So, this happened. I took it into my head that I needed to read The Sagas of Icelanders. Why? Well, I actually went to Iceland last summer and enjoyed it immensely. Sure, the sun would set after midnight and then rise again at three in the morning, and the temperature never reached above 55 degrees...in June...but it was truly an incredible place. They also have a tradition of giving each other books on Christmas Eve, and then people spend the rest of the evening reading. Isn't that lovely? It was while I was browsing in one of the Reykjavik Eymundsson bookstores that I first saw a copy of The Sagas of Icelanders. Noting its size and length, I knew that eventually it would be one of my door stops.
Genre, Themes, History: The Sagas of Icelanders is actually a collection of ten sagas and six tales, all telling stories about the Vikings and heroes from long ago who migrated to Iceland and did many famous deeds. A saga is usually a story about ancient Nordic history that tells of early Viking voyages, battles, and feuds between families. Each story is different, usually focusing on one particular person or family, and telling not only their history, but the history of the people immediately surrounding them. For instance, the first saga in the collection, Egil's Saga, naturally focuses on Egil, but the story begins with Egil's grandfather and continues to move down the family line, eventually coming to Egil himself before moving onto his sons as the protagonist ages. It is the longest saga in the collection, but it serves as a great introduction into how the sagas are structured and how the Vikings operated. Throughout the reading of the sagas, it becomes clear that the Vikings were big on honor and reputation, as well as justice, trade, and quite naturally, storytelling. Often the main conflict will come from someone spreading lies and slander, and their target will kill in retaliation, as in The Saga of Ref the Sly. From there, families will seek compensation for the death, which is rarely given, and the conflict continues from there. Other times the hero will be driven to killing someone after having been treated unfairly, but justice will be sought against them, leading them to flee or seek help in an effort to defend themselves. Full of drama, some romance, and even comedy, the sagas show a world that may be far removed from our own, but the themes are still familiar.
My Verdict: It may have taken me awhile to get used to the structure and language, but once I got to the middle of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, which actually focuses on the most famous female protagonist of all sagas, Gudurn Osvifsdottir, I was able to find my own rhythm for reading the stories and was able to enjoy what they had to offer. Just like with any other collection of stories, I had my favorites, and there were characters I cheered for, and others that only caused me to shake my head in disappointment. If there was anything that frustrated me it was the injustices of the justice system the vikings used, or rather the way some managed to exploit and manipulate it to work in their favor. It seemed difficult to receive real justice for a wrong committed, which may have accounted for all of the times the victims sought justice in their own way. Either way, I found myself enjoying the stories by the end and looking forward to each new tale the collection had to offer.
Favorite Saga: The Saga of Ref the Sly is easily my favorite, with Ref the Sly also being my favorite character. Ref is a quiet boy who is initially thought to be useless, but proves to be very skilled in working crafts. Others assume they can easily best him in combat, only to be proven this is not the case once he thoroughly defeats them in battle.
Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a more modern story that tells the long and complicated history of a family attempting to settle in a new land, I suggest East of Eden by John Steinbeck.