The Sagas of Icelanders is an expansive collection of Icelandic family sagas and stories. Most of them were written from the 13th and 14th century. Iceland and Greenland were settled a few centuries earlier and the sagas cover the stories of that settlement. With all the interest in Vikings and the success of the TV series, it was fun to go back to some of the original stories of the real Viking adventures.
There are several sagas. Their society is very different from the feudal society of the rest of Europe. It is more egalitarian. Without kings, most of their government takes place at the Althings when people gather to make decisions and settle grievances. There are legal battles, confiscation courts and outlawry. Honor plays a big role, requiring revenge sometimes even when folks would rather not bother.
The women have more agency there than in the rest of Europe as well. They are consulted before marriage and able to reject suitors they do not like. They own property and even, occasionally, lead their own expeditions and captain their own ships. Perhaps because their husbands may be gone for a year or more on trading voyages, they gained power from the need to manage and safeguard their family estates and farms.
With all the patronymic, it can be confusing to keep track of who is who, except there are all the wonderful nicknames. I would love to know how Filth-Eyjolf and Eystein Fart got their names. There is Alf the Wealthy, Asbjorn the Fleshy, Asgeir Audunarson Scatter-brain, Atli the Squinter, Ketil Flat-Nose and so many more.
Most of the stories are about this, that, or the other person getting in a snit, killing someone, then getting killed in return, though some are pretty clever at escaping. Ref the Sly even built a cabin with walls filled with water piped from a stream to automatically put out fires by pulling shims to open the flow, a sprinkler system created around 1050.
I loved The Sagas of Icelanders. It’s a huge book of more than 750 pages so I read it over many weeks a little bit at a time. This is easy because even the longest sagas are broken up into short stories of a page or two.
I love the matter of fact writing and the quick, naturalistic characterization of the people. This person was a scold, that one was lazy, this one thought too highly of himself. They just said it. See how easily and plainly this situation is set up.
“There was a man named Thorbjorn who was rich, overbearing, a great fighter and a trouble-maker. He had lived in every quarter of the country, but the chieftains and the public had expelled him from each district in turn because of his unfairness and his manslaughters. He had not paid compensation for any man he had killed. His wife was named Rannveig; she was stupid and domineering. It was generally felt that Thorbjorn would have committed fewer outrages if she had not driven him on. Now Thorbjorn bought land at Saudafell mountain. Many of those who knew his reputation beforehand were apprehensive about his coming.”
With such plain narratives filled with action, The Sagas of Icelanders is full of adventures and heroics. It also includes the sagas of Eirek the Red and Leif Eireksson who settled, for a time, in Vinland on the coast of Canada. While these are the sagas of the people of Iceland and Greenland, they travel to Sweden, Norway, Ireland, England, Denmark, Russia, and Rome and even Constantinople, traveling all around Europe trading and raiding.
- The Sagas of Icelanders at Penguin Random House
- Great review of The Sagas of Icelanders at The Guardian