbrandssons. The Thorbrandssons climb a rock surrounded by massive shards of ice while Steinthor and his posse attack. After fierce fighting they lay all the Thorbrandssons low, only Freystein Bofi is dead (who he? ) but all the others badly injured and Thorleif Kimbi’s leg is chopped off. Snorri, alerted by his farmers, arrives and carries them all back to Helgafell and nurses them back to health. Thorleif Kimbi walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days.
46 – In the spring a lot of their neighbours work hard at the Thors Ness Assembly to make a settlement: elaborate pairings of injuries and killings make both sides about equal, and they shake on the deal, and the peace lasts while Steinthor and Snorri lived.
47 – That summer Thorodd the Tribute-Trader hosts Snorri to a feast and asks him to sort out the ongoing shame of Bjorn visiting his wife, Thurid, Snorri’s sister. Snorri decides they’ll attack and kill him and they ride to Kamb. Interestingly, Snorri uses the example of Gunnar’s last stand, in chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga, as an example of how one man can fight off an attacking crew. Daringly, Bjorn walks straight up to Snorri and puts his shearing knife to his heart and they discuss the issue. In a nutshell, Bjorn promises to stop bothering Thurid. Snorri and gang leave. Bjorn packs his belongings and takes ship at Hraunhaven. Nothing is heard of him for a long time, until the mysterious penultimate chapter 64, in fact.

Peace – the end of the Thorlakssons versus Thorbrandssons feud
48 – Snorri Thorbrandsson and his brother Thorleif Kimbi sail to Greenland where Thorleif lives to a ripe old age and Snorri voyages on to Vinland where he dies like a man fighting the Skrælings. Thorodd Thorbrandsson takes over the farm at Alftafjord and lives in peace.
49 – Christianity is brought to Iceland by Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti. This is very briefly described, as if the author knew that other, fuller accounts existed (eg the five chapters in Njal’s saga). Snorri the Priest does more than anything to convert the Western fjords and it may be for this reason that the Christian author makes him the hero of the saga.

The next six chapters are a respite from fighting, telling the story of the haunting of Thorgunna and Thorodd
50 – Thorgunna arrives in a ship from Dublin, she being from the Hebrides. She is big-boned and stout and has a trunk full of treasures such as English sheets and hangings. Thurid of Frodriver (wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader and sister of Snorri) is madly jealous and invites her to stay though Thorgunna insists on working for her keep and angers Thurid by refusing to part with her wondrous belongings.
51 – Thorgunna joins in with raking the hay when there is a sudden shower and when it clears they see it was of blood. She takes to her bed dying and makes Thorodd promise to burn all her bedding. (In evidence of the lateness of composition Thorgunna asks to be buried at Skalholt which only develops into a centre of Christian learning and holiness in the 11th and 12th centuries). Thorgunna’s body is buried and Thorodd builds a fire to burn the bedding but Thurid begs him to keep it and he acquiesces. They carry the coffin a long way to Skalholt over rain-sodden moors in sleet, stopping at a farm named Nether Ness where the farmer gives them shelter but no food. In the middle of the night they hear noises and find Thorgunna stark naked making food in the kitchen. She brings it into the living room at which the farmer hastily welcomes then and Thorgunna walks out and vanishes. They eat the food she’s prepared and are fine.
52 – Back at the farm at Frodriver, once the coffin-bearers have returned, the household sees a weird half moon appearing on the wall. Thorir Wood-Leg says it is a fatal moon.
53 – Something starts haunting. It kills a shepherd. When Thorir Wood-Leg goes to the privy the shepherd’s ghost blocks his way and throws him hard against the door so that he sickens and dies. Now the two of them haunt. Soon farm hands start dying one after another. Thorodd goes fishing with five men. A ghostly seal appears, head first, emerging out of the floorboards at Frodriver, no matter what people do to it.
54 – Thorodd and servants put out to sea and are all drowned. When news arrives at Frodriver Thurid and Kjartan hold a funeral feast. At the height of the feast Thorodd and his men walk in drenched, dripping seawater.

Everyone welcomed Thorodd and his men, and thought this a happy omen because in those days it was believed that drowned people had been well-received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they came to their own funeral feast. At that time a good many heathen beliefs still prevailed, though people were baptised and supposed to be Christians.

Thorodd and his men go sit by the fire. They do this every night till the fire burns low, then leave. After some days the guests all leave but Thorodd and his men still come and Thorir Wood-Leg now appears, along with the five servants who are buried, and they are all covered in mud and earth, which they start throwing at the drowned ghosts. Kjartan has the idea of building a long fire in the all and a smaller one in the household room, and the ghosts take the long fire and the household take the small one and this goes on all winter. An ox-tail is fond wagging in the fish pile which skedaddles away and all the fish are revealed to have been eaten, then Thorir Wood-Leg’s widow, Thorgrima Witch-Face, dies and another round of illness decimates the farm: six more people die and the rest run away.
55 – Not before time Kjartan goes to see his uncle Snorri who happens to have a priest staying with him. On Snorri’s advice they return to Frodriver on Candlemas, burn all of Thorgunna’s bedding, summon the dead to a door-court and charge them one by one. As the judgements are passed each ghosts leaves, saying they only stayed as long as they were let. Then the priest carries relics and sprinkles holy water into every corner and the dead men are banished.

Snorri swaps houses with Gudrun, the heroine of Laxdæla saga
56 – Snorri lived at Helgafell for eight years after Christianity came to Iceland (ie till 1008). In the spring Snorri exchanges farms with Gudrun Osvif’s-daughter and moves to Tongue in Sælingsdale, two years after Gudrun’s husband Bolli was murdered by Kjartan’s kin. Why? Though Gudrun hasn’t appeared in this saga yet, Snorri has already appeared in Laxdæla saga as a wise man Gudrun turns to. There it is explained Gudrun needs to get away from her vengeful neighbours and much the same motive drives Snorri, though his behaviour doesn’t change much after the move.

Styr’s death and Snorri’s revenge
It will be remembered that although Styr is the son of Thorgim Kjallakson (12), he does a deal with Snorri not to attack Eirik the Red (24) and keeps his word by not attacking Snorri after Vigfus’s murder (27), and asks Snorri’s advice about handling the berserks (28), as a result of which Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis. So when Styr is killed Snorri rides south with 400 men to avenge him. But he is met by 500 of his adversaries and there’s a stand-off. Snorri summons Gest for killing Styr but at the Althing their case is dismissed by Thorstein Gislason. Later Snorri rides south with 14 men and kills Thorstein Gislason and his son Gunnar. At the next Althing another Thorstein, of Hafsfjord, blocks Snorri’s plans and bad feeling quickly degenerates into a pitched battle. Ten or so men die until others step in and a comprehensive settlement is made. —This episode feels bolted onto the narrative, and the numbers (500 men!) and the unusual way the build-up to Styr’s death isn’t explained, make it stand out from the rest of the saga, much of whose interest derives from tracing the way trivial disputes snowball into massive feuds.

Ospak
This is another self-contained episode that could almost come from any saga, anyone’s life. Ospak is a rustler and after a lot of hassle Snorri is one among the many enemies he’s made who band together and kill him. The only failing in this otherwise excellent Penguin edition is that the map which excellently shows all the key locations on Snæfelsness peninsula, doesn’t show any of the locations of the Ospak episode, all of which (I think) happen to the north of Breidafjord.
57 – Ospak raids along the north coast with half a dozen men. He conflicts with Alf the Short and Thorir Gold-Hardarson. He has a fortified stead at Eyr (but not, apparently, the same Eyr as the one in Alftafjord). One day a whale is washed up. Alf and others cut it up, as they have driftage rights. Ospak and crew row up and start taking the already cut whalemeat: Thorir intervenes and Ospak knocks him out with the back of an axe.
58 – Ospak and fourteen men go to Thambardale and raid Alf’s house, stealing everything. Servants warn Thorir at Tongue who goes after them with eighteen men. A full scale battle in which Ospak strikes Thorir over the neck but hits his knife-on-a-strap, more fighting then Ospak and men run off to their fortified farm.
59 – Snorri represents Thorir and Alf at The Thors ness assembly and gets Ospak and crew outlawed. Snorri rides to enact the confiscation only to discover Ospak and his men have packed all their goods and sailed far north, where they set up a base and continue raiding.
60 – Snorri enacts the confiscation anyway and divides what was left of the belongings among Alf and Thorir. At summer’s end Ospak and crew sail south to Bitra, put in at Eyr and carry the loot to the fortified farm, where Ospak’s wife and son had remained. They sail onto Tongue in Bistra, drag Thorir out of bed and kill him on the spot, steal all his goods, then carry on to Thambardale, where Alf the Short hears them coming and esapes through a secret door. Again they loot everything they can and return to the fortified stornghold at Eyr, haul the boats inside and make it impenetrable.
61 – Snorri takes in Alf and his family and makes sure of the lie of the land. Just before Christmas he calls on Thrand Stigandi.
62 – Snorri calls on Sturla Thjodreksson and other neighbours till he has fifty men. At Tongue thirty more join and they ride north to Eyr. The fight starts with both sides throwing lots of stones. Finally Sturla’s spear knocks Ospak down and Sturla kills him, then they kill two more and the vikings surrender. Snorri gives them safe passage so long as they split up. He lets Ospak’s widow and son keep the farm. Glum marries Thordis, sister of Grettir the Strong, and their son was that Ospak who quarrels with Odd Ofeigsson (the plot of the Bandamanna saga).

Thorolf’s ghost (part two) and the magic bull
63 – Another story or legend which could, frankly, be attached to anyone. We thought we’d heard the last of Thorolf Twist-Foot in chapter 34. Now, after all this time, he is back haunting farms at Ulfarsfell and Orlygsstad. Farmers call on Thorodd Thorbrandsson to help. He goes with slaves to Twist-Foot’s Knoll, break open the grave and roll Thorolf’s corpse down to the shore where they create a pyre and burn it. Coming back they witness a cow break a leg. They patch it up and let it roam on the hill where it seen frolicking with an unknown bull and licking the stones where Thorolf was burned. It gets pregnant and has a bull calf which grows with uncanny speed. Thorodd’s foster-mother, old and blind, predicts no good will come of it and they should slaughter it. But Thorodd deceives her, keeps it, feeds it as it grows into a monster and call it Glaesir. In the summer, after a heavy rain, Glaesir runs mad in the home meadow attacking the hayricks. Thorodd goes out to calm him, ends up wrestling with him and is finally tossed and gored in the guts. He limps home where he dies in bed. This same Thorodd was one of Snorri’s companions in the killing of Thorolf Twist-Foot’s noble son, Arnkel (37) and a participant in the Battle of Vigra Fjord (45). He is buried in the local church.— This story is a stand-alone anecdote which needn’t have been in the saga at all.

Vinland
64 – A marvellously haunting and romantic chapter in which a man named Gudleif Gudlaugsson sets out from Norway in the reign of King Olaf the Saint (1015-30), heading for Dublin but is blown way off course by stormy winds, arriving at a big country where they are cpatured by hundreds of locals and dragged before their big grey-haired leader who, to their astonishment addresses them in Norse, asks after Iceland, then about the west fjords, then specifically about Thurid and her son Kjartan. He refuses to name himself but asks them to give Thurid a ring and Kjartan a sword, then bids them leave in a hurry before the locals kill them. Legend has it this man was Bjorn the Breidavik-Champion, who we first met making unwanted visits to Thurid, Snorri’s sister, back in chapter 29, before he was exiled and went to join the Jomsvikings. It is a strange and haunting almost-ending to the book.

65 – Snorri’s descendants The actual ending is a final chapter lovingly rounding up the descendants of Snorri’s many children.

Sayings

  • What happens to others can happen to you (32)

Helgafell

Translations

Helgafell

Helga Fell or Holy Mountain where Thorolf Mostur-Beard settles and which no man is allowed to look on unless he has washed (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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