Book Review: “The Sagas of the Icelanders” (Penguin Classics Deluxe)

March 3, 2010

The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition collection of The Sagas of the Icelanders is imposing both for its physical dimensions (hint: doorstoppish) and its content. These prose stories, written down sometime around the 14th century or so based on happenings in the 10th century, are a mix of actual things that happened and (hopefully) apocryphal bloodbaths that surpass any horror movie I’ve seen in terms of very messy body count.

The world described herein is fantastical: Berserkers shape-shift and transform into invincible killing machines; longboats full of furious men ply the grey waves, striking fear at every fjord and islet in Scandinavia; men kill each other over bad poetry. And the names are themselves riveting: Finn the Squinter fathered Eyvind the Plagiarist. Norweigians and Icelanders came in every shape, size and fiendish temperament: Atli the Slender, Bard the Peevish, Hallbjorn Half-troll, Berg the Bold, Asbjorn the Fleshy, Olvir Hump, Thorvald the Overbearing. Some characters have names that feel like an entire story: Halfdan Eysteinsson the Mild and Meal-stingy, Hallfred Ottarsson the Troublesome Poet. In fact, Hallfred does have his own entire saga.

Unlike other oral tradition, which gives us the beautiful pacing of Homeric epics, for example, the Icelandic sagas are prose narrative. What sweeps one up here is not the style, which is sort of blunt and chronological, but the landscape, the bravado and the relative insanity of everyone involved.

Now we’ve talked about the charming parts. The rest? In a word: Yikes. Egil’s Saga, one of the most foundational of the set, was nearly 200 pages of gore and ferocity. Death was the default outcome of encounters. Oh, yes, and a stunning amount of drinking. In one typical scene everyone got way too drunk, and this is how things turned out (fair warning: this passage is graphic):

Egil started to feel that he would not be able to go on like this. He stood up and walked across the floor to where Armod was sitting, seized him by the shoulders and thrust him up against a wall-post. Then Egil spewed a torrent of vomit that gushed all over Armod’s face, filling his eyes and nostrils and mouth and pouring down his beard and chest. Armod was close to choking, and when he managed to let out his breath, a jet of vomit gushed out with it.

The next day, Egil was still annoyed with Armod and so “gouged out one of his eyes with his finger, leaving it hanging on one cheek.” This led to a dispute that was quite drawn out and got several dozen folks killed.

Gak. This stuff is not for the easily-nauseated. But it is a riveting insight into a strange and intruiging culture.

3.0 stars
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