Hallgrímur Helgason is the author of 101 Reykjavik, a comic tale of slacker culture in the Icelandic capital. The book was recently made into a film with a soundtrack by Damon Albarn.
Iceland is the perfect size for a life. It takes exactly 67 years to explore it to the full; to walk every heath, sail every fjord, visit every farm, wake up in every village and eat in every kitchen. You actually can absorb all it's realities in one lifetime.
The Icelandic nation is the perfect size too. If you want to, it is possible to get to know all your fellow countrymen before you die. Most Icelanders do. Or at least try. "Who is he?" - "You know him. He's Viddi's brother in law." - "Oh, yeah, the one with the nose?"
It's that family feeling.
Genealogy is big in Iceland. The need to know who people are. Where they are from. Who their earliest ancestor was. Because we always can. Many people can trace their family roots back to the courageous men and women who sailed from Norway to be the first settlers of Iceland around the year 870. Thanks to the Sagas.
In Icelandic the Sagas are called "The Stories of the Icelanders". (In our language "saga" means both "story" and "history".) The Sagas are about the first Icelanders; they are our Genesis, our Birth of a Nation. They form the basis of our culture. Even today they serve as our moral code, almost our Book of Law. (Every Icelandic police car carries a quote from Njal's Saga: "The land shall be built on law".) They are our history, genealogy, geology, geography, anthropology, mythology, law and religion all in one. We might not wholly believe their every word, but we do believe in them. The sagas are our Bible.
But above all they are good stories.
Icelanders love hearing and telling good stories. And for a story to be good you have to twist the truth a bit. Nowadays, when friends from work come together for a drink and start telling stories of mutual friends or local celebrities, they often conclude with the phrase: "Of course it's not true, but the story is good."
The sagas were composed on the same principle. They're about real people, people who existed. They tell of real things, things that did happen. And they are all true in the sense that only literature can give you a true picture of the past.
The sagas are true fiction.
They were written in the 13th century when the Viking age-with all its gangsta rhyming and mafia-like code of honour, blood-revenges and larger-than-life lifestyle was mostly in the past and the Christian way of thinking was settling in. Learned men in monasteries wrote historical novels about their crazy old forefathers. It has often been said that the best literature is created in periods of transition; on the border between different worlds and cultures; when an old society is dying out and a new one rushing in. (Ibsen's Norway was like that, Tolstoy's Russia and Laxness's Iceland too, and this theory has also been offered as an explanation for the recent appearance of so much great literature from places like India, Africa, the Carribean and other "new" places.) 13th century Iceland seems to have been a border between many things. The pioneer-frenzy was fading and regular island living was taking over. The unique no-sovereign utopia state of the first centuries after the settlement was coming to an end, and big chieftains were trying to capture power. The 13th century was an age of unrest that resulted in loss of Icelandic independence to the King of Norway. The Middle-East version of God was finally replacing the northern pagan ones, Thor and Freyja & co. (Although Christianity was officially adopted by Iceland in the year 1000 it was done so on the condition that people could continue to worship their pagan gods if they did so out of view.) And, finally, the good and warm period that started around 870 was coming to an end - the effect of temperature on literature has always been underestimated.
What lay ahead was the miserable Middle Ages: The king, the church and the cold.
Iceland was going from the wild west to the frozen north, from independence to colony, from Viking ships to monasteries, from runic writing to Latin alphabet. The good old times were over. The sagas were written when Icelandic society had come of age; just as a middle-aged man looks back on his crazy and violent youth and suddenly feels the urge to write it all down now that he has the time and means to do so.
But still the question remains: why? Why did some guys in Iceland suddenly decide to start writing historical novels in the year 1230 when the form did not even exist in other parts of Europe, and certainly not "back home" in Scandinavia? Many people say this was the result of Norse and Irish blood-mixing. Studies have shown that 30% of early Icelanders were of Irish decent, a fact that helps us to understand why today we feel so different from the ever-sensible Norwegians and so very much at home in Irish pubs. Icelandic literature is Hamsun gone Wilde.
The Sagas: Celtic humour combined with Nordic pride? Maybe. (This special cocktail of genes seems to have produced a real writing-breed: the first 400 Icelanders who immigrated to Manitoba in the late 19th century immediately published their own newsletter; which is the oldest ethnic newspaper in Canadian history.) But maybe the land itself also played a part. I don't want to sound too patriotic, but still, there is something special about Iceland. It's not very user-friendly, but it gives you energy, you get inspired. It keeps you on your toes. Every ten years there is a new volcanic eruption; the landscape alters; a new mountain is created or a new island emerges from the sea and we have to come up with a name for it. The country itself is creative and forces us to be so too. When you live on the continent for a while, you get overwhelmed by the fact that the landscape around Paris hasn't changed one bit for 500.000 years. You get depressed. You miss all the exciting earthquakes and blizzards at home. And when you add to this the powerful feeling of being one of the first generations of human beings ever to live in this inspiring island, you get that historical urge which lies behind all the saga-writings: you just had to put it on paper. These stories had to be told.
"Another of her freed slaves was called Hundi, a Scotsman by birth; to him she gave Hundadale." -From The Saga of the People of Salmon River Valley (Laxdæla).
Iceland was an empty page on which people wrote with their lives. Their names are forever printed on the land. Hundadale still carries its first owner's name. The first strokes to hit the white canvas are always the most decisive ones. The relationship between a people and their land begins a bit like the relationship between a woman and man. Their first days of living together form a pattern that lasts a lifetime. A small misunderstanding, a trivial coincidence-she jumps in the window-side of the bed the first night, he makes the coffee their first morning-becomes a lifelong habit. Ingolfur Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland, when out at sea, cast some wooden pillars overboard, to see where the currents would carry them. Some weeks later his slaves found them in what he would then call Reykjavik; where he built his farm and where the pillars of our society still stand today. Those were important happenings and just had to be written down.
The sagas are Hello! magazine as high art. They tell stories of the most famous people who were living (mostly) before and after the year 1000. The gossip had been going on for over two hundred years. The oral tradition had shaped the stories. They were highly developed when they were finally put into writing. This explains the polished and terse prose of the Sagas. In their dry, holding-it-all-back style full of understatements and cold-blooded ironies, they are a bit like Dashiell Hammett on horseback.
Another explanation for this style would be the lack of space. Calf-skin was precious; the manuscripts are written in small letters and dense lines that have almost no space between them. Many words were abbreviated. For example, the word "madur" is always written as "madr", an almost unpronouncable thing. Some people think that this is the way the word was spoken and written back in the 13th century. I doubt it. I think it's just an abbreviation, a discovery you make soon after you try to tell a good saga in one single SMS-message on your mobile-phone, where you only have 160 letters at your service. You automatically start cutting out those "unnecessary" "u"'s as in "madur", "drengur" and "gódur".
Are the sagas boring?
Of course they can be. At times. But never more so than 13th century stuff normally is. I still tend to skip the family-trees at the beginning of some chapters; the genealogical stuff: "He was the son of so-and-so, who was the son of so-and-so the Great etc..." And sometimes the legal-feuds get overcomplicated; all male and business-like they can read like your average take-over story out of the Financial Times. But most of the time they are fun. This is because they are about real people, not saints or knights or some mythological and very ancient geeks. The sagas "keep it real" all the time, which makes them so modern and up to date in all their telling of marital and sexual problems, accusations of homosexuality (a capital crime), ambition, greed and jealousy as well as heroic deeds and action-packed fighting-scenes. After all, those were stories people liked to narrate to each other. The oral tradition behind them automatically makes them ever-interesting and "cool". As all classic literature the sagas are "streetwise".
Martin Amis has said that Cervantes's Don Quixote is way too long and at times extremely boring. He challenged today's Spanish-speaking writers to edit it and give us a modern version of the great old man from La Mancha. Amis could perhaps make the same complaint about the sagas, but if he did I'm not sure where we would start to cut. The editing has already been done, by two hundred years of speaking tongues.
The sagas' oral origins might also explain why none of these great novels come with an author's name. In an age very much occupied with personal honour and all kinds of claims to fame, as the saga centuries were, this strikes us as strange. Maybe the writers didn't feel that they were the true authors of the sagas; they were just "writers" in the first sense of the word; they just wrote them down. Still, they must have contributed a lot to their artistry.
"And here I end the saga of Njal of the burning."
This is the last line of the greatest of them all, Njal's Saga, and it still drives people nuts in Iceland, a nation that has produced over 40 books on the quest for "the true author of Njal's Saga". Every year we see another speculation, a new suggestion. Who is this "I"? Was he just the "writer" who penned it, or someone who copied it from another manuscript, or was he "the author"? The problem remains a problem. We will never know. Who was Homer? What was Shakespeare like? Uncertainties only add to greatness.
None of the major sagas is signed by an author. The only known "writers" from this period are the cousins Sturla Thordarson and Snorri Sturluson, the latter considered to be the Nobel Prize winner of medieval literature, earning him statues in Iceland and Norway (where they still try to claim that he was Norwegian, which is a bit like the Brits saying Mark Twain was an English writer) as well as a plaque in Sorbonne's hall of fame. Still, one always has one's doubts about this authorship. Snorri is said to have composed some poems but is most often described as a man of affairs, a power-broker and big chieftain; a restless and over-ambitious landowner: the richest man in Iceland. A millionaire with literary ambitions doesn't sound very plausible. According to the legend Mr. Sturluson is the thirteenth century author of Heimskringla, A History of the Kings of Norway, though the ancient texts only say that "Snorri Sturluson had them put together". Some say this wording means that he dictated them to his secretaries, but it might as well mean that he just paid for the whole thing. Snorri's big writing fame might be the equivalent of stating that Lodovico Medici was the most important artist of the Italian renaissance.
Over 40 novels without an author. And no original edition. The sagas were handed down to us in handwritten manuscripts; the oldest ones made of calf-skin, the later ones of paper. None of those manuscripts dates back to the actual writing time of the sagas. Many of them contain the same story but each script gives us a different version of it: no originals exist: a fact that could make the question of authorship seem irrelevant. Based on gossip, edited by long-gone storytellers, and existing in many different versions, written by different people, how are we supposed to try to attribute them to one single author? If there ever was a collective consciousness at work it was at work on those tales. The Icelandic sagas were written by Iceland.
The land of stories.
The size fits. Iceland has 48 fjords. There are 48 sagas. Only the highland desert is void of all stories; haunted by all those unfortunate minor characters that were cut from the sagas. They are still bitter about it. Apart from that our country is covered with mirth and drama. Turn any stone and underneath it you'll find the blood-stains out of some thousand year old family saga. For example, if you drive around the beautiful but seemingly innocent Alftafjord (Fjord of Swans) in the Snaefellsnes-region, it acquires a whole new and much more interesting meaning if you know The Saga of the People of Eyri (Eyrbyggja saga). Some god might have created the mountains and the sea, but without the tales lived and created by men and women, the dales would only be pretty, as in pretty boring.
At the time when the last sagas were being written Dante was starting his Divine Comedy. Yet the old calf-skin-scribblers appear to us today as being more contemporary than the holy bard. The question of religion may stand between us and Dante; we may find his worldview a bit simplistic. In the case of the sagas this problem does not exist. They are secular literature, fit for our material world. Like our long-gone brothers and sisters we are united only in our belief in one thing: good literature.
(c) HH September 2002
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Seven Viking Romances
Sagas of Warrior Poets
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
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