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In Iceland, the age of the Vikings is also known as the Saga Age. A unique body of medieval literature, the Sagas rank with the world’s great literary treasures – as epic as Homer, as deep in tragedy as Sophocles, as engagingly human as Shakespeare.
Set around the turn of the last millennium, these stories depict with an astonishingly modern realism the lives and deeds of the Norse men and women who first settled in Iceland and of their descendants, who ventured farther west to Greenland and, ultimately, North America. Sailing as far from the archetypal heroic adventure as the long ships did from home, the Sagas are written with psychological intensity, peopled by characters with depth, and explore perennial human issues like love, hate, fate and freedom.

782 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1200

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About the author

Jane Smiley

108 books1,958 followers
Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. From 1981 to 1996, she taught at Iowa State University. Smiley published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, and won a 1985 O. Henry Award for her short story "Lily", which was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her best-selling A Thousand Acres, a story based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. It was adapted into a film of the same title in 1997. In 1995 she wrote her sole television script produced, for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Her novella The Age of Grief was made into the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), is a non-fiction meditation on the history and the nature of the novel, somewhat in the tradition of E. M. Forster's seminal Aspects of the Novel, that roams from eleventh century Japan's Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji to twenty-first century Americans chick lit.

In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 271 reviews
Profile Image for Debbie.
686 reviews427 followers
July 11, 2021
I had developed an interest in Scandinavia since visiting Denmark, Sweden and Norway several years ago and most recently, watching the TV mini-series "Vikings"; so when I came across this volume at a book sale, I was intrigued.

Translated into English, this book contains stories, or sagas, about various Icelandic people who lived between the 10th to the early 12th century. The sagas begin with Vikings leaving Norway for various reasons to make a new home in Iceland and eventually settle in Greenland and explore North America (which was especially fascinating to me).

Although the writing/storytelling is straightforward and simplistic, it is definitely not for the fainthearted! During this time period, people would mete out justice over various disputes, usually by "an eye for an eye". Many times I would shake my head in disbelief as people took the law into their own hands. Neighbors and kinfolk often came to violent blows and even brutal deaths over seemingly innocent situations, such as riding someone's horse without permission, grazing cattle in a neighboring pasture or being affronted by a personal insult. Living in a farming community myself, I am grateful that this type of vengeance has been tempered a great deal! Some of these people would now be labelled sociopaths!

One problem I had in reading this book (through no fault of the storytellers/translators) was trying to keep all the names straight! Many men's (and women's) first names begin with Thor - perhaps in reverence to the Norse god, Thor?

All in all, I enjoyed reading about this "charming" group of people!
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book951 followers
January 14, 2014
Stories are important. Maybe even essential. We learn about each other through stories; whether it be the Cliff Notes version of ourselves we tell to coworkers and clients or the long narratives enjoyed of our child's daily exploits at school. Long before our first attempts at writing stories we shared tales of ourselves, our heritage, our world through the spoken word. Homer's hymns, Aesop's fables or Icelandic sagas - they are all instructive, rich and certainly the greater for having been heard rather than read.

I have a personal story I've told about a half dozen times to different friends over the years involving me, Ozzy Ozbourne, Teddy Roosevelt and the Alamo. In its few tellings I've never failed to solicit a laugh or a smile. I feel, however, if I tried to write that story rather than tell it I would kill its soul. When my audience is nodding their head and laughing at a certain part of the narrative I can embelish that portion and play it longer. If I see their eyes begin to glass or their attention wane, I move quicker to the next act. By the end of the anecdote I've (hopefully) played the strengths of the story to my audience and, if not entertained them, at least shared something personal about me that helps to further explain who I am.

It was an absolute pleasure to read these dozen or so sagas of Icelanders whose culture is foreign to me, and yet I found the recognizable humanity in their struggles, the pleasures and pains of living and the search for some way to leave a mark on the world. Many of these stories were oral traditions passed through multiple generations of story tellers. How wonderful to know that the version I've read is an English translation of a collection of Icelandic texts written onto animal skins 700-1000 years ago from a story told and retold countless of times - to the point that whatever I'm reading is certainly a pale copy of the original. And yet the center of the story still holds. I'm invested in these explorers, their story. I truly want to understand the why, where and how of their lives. It makes me genuinely happy to know that while I appreciate great writers from the last 200 years, it isn't necessary to be a master of the written word to tell a compelling story.

Vonnegut exhorts his reader in a few of his novels: Listen. He doesn't tell us to Look, or Read Carefully, but to hear what he is writing. I can hear his words in my head, but I don't think that is what he meant. I love reading Vonnegut aloud, even to myself if my wife or daughter won't listen. As a lover of storytelling, I'd like to think that Vonnegut would be happy to know that a fan of his works took him at his literal meaning. And perhaps some master Icelandic storytellers of yore could relate as well.
Profile Image for Briynne.
585 reviews52 followers
December 15, 2009
Wow. This book was a huge undertaking, but it was completely worth the effort. The stories are at once familiar and utterly foreign, and so, so fascinating. It took me a while to fall into the patterns and rhythms of the sagas; they tend to wander, go down long tangents, circle back the long way, and then eventually present a central story of sorts. And that’s not to mention that about 80% of the characters – men and women – have names beginning with the prefix “Thor”. I’m not joking. Thorbjorg, Thorstein, Thorgerd, Thorgils, Thorbjorn, Thorarin, Thorfinn, Thorgeir. I wanted to throw things at some points; I literally had no idea who anybody was in some passages because I was incapable of keeping the names straight. So, these stories are definitely not without their frustrations, but I still highly recommend them if you are willing to invest some time and concentration. There were over a dozen sagas and tales in this collection (which also happens to have a gorgeous cover), but I’m going to highlight my favorite four here:

Egil’s Saga:
This is the longest of the sagas in this collection, and it is bursting with action thanks to the mercurial and ever-so-slightly sociopathic Egil. The title character gets his start at age seven when he puts an axe through another kid’s skull during a playground scuffle and incites a small blood-feud in the process. His father Skallagrim hardly notices, but his mother fondly notes that he might actually make a decent Viking someday if he applies himself. The rest of the story follows suit with one battle, dispute, and raid after another. Oddly enough (to me, maybe not to the original audience), Egil also happens to be a poet at heart, and his talent with words gets him out of many of the scrapes his temper lands him in.

This saga also has the benefit of one of my favorite Viking-Age couples, King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild. Eirik is nice kid who is very fond of Egil when he’s first introduced in the story as a young prince. Things change rapidly after his marriage to Gunnhild, who hates and actively plots against Egil at every turn. She’s a Lady Macbeth of sorts in the story, constantly egging Eirik on to kill Egil and taunting him for being a coward whenever he’s tempted toward mercy. It’s really entertaining to see a guy nicknamed “Bloodaxe” be so thoroughly henpecked.

Saga of the People of Laxardal:
This second novel-length saga which begins when a guy, Hoskuld, buys a slave-woman (who turns out to be a captured Irish princess) on a business trip. He proceeds to bring her home, now pregnant, to his extremely unimpressed wife. The wife puts her foot down and banishes the woman from the house, but not before a truly lovely catfight erupts. All the while, Hoskuld seems genuinely surprised that the new domestic arrangement is not working out. [fun fact: the YA novel “Hush” is based on this saga]

The slave-woman arranges for her son, wonderfully named Olaf Peacock, to go to Ireland and be recognized by her father, the Irish king. The king offers to make him heir to the kingdom, but he declines in favor of returning home (with a much-improved social standing). With some effort, he convinces Egil Skallagrimsson’s refreshingly independent daughter Thorgerd to marry him and they live more-or-less happily ever after in a haunted house in the forest.

Olaf’s son Kjartan forms one half of my other favorite couple in the sagas. Kjartan and Gudrun’s depressing, star-crossed relationship is a great big soap opera. They’re childhood sweethearts, but the timing is never quite right for them. She gets married off to a useless man, who she later divorces in favor of another who drowns. Kjartan goes off to Norway to earn a name for himself and asks Gudren to wait for him. She won’t stand for it, and instead marries his best friend/half-brother Bolli (who is Hoskuld’s legitimate son). When Kjartan returns, he is obviously very upset but refuses to admit it. He marries someone else (which really bugs Gudren, though she won’t admit it either) and starts picking fights with Bolli at every opportunity. Despite her continued strained affection for Kjartan, Gudren is offended by the slights to her husband’s, and therefore her, honor and encourages Bolli to fight back. The two men have a confrontation and Bolli ends up killing Kjartan. That initial killing only serves to start a feud that their sons continue for generations, Hatfield and McCoy-style. At the end of her life, her son asks her who she loved best, and she makes a heart-breaking allusion to Kjartan, saying she loved best he who she dealt with worst. Or at least that’s how I choose to interpret it.

It was interesting to me how frequently the women in these sagas are the ones instigating the violence, and demanding blood for revenge. I had, rather unfairly, not expected that. And of course since they generally didn’t do the avenging themselves, they had to make sure the men did it for them - whether they liked it or not. Their persuasive techniques are both vicious and extremely effective. The go-to plan seemed to be to tell one’s son/husband/brother that he was a pathetic excuse for a man and/or it was a pity and waste that he ever existed if he didn’t kill so-and-so and restore the family’s honor. Then simply rinse and repeat until the desired effect was achieved. If that didn’t work, there was always the old “too bad you weren’t born a girl, since at least then you could have married and given me a decent son-in-law” to fall back on. Which is just mean.

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
Gunnlaug’s saga was much shorter than the previous two I’ve mentioned, but I absolutely loved it. It really reminded me of a Disney fairy-tale, only with a wild name, a lot more blood and death, and no happy ending. It begins with a nobleman deciding to have his unborn daughter killed at birth after a prophetic dream warns that her beauty will lead men to kill over her, but his wife conspires to have the child raised in secret. She is reunited with her family and develops first a friendly affection and then love for Gunnlaug, who loves her in return but wishes to see the world. Her father agrees to promise Helga to him for three years, but when he does not return in time, he marries her to Gunnlaug’s rival Hrafn instead. Helga makes no secret about her lack of regard for him and pines openly for Gunnlaug, who returns just in time for the wedding. He challenges Hrafn, and they fight several times, eventually killing each other. The story ends with Helga slowly wasting away and dying of a broken heart. I love it. It’s somehow comforting to know that people a thousand years ago liked the exact same hackneyed, melodramatic storylines that we do today. It just never seems to get old, especially when it’s told so well.

The Vinland Sagas
I remember the stories of Eric the Red and Leif Ericson from grade school social studies classes, but this was a much, much better version. Eirik starts his career as an outlaw and murderer on the lam. Leif has a crazy sister, Freydis, who leads her own expedition to the new world and has a crowd of rival settlers butchered; when the men refused to kill the women in the group, she grabs an axe and does the job herself. Where was that in my textbook? I would have paid attention to that. It’s fascinating to read about the first recorded interactions between Europeans and Native Americans. They were violent and exploitative, but yet refreshingly honest; the Vikings seemed to see the native peoples simply as threats to be fended off. In other words, they treated them like anyone else whose lands they wanted who happened to get in the way, and who had the bad luck of inferior weaponry. Naked greed is so much more palatable to me than the kind that gets tarted up in divine mandates and racial superiority.

It took me about five months to read this, but it was well worth it. This completely rocked my sense of Norse culture of that time. Who knew that Vikings were so litigious or artistic? They seemed far more engrossed by their lawsuits and poetry than they did by raiding and pillaging. Color me surprised. I have a painfully beautiful picture of Iceland painted in my head after reading this, and am putting it firmly on my life-travel list. Fantastic book.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,451 reviews1 follower
May 22, 2018
Because the same language was spoken in north-east England and Icleand at the time of the arrival of William the Conqueror many English speakers consider Icelandic literature to be part of their cultural heritage. For those who subscribe to this notion, this handsome volume will be a great delight.
The sagas were all translated simultaneously under the direction of a signal committee which imposed consistent translations of words for all the works. My own feeling is that what resulted was an artificial homogeneity among the various tales and sagas. Nonetheless, the confusion for the reader has unquestionably been reduced.
The introductions and supporting materials are first rate. The editors do nothing however to assist the reader in choosing his or her sample from the many works in this generous anthology.
Profile Image for Markus.
634 reviews72 followers
September 23, 2020
The Sagas of Icelanders

The ‘Saga age’ was from about 830 to about 1030.
The Sagas were collected and written down about 200 years after the events took place in Norway and Iceland at the time of the Vikings.

It is different from almost any other world literature.
Individual authors are scarcely known, but an entire way of life becomes visible.

Translation from Icelandic into English are from various translators, but the plainness of style expressing little emotion and the way of plain speaking everyday people as well as similar incidents are repeated like rituals the same way throughout the body of this collection.

The writing of the Sagas is designed to give the reader the impression that they relate things precisely as they happened, or at least as people have said they happened.
Sometimes, on particular events, dangers or successes the heroes would recite improvised poems.

King Harold Fair-hair of Norway (850-933 AD) grew so powerful that no petty king or other men of rank could thrive in Norway unless he had received the title from the king.
The choice was to submit and pay tribute or to be killed by the king's men or to flee the country.

For this reason, many proud Norwegians fled to Iceland. The settlement of Iceland began at about 870 AD.

Viking age is parallel to the Saga age. In winter these warriors were wealthy farmers there, but in summer many would prepare beautiful far sailing longships with up to ninety well-armed rough young men on board.

They would sail south raiding and rampaging along the coasts of Ireland, England, Normandy, Brittany, Northern Germany, even as far as the Baltic States, Danemark and Sweden.

Most of the saga heroes are in fact outlaws, but it is shown that necessary legislation had yet to develop during these epic times.

It is interesting to note that the idea of democracy had not come naturally into operation.
It was the law of the strongest, both physically and intellectually, the wealthiest and most influential family would rule a district.

Raiding was a tradition over two hundred years, up to about the year 1000 when the Christian religion gained a foothold and when the trade started to replace raiding.

In the end, for many Saga heroes, Iceland becomes a sort of retirement home for ageing Vikings.

Icelandic Sagas are also known as Family Sagas. They follow individual men and women known by name and even nickname through their destiny, which ends many a time in violent death. Family feuds, sometimes over generations were common.

Many modern Icelanders can trace their ancestors in these Sagas.

Quote:
“Herdis Bolladottir grew up at Helgafell and was the loveliest of women.
Orm, the son of Hermund Illugason, asked for and received her hand in marriage. Their son Hermund married Gudrun Sigmundardottir, and Kodran’s son Hermund married Ulfheid, the daughter of Runolf, the son of Bishop Ketil. Their son was Ketil, who became the abbot at Helgafell, Hrein, Kodran and Styrmir. Thorvor, the daughter of Hermis and Orm, was married to Skeggi Brandson and their descendants are the people of Skogar.”

“The Saga of the People of Laxardal belongs to the earliest group of Sagas.
It has been claimed that this Saga, with its focus on women as leaders or instigators, its firm grip on female psychology, its close attention to the details of women’s routine life and its insight into the position and lot of women, from the highest to the lowest ranks of life,
must surely have been the work of a woman author.”

As for the writing style let us make some short quotations:

“Odd now lived on his farm in lordly style and was well content with his wife.
All this time nothing had been heard of Ospak. A man named Mar Hildisson married Svala and moved into the farm at Svolustadir. He had a brother called Bjalfi, half imbecile and extremely strong.
There was a man named Bergthor, living at Bodvasholar; he had summoned up the case when Ospak was outlawed. It happened one evening at Bodvasholar when people were sitting by the fire that someone came and banged at the door and asked the farmer to come out. The farmer realised it was Ospak who had arrived, and he refused to go out.
In the morning when women came into the cowshed, nine cows had been mortally injured. The news spread widely.
Sometime later it happened at Svolustadir that someone walked into the room where Mar was sleeping. It was early morning. The man went across to the bed and thrust at Mar with a short sword, right into his belly. It was Opak, and he spoke this verse:

Sharp from the sheath my short-sword I drew
and stabbed into the stomach of Mar.
I hate the thought that Hildir’s heir
Should share the embrace of shapely Svala.

As he turned to the door, Bjalfi jumped to his feet and drove a woodworking knife into him.
Ospak walked to the farm called Borgarhol and declared the killing, and then he went away, and nothing was heard of him for some time.” And so the story goes on.

There are some rewarding take away’s from these readings:

The North did not invent democracy.

It had developed a different kind of social coherence based on tradition and legislation of its own.
These laws were strongly respected and adhered to by all people.
To be outlawed (from society) was the strongest conviction given to a murderer or other unsociable individuum.
The death penalty had not been invented there.

Blood feud was the tradition, any wrongdoing to a family had to be, and was avenged by anyone of that family — an eye for eye and tooth for a tooth.
Things changed after the introduction of the Christian faith to the Northern countries.

Women were highly respected and protected by all men in this otherwise utterly male-dominated society.

Poetry was vividly admired and well practised. There would have been a good number of natural poets alive along the Saga ages.
Unfortunately for the reader, the beauty of these poems mentioned in this book is lost in translation.

It is also striking how tough, brave and enduring these Nordland farmers must have been
In these incredibly rough climatic situations.
Their Farm buildings would have to be made of stone or from wood imported from Norway by longships. Long, cold and dark winters. Scarce grasslands to raise cattle and horses.

The fact that the Icelanders had discovered the American continent in the early 11th century had established a base in Vineland, had started some trading with the local population and did not persevere in this endeavour, gave the Indians and the American Continent a reprieve of about 500 years before the White and Bearded men started their permanent invasion.

Each one of these Sagas is a pleasure to read individually. However, the vast number of these collected in this edition are similar on many accounts which, in the end, makes reading tedious.

However, we have the incredible fortune to be able to read several hundred books from the Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations.

From the Ancient Islanders, we only have the Sagas; this is the best reason to read them with perseverance for historical their value and inherent natural beauty.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews200 followers
September 23, 2020
"Once, Arinbjorn went to him and asked what was causing his melancholy: "Even though you have suffered a great loss with your brother's death, the manly thing to do is bear it well. One man lives after another's death. What poetry have you been composing? Let me hear some."


In one introduction, Jane Smiley, the novelist, tells us that these sagas are the precursor to the modern novel, what with their focus on the lives of ordinary people -- chieftains, freeman farmers, hired laborers, and slaves. The volume includes multiple diagrams of families and relationships, and these are essential. While one can expect the stereotypes of discord and bloodshed in stories from this time and place, one might not anticipate how much killing and red-dyed swords come from family disputes.

This volume includes ten sagas and seven tales, or þáttr, a selection from the five volumes of the Sagas of Iceland edited by Viðar Hreinsson. These stories are often connected - family members recur, place names and kings reappear.

It is very easy to think of this as literature. The nameless authors' use of humor and irony, their dramatic prose style, and the use of poetry as a sign of truth - anybody who is skilled at poetry in these sagas is important.

On the other hand, it is also useful to think of these sagas as a historical source, as remote a world as they are. This is best drawn out in the introduction and the suggestions for further reading, as well as in all the maps, the list of kings, and the glossary. This is a glimpse into a society with morals and customs that are alien to ours, where exile and trials in absentia are allowed, where almost everyone works to eke out a life in the harsh and forbidding landscape.

These are stories about a world before anything we imagine to be modern kingdoms, well before Christianity, and they would be traded among the locals, perhaps as a form of gossip but as a conveyance of the world outside and the voyages across the northern oceans. As a work of literature, a comparison would be to Beowulf, but barring that, there is very little out there that is like this.
Profile Image for Edward.
327 reviews834 followers
July 18, 2022
Wonderful tales about the first people of Iceland. I loved every line, each moment dripping in history and a magical aura. The original stories of real 'vikings'.
Profile Image for Robert.
816 reviews44 followers
Currently reading
December 6, 2017
This book is immediately misleading in that the title might make you think it contains all the Icelandic sagas. It does not; not even close. What it does contain is two of the longest sagas and a selection of the shorter ones (including the Vinland Sagas) as well as a selection of "Tales".

This single volume is a Penguin reprint of part of the complete multi-volume translation into English of all the Icelandic mediaeval sagas and tales conducted under the general editorship of Ornolfur Thorsson by a collective of translators and advisory academics. The approach taken offers the benefits of consistency, a simple example being that obscure words are given the same translation into English uniformly across all the works.

This volume includes copious supporting material that sets the Icelandic Sagas in their historical, social and literary contexts and provides useful additional information such as family trees that show the interelations of families within and between sagas, diagrams of typical farms and farm houses and Viking sea vessels and a glossary of obscure terms and an index of characters, all of which I found useful. So much for the book in general.

Egil's Saga
It's a long time since I read this but my lasting impression is that of a work that sits in an odd place on the literary map. Imagine genres as territories; fiction would be one area, history another, biography another and so on but defining the boundaries exactly would be difficult - is myth fiction or history? for example - nevermind delimiting the internal genre boundaries within fiction.

This saga lands partially within the bounds of all the above mentioned; it's clearly family history and the biography of Egil specifically but such things as shapeshifters are talked about in passing with the same kind of matter-of-fact casualness as Viking raids and farming. Fantastical elements are few and far between, however and never the focus of the narrative, which rarely spends time in Iceland, prefering Norway and even England, where blood feuds, Kings and battles share time with farming, poetry and romances.

Treating the work as a novel will likely lead to disappointment; looking at it as a window into a very alien past might lead to fascination.

The Tale of Thorstein Staff-struck
I love how this stuff sounds like you're sat round the fire down the pub, of a snowy mid-winter's night, and some guy says, "Let me tell you the story of..." in this case a typically violent tale of mis-deed, revenge, single combat and bizarre outcome - plus some genealogy, of course.
Profile Image for Itsbecka.
84 reviews
January 6, 2008
The best anthology of Icelandic sagas you can get the States. If you haven't read the sagas, then you haven't said a poem then chopped a guys head off.
Profile Image for nastya .
401 reviews218 followers
March 2, 2021
Thorunn, Thorolf and Thorlak walk into a bar and there they meet Thorgrim, Thorstein, Thord, Thora, Thorarin, Thorkel, Thorodd, Thorunn, Thorgerd, Thorleik, Thorbjorn, Thorvald and Thorgild.
You think I'm kidding? Here's a quote:

One spring, Thorkel the Wealthy travelled to the Thorsnes Assembly, and Thorbjorn Sur’s two sons accompanied him. At that time, Thorstein Cod-biter, the son of Thorolf Moster-beard, was living at Thorsnes with his wife, Thora, the daughter of Olaf Thorsteinsson, and their children, Thordis, Thorgrim and Bork the Stout.

This is a great collection, you really can check out a lot of different types of sagas. My favourite would be the epic and longest ones - Egil's saga and Laxdæla saga. You have a lot of revenges, disputes over property, honor. Brothers hunt brothers, neighbours kill neighbours, men fight over beautiful woman, a lot of sailing and pillaging. And our protagonists are often farmers.
Also interesting fact:

Gudrun answered: ‘If women go about dressed as men, they invite the same treatment as do men who wear shirts cut so low that the nipples of their breasts can be seen – both are grounds for divorce.’

Also we get some lowbrow comedy:

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. All Armod’s men who were there said that Egil had done a base and despicable deed by not going outside when he needed to vomit, but had made a spectacle of himself in the drinking-room instead.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 27 books5,589 followers
January 7, 2020
I had a hard time categorizing this. Are these sagas fiction? History? Both? Probably both.

Though mostly written two hundred or so years after the events occurred, there is sufficient evidence to support the existence of the people and in most cases the major events. While Ref the Sly is a bit of a fictional "youngest son, trickster" character, it's not unlikely that he was based on a real person, or real events were attributed to this one guy in order to avoid defaming someone's ancestor.

The other sagas in the collection are excellent and far more accurate depictions of the first settlers of Iceland, not to mention the voyages of Leif the Lucky and other explorers. Egil's Saga has always been dear to my heart, however: How do you not love a guy with super thick bones (which has been proved by excavation of his freaky, freaky skeleton) and severe depression who nevertheless fought battles, won races and games, was a devoted husband and father, and also a gifted poet! Egil4Evah!

PS- As per my recent update: I should have known that Aud would never betray Gisli!

PPS- I sadly realized that had I been born in such times I probably would have been known as Jofrid the Squinter. Life before glasses/contacts must have been HELL for people like me.

Profile Image for Aloke.
197 reviews51 followers
January 14, 2019
Realistically I will probably never finish this book but I hope to dip into it again one day. At first it was quite intimidating to see that long table of contents filled with sagas and other essays, but after having read through one of the sagas (The Saga of the People of Laxardal) I realize that it needn't be intimidating. Just pick a saga and read through it. The translation quality is excellent and I found the saga I read to be a page turner. The genealogy can be a bit confusing but it isn't hard to get the point of the story. If you've been to Iceland then as a bonus you can enjoy the references to various places you've come across in your trip. I think having the electronic version is also handy because then you can jump around to various terms in the definitions section and other discussions in the essays sections. Incidentally you get an overview of Icelandic/Northern European history, both social and political, in the bargain as well.
Profile Image for Hundeschlitten.
187 reviews9 followers
June 28, 2009
I picked up this tome a few years ago and tried to speed through it, like I was reading a history book or a modern, plot-driven page-turner. Bad idea. It was like trying to speedread the Bible, where a verse or two can encapsulate an entire life. In anything, the sagas are even more spare and packed with action than the Bible.

So, this go around, I am taking the sagas on one at a time. I just finished reading The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, a tale that extends across five generations of a family that settled the Vatnsdal valley in northern Iceland, and I was richly rewarded for my slower pace. These are great stories, peopled by dynamic characters. I love the no-nonsense style. The original tellers of these tales were bards of few words, yet the stories have surprising emotional depth. This saga bridges two ages, the pagan one where the action takes place and the Christian one a couple of hundred years later, when the sagas were first written down, and I like how the magic of the former age is acknowledged in the narrative. It is a little like the magic realism of some Latin American literature, with the added benefit that it feels real rather than merely a literary stunt by the author. I also like the abrupt shifts in plot and the odd dead end. These stories read like what they were, a folk history lovingly passed down from generation to generation, where the tellers were very careful to preserve the lives of their ancestors, even if that meant including the odd aside leading nowhere. I guess it's a little postmodern in that sense, except that the sagas' twists are organic rather than a literary conceit.
Profile Image for Adam .
1,231 reviews157 followers
April 12, 2020
I think the Vinland Sagas were my favourite, but not just because of Newfoundland. They’re better stories, I think. I keep thinking about when the exploratory party has to survive on the meat of beached whales, and the one crewman who regrets converting to Christianity is overwhelmed with despair. And Freydis Eriksdottir!

I started reading the Sagas hoping for something alien and unknown, and ended up reading stories that were strangely familiar. There’s practically no vikings. They’re just outcasts who couldn’t make it in Norway and are trying to build something for themselves in Iceland. Their motivations are among the most basic things that motivate people. They all end up fighting over family, land, harvests, money, inheritance. They worry about whether or not their families will back them up when the time comes, and but don’t know how to get out of this system when it backfires and they have to support the greedy or impulsive idiots they’re related to.

I loved whenever the stories took me to the Althing. Especially if the Law Rock was involved. There’s just something magnificent about that. I guess because justice is an inherently abstract concept, and here it’s rendered physical in a very straightforward way.

Sagas, ranked:
The Vinland Sagas
The Saga of Ref the Sly
The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent Tongue
Egil's Saga
The Saga of the Confederates - reminded me of a legal drama
The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi
The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason's Tale
Gisli Sursson's Saga - I kept losing track of the characters in this one.

Tales, ranked:
Boli Bolasson's Tale - A farmer kills Thorolf Stuck-up's aggressive bull and then Stuck-up kills his child in revenge. Bolli Bollasson isn't having any of that, and sets out to prosecute Stuck-up. Bolli has Stuck-up outlawed and then murders him while he's boarding a ship. Then on the way home Bolli steals hay and gets involved in a legal dispute with the farmer who owns that hay, the farmer refuses fair compensation and Bolli and ends up killing him and some of his men. Fairly representative of the sagas as a whole.
Audun's Tale – a guy who brings a polar bear from Greenland to the king of Denmark, in order to pay for a pilgrimage to Rome. But he has trouble with the Norwegian king, who wants the bear for himself.
The Tale of Thorstein Staff-struck - Reminded me of the Song of Roland, but with more horsefighting. There's a strong moral about not punching horses in the face.
The Tale of the Story Wise Icelander
The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
Profile Image for Sotiris Karaiskos.
1,121 reviews80 followers
March 10, 2019
A fascinating collection of stories from Iceland of the Viking era that reveal many things about life at that time and the independent spirit of the settlers.

Μία εξαιρετικά ενδιαφέρουσα συλλογή ιστοριών από την Ισλανδία της εποχής των Βίκινγκς που αποκαλύπτουν πολλά πράγματα για την ζωή εκείνη την εποχή και για το ανεξάρτητο πνεύμα των αποίκων.
Profile Image for Larou.
329 reviews49 followers
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June 12, 2013
Pretty much the first thing that struck me about these sagas is how immediately accessible they are – I have read medieval texts before (even if not very many), and usually (i.e., unless one happens to be a medievalist) it takes a lengthy introduction and extensive notes for any modern-day reader to even get the point of any tale from that period, not to mention any deeper significance or wider-ranging connotations. Not that one should expect a penetrating exploration of the conditio humana from those tales, but they are rousing good read, and I doubt there are many medieval texts out there of which one can say that.

The Penguin edition which I read, titled The Sagas of the Icelanders, does have a lengthy introduction that covers all kinds of aspects of Icelandic sagas: their historical context, the role they played in the society of their time, the poets and their audience, it even offers an analysis of various formal elements commonly found in those tales. It is all extremely helpful, and without a doubt did considerably enrich my reading experience of the sagas – but you could just as well simply skip all the introductory stuff and jump right into the tales themselves, and would likely enjoy them just as much as I did after dutifully having made my way through all the editorial material. This is no small feat, for texts that are almost a thousand years old to be able to grip a twenty-first century reader on such a basic, simply-enjoying-the-story level.

Which is most emphatically not to say, however, that those sagas read like contemporary texts. I feel a bit uncertain about the translations – with texts this old I am always somewhat worried that the translators might sacrifice precision to readability, creating a false sense of familiarity in a misguided attempt to make an ancient text accessible to a modern-day reader and producing what is effectively a streamlined version of the original. Not being particularly proficient in Old Norse, I really cannot say whether this is the case here, but my entirely subjective and completely uninformed impression was that the translators of the Penguin edition did a pretty good job at making the sagas immensely readable while still retaining their essential strangeness to a reader in the early twenty-first century.

The area where this strangeness made itself felt most keenly (for me at least) was neither in the matter-of-fact attitude towards supernatural occurrences that most of these tales show (with the extent of the supernatural element varying greatly, from the simple use of runes for healing to outright visions of ghosts and the battling against mages that would not be out of place in any Sword & Sorcery tale) nor in the sometimes weird customs of the Northlanders (I remember a particularly large WTF moment when someone attempted to kill his house guest because he had drank too much of his host’s ale, and nobody seemed to think that the least bit excessive), but in the way subjectivity is treated throughout all of this tale – or rather, is not treated at all, as subjectivity is something does not really happen here.

There is no interiority to the characters in these sagas, no inner space in which their thoughts and emotions could resound, no psychological motivations, in fact no psychology at all. The people the Icelandic sagas tell of are pure exteriority – we get to know their actions, but never their thoughts or feelings, everything is told from a strict outside perspective. Possibly it is that which gives events in the sagas their distinctive air of inevitability, of its protagonists marching down a prescribed road with unwavering fatalism – a fatalism, however, that is not all perceived as tragic, at least not by the protagonists of the tales; it might be very different for a listener / reader who in a way has to supply the emotions here, using the sagas as some kind of projection surface.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the characters in these tales are flat or two-dimensional just because they are lacking an inner space – they emphatically are not; quite to the contrary, many of them are very memorable and multifaceted. They derive their plasticity from other sources, their personalities do not resonate in an inner, but an outside space, namely that of their interpersonal relationships. The Icelanders in these sagas appear to define themselves mostly by way of their relation to other people – their family, their clan, their neighbours. It is their actions and interactions that give them resonance, seeing themselves reflected in others rather than reflecting on themselves like a more contemporary subjectivity would.

It is easy to see how for a subject that defines itself by how it relates and appears to other, fame would play an important role, and by extension how the sagas themselves would serve that purpose. Even with all the supernatural elements, the sagas at their core are historical writings, chronicles that serve the remembrance and propagation of the names of Iceland’s famous men. This also gives them a slighty metafictional slant, an underlying consciousness that the deeds reported are already destined to become part of a saga even as they unfolding.

This selection from Penguin is missing what seems to be considered as the best of the sagas, Njal’s Saga, but otherwise presents a very generous selection, containing among famous ones like Eigil’s Saga and the Vinland Sagas also some lesser-known ones and several short tales; all presented in texts that appear to be excellent translations from authoritative sources with an extensive introduction and the occasional footnote where it is necessary. The only issue I had was the weird placement of maps and genealogical tables right in the middle of text (rather than at paragraph breaks) but that is just a minor distraction from an overall very much recommended edition.
Profile Image for Daniel Polansky.
Author 27 books1,121 followers
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February 9, 2018
Prose stories detailing the various misadventures of man and woman who were born or exiled to or who died in Iceland from, roughly speaking 900-1200 AD. What's the point of reading ancient works of world literature? 1) it gives you some insight into a past culture, and into the broader sweep of history. 2) it's difficult, and strange, and not like reading anything written in the last few centuries, and there's a value to that in and of itself. 3) there are always a handful of peculiar concepts which are fun to steal and run with – here I really liked the Scorn Pole, which is when if you challenged another dude to a fight and he agreed and then punked out you'd go to his land and put a rotting horse head on a stick in front of his house. 4) it's always fascinating to see these pre-modern societies grapple with emotional issues which are outside of appropriate social norms. But, mainly 5) because it's one of the unique joys of literature to stumble across intersections between the past and present, when the life of a raider/merchant from a thousand odd years ago reflects some similarity with that of a shiftless LA lay-about.

There's enough of them here to make it worth your trouble, though the general quality varies a lot. Egil's Saga, about a whiny poet/lunatic warrior in particular is really good, as is the Saga of the People of Laxardal, which details the bloody, endless, self-defeating vengeance of a woman scorned. Probably I'd be better served if I had read them one at a time, rather then altogether, because the blood feuds and voyages to Greenland kind of run together, but by and large I would admit to having felt like this was a pretty good use of my time. Keep.
Profile Image for Dave Bonta.
Author 11 books19 followers
July 21, 2012
The best one-volume introduction to the sagas. The translation of Egil's Saga features much better English versions of the verses than its predecessors, whicih is essential since it's the biography of a skaldic poet. In Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, on the other hand, the verses rhyme. Laxdaela is very good, as is Gisli. Of course, the editors had to make tough choices about what to include. Personally, I would've left out the Vinland sagas and the tales in favor of Njal's, and included Grettir rather than Vatnsdal, but whatever.
Profile Image for Genni.
200 reviews34 followers
March 8, 2018
A really interesting, and unusual reading experience. This collection of sagas covers a broad range of activity, themes, and quality so I'm finding it a little difficult to sum up, but the main reason these do not rate higher, in my opinion, is because the interest was mostly historical rather than having that extra “classic for all ages” quality.

With such a sampling of from 49 sagas, it is inevitable that the characters will be varied, but the activities that drive them is pretty narrow. While it was appealing in the sense of being realistic and concerned with the everyday matters of life in the Icelandic world, it also required a bit of research for understanding events such as a shepherd deserving death after riding his master's horse. There are no universal truths or morals, just a straightforward description of peoples and events. There was no connection between the narrator and the hero of each saga so any psychological elements had to be gleaned from poetry or from the comments of other characters that surrounded them. There were some strong admirable women portrayed, but also female slaves. And there was the occasional splash of fantastical elements which provided another dimension to the writing. All in all an enjoyable experience, but not one that will go on my “Must Reread” book list.
Profile Image for Janine.
181 reviews22 followers
March 1, 2016
Remarkable and horrifying and beautifully written. This book was an epiphany for me understanding the Calvinist upbringing I had; deep-seeded fear of the "other."
Profile Image for Stelleri.
34 reviews8 followers
Currently reading
February 3, 2018
It will take me years to finish this, but since I hauled it here from Iceland, I thought I ought to start reading.
Profile Image for Ned Ludd.
696 reviews16 followers
February 18, 2022
Despite its many flaws this is probably one of the most important novels I have read. A must read for anyone that appreciates literature, history or origins.
2nd Read: Monumental.
Profile Image for Ricky Ganci.
398 reviews
January 18, 2012
I've spent the past month reading many of the major sagas included in this edition, specifically, EGILS SAGA SKALLAGRIMMSON, HRAFNKEL'S SAGA FREYSGODI and LAXDAELA SAGA. I've done so with a great deal of enjoyment, as I'd really never read anything like this. They're essentially just stories about farmers in various degrees of conflict--none of them very complex, none of them very intrcate, all of them very good.

I really enjoyed both EGILS SAGA and LAXDAELA SAGA, because they were kind of connected by the character I found most interesting, a woman named Thorgerd. She's the daughter of Egil, and despite his manliness and love of violence and "man things," she was his favorite child, and her scenes in both sagas are really enjoyable, because you get the sense that she just doesn't care about the patriarchal system of medieval Iceland. What's really interesting his how the author seems to go out of his (or her, according to the introduction of LAXDAELA SAGA) way to make Thorgerd seem more similar in personality and demeanor to Egil than any of the sons. In EGILS SAGA, she's the only one who can talk to him after his sons die, and she convinces him to write a long poem called "Sonnatorrek" which bemoans the loss of the sons. It's an interesting paradigm, and I'm thinking of writing my midterm paper on this, somehow.

It's got some funny moments (Egil slams a dude up against a wall and pukes in his face) and some sad ones (broken hearted lover Kjartan dies never have made things work with lady love Gudrun), and all in all, for stories about farmers in the Middle Ages, it's a heck of a collection of stories, and of all of the things I've read in graduate school, these have been my favorite so far.
Profile Image for Zadignose.
250 reviews148 followers
Shelved as 'partially-read'
March 19, 2019
The following is not really a review, so skip it if that's what you're after:

-------------------------------------------
I've read several of the sagas included in this collection before (Egil's, Laxardal, Bolli Bollason, Greenlanders, and Eirik the Red), and I intend to deal with additional sagas separately if I review them. However, there are also several "tales" given here that I haven't seen elsewhere, i.e., the shorter works known as Þáttr, and I might as well make some notes on individual tales in this collection here.

---------------------------
Thorstein Staff-Struck

This is a very nice and simple Icelandic miniature which seems so familiar it makes me wonder whether the same tale, or some variant on it, occurred in Njal's Saga. I'm not sure, but anyway, in a few pages it gives a good sample of the flavor of sagas of revenge in which a little slight, and a lot of goading, can lead even mild men to kill, in this time and this place. I already admire Thorstein and Bjarni greatly.

---------------------------
The Tale of Sarcastic Halli

This bawdy tale centers on a poet, who is rather akin to a jester in the court of King Harald of Norway. He is admirable for his cleverness and bravado. He's not so much sarcastic as he is wittily crude and insulting. It was fairly fun to read as a light entertainment.
Profile Image for Sandy.
Author 17 books124 followers
April 20, 2009
ICELAND'S CONTRIBUTION TO WORLD CULTURE


Roots time for me. I am half Icelandic. People tend to think of the ancient Norsemen as barbaric murderers. Well, they went a-Viking, and you probably wouldn't want to meet them on one of their "shopping trips". But the Norse had a rich and complicated culture, their own religion, and some of the most powerful sagas in the world. Icelanders were the scribes and intellectuals. The Icelandic sagas have been compared to the Greek in scope and power. Sample a civilization that's been glossed over by European history. Check out Independent People, by Halldor Laxness, for an example of a modern Icelandic genius' writing.
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Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,271 reviews697 followers
May 20, 2022
...Icelanders will enjoy reading [...] adventures so long as they don't have to experience them in reality.
One of my more pretentious pleasures is that of reading ancient literatures hailing from various corners of the globe in order to, in a horrendously oversimplified fashion, 'turn my brain off.' I say pretentious due to the sheer enormity of what folks of today are required to learn in order to slip in with a minimum of strain into the Heian period, or that of the Three Kingdoms, or any other facet outside of the US Civil War/WWII/Victorian Age/etc that isn't currently regurgitated to hell and back whenever some loser on the board of a major telecommunications company aspires to pull a Disney superhero and reap the profits until kingdom come. True, there's enough audiovisual adaptations/interpretations/derived inspirations based on the material of this particular work that I can compose this review while listening to a relevant soundtrack and see the comment I made about a relevant television show from a number of years prior, but it takes a concerted and entirely unnatural effort to not only inform the average human being of the events that fell between Beowulf and William the (Bastard, as The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue calls him) Conqueror, but to make them care enough to seek out nearly 800 pages of oral history turned written borderline religious propaganda. And yet, for all that, this functioned similarly enough to a reading reprieve for my purposes, as no matter how many Thor-prefixed characters begot each other and how many references there were to sagas yet unread, many a main character was sympathetic, many a portrayed time of plenty satisfied, and many a time I got to wondering of anarchist societies of today could take from these pages of communal law and negotiated war. Sure, my histories of Ireland, Russia, and every other country in the saga region could have used heaping dose of extra context, but the nice thing about going this far back in written narrative is how few people there are today who are paid enough to lie out their ass about what my expectations should be of it all, leaving me free to take what values there are and imbibe accordingly.

This nearly 800 page selection is drawn from The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, nearly two and a half thousand pages that in turn don't quite encompass every narrative that falls under the jurisdiction of 'saga,' 'Iceland,' or, more broadly, 'Scandinavia.' For the emphasis of these writings is on the Icelanders, those non-kings, non-saints, non-bishops who fled sentences of outlawry, got their just revenge, impressed foreign leaders with spur of the moment poetry and traded with indigenous peoples of a land that, half a millennium later, would be termed "America" by certain folks who may have still believed that they were on their way to India. Of the forty-four sagas and fifty tales/þættir included in the larger collection, this text includes ten sagas and seven tales, largely favoring the more well known works including Egil's Saga, the two Vinland Sagas, and Laxdæla Saga.

While I acknowledge how much better the Egil text holds together by modern standards and the (self-absorbed) fascination a typical audience of today will have with the Vinland works, my personal favorites include The Saga of the Confederates, a tale of proto-lawyers and family reconciliations, and Gisli Sursson's Saga, which came as close to heartrendingly tragic as a 700 year old no nonsense story recountal can get. Other standouts was how often the source of conflict was simple old patriarchal egotism, or rapaciousness, or foreigners/women/suspect folks somehow acquiring menacing magical powers that just had to be raped/beaten/domesticized/eradicated into submission, which lines up so well with the self-aggrandizing narratives recounted throughout the entirety of "Western" history that I sometimes questioned whether there would be a point to reading anything else once this was through. I mean, of course there is, but the fact that modern day Neo-Nazis love to turn to this sector of history as proof of their purpose just goes to show how well a writing can be fitted for many a purpose, so what do I know. Still, in the wake of another massacre of a hate crime and another masquerade of the most over-militarized country today wringing its hands in utter helplessness over it all, one dreams of a smaller scope of justice and dwells on the difference between mutual aid and maintenance of state property.

Barring Aesop's Fables, this is the oldest text I'll be reading this year. It's one I've had in my sights since 2011, and while certain similarly ancient texts that I've read since then have made the near 800 pages seem rather moderate in extent, it's hard to beat the vigor of an axe justifiably slicing someone in two. If you're wondering whether this would make for a good introduction to this particular sector of literature, if you're not like me and are content with picking and choosing what pieces you imbibe over an undefined period of time, sure, why not. As for me, now that I have this under my belt, I may go back and give Njal's Saga a much better engagement than I did the first time around, but I haven't reached the point of having to fill Penguin's coffers anymore in return for their chopped up and shuffled around editions, however secondhand. For those wondering what all the fuss is about, true, some kids get summarily killed without their being much in the way of judicial retribution, but in the place of gods and kings, there is solidarity, equivalent exchange, and the building of civilization on the basis of more than just bigotry and insecurity (although the codified taboos and ritualistic slanders obsessed with sexual and gender preferences that show up in the latter portion of this collection wouldn't look out of place on a 4chan discussion board). All in all, I'm glad I was too lazy to go through with reading this alongside that TV show that I ended up giving up on due to one sensationalistic trope or another. For me, the worth in these pieces rest as much in the communal structures as in the narrative craft, and any kind of historical fiction that throws all that over for clownish displays of brainless marauding and orgiastic human sacrifice is just going to piss me off.
In the evening of the same day that Thorkel and his men were drowned Gudrun went to the church at Helgafell after the household had gone to bed. As she passed through the gate of the churchyard, she saw a ghost standing before her.
It bent towards her and spoke: 'News of a great moment, Gudrun,' it said, and Gudrun answered, 'Then keep silent about it, you wretch.'

-The Saga of the People of Laxardal
Feminism? Not even sure what the mainstream definition of that is anymore. All I know is that there's an argument going around that the quoted saga above was authored by a woman and that the pertinent characters in most of, if not all, the included narratives tend to be human beings who just happen to be women, and with something like this, that's pretty good in my book.
Profile Image for Clare.
710 reviews30 followers
December 28, 2020
The first I remember hearing about the Icelandic “family sagas” was in Kory Stamper’s Word By Word, where she describes them so hilariously that I made a mental note to track some down and read them one of these days. I was therefore very pleased to find that I already owned them because I had bought a copy of The Sagas of Icelanders at Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg a few years prior, apparently under the belief that it was a volume of the “heroic sagas,” which is a completely different genre of ancient Icelandic literature.

Anyway. I, with the help of Twitter, decided that The Sagas of Icelanders was to be my 2021 yearlong read, and then, because I am in a perverse mood lately, I read the whole thing this month, before 2021 has even started. I am pleased with this course of action because it means I can make Varney the Vampire my 2021 read instead. Also, the sagas made very good December reading.

It is a bit hard to describe quite what the family sagas are about but “neighbors killing each other over dumb bullshit” comes close. More specifically, they are the stories of the families and notable individuals who settled Iceland (and, occasionally, Greenland) in the years during and shortly after the unification of Norway under King Harald Fair-Hair. Most of these stories involve somebody killing somebody else over something fairly impenetrable to modern readers--or, in at least once case, *explicitly* at complete random--and setting off an escalating series of blood feuds where the kin of the murdered person must avenge them, but then when they do, the kin of the person they got revenge upon think it was a little much and decide that they need to then avenge that person’s death, and so on and so forth until either a) everyone is dead b) everyone has been sentenced to outlawry or c) on rare occasion, the whole situation gets de-escalated in court and everyone is sentence to giving each other lots of expensive gifts as compensation and people actually abide by this and are willing to let the matter be considered settled.

The lawsuits are, to me, one of the more interesting parts of the sagas; in a very violent, warlike society where half the economy seems to be based on raiding (the other half is based on farming) and these important but frequently contradictory codes of honor dictate constant fighting, this elaborate system of lawsuits and gift-based settlements seems to take up a lot of time and energy and have a very complex and sophisticated set of procedures around it for something that 80% of the time seems to keep things quiet for a few years at most, or that the characters just straight up blow off in favor of more fighting. However, the times where it does work, it’s interesting that de-escalating a situation without further bloodshed can be seen to enhance the reputation of both parties in a lawsuit--a number of these resolve not with one person “winning” and the other “losing,” but with both parties exchanging gifts in compensation for the injuries inflicted in the course of the feud by their side, and with then everyone feeling like compensation had been made. I think I found this particularly interesting because in a strictly currency-based economy like ours, you’d have debts cancel each other out--if I owe you $10 and you owe me $10, we’d probably call it even and not exchange any money; me giving you $10 and you giving me $10 right back would seem to be a little silly--but in an economy where wealth can take the form not just of silver marks, but of land, livestock, weapons, armor, jewelry, or clothing, the act of exchanging goods seems to do a lot to provide a sense that something is actually being done to resolve the conflict, rather than it being an unsatisfying draw.

In addition to lots of violence and lawsuits, the sagas feature a good number of jokes; many of these are only middlingly funny to a modern reader, and require some amount of laborious marginalia to explain, which, of course, always makes a joke somewhat less funny. This volume also features a handful of “tales” in addition to the sagas; these are generally much shorter--only a few pages--less genealogically rigorous (and therefore possibly entirely fictional), and more explicitly comic. My favorite of the “tales” was undoubtedly “The Tale of Sarcastic Halli,” about a guy named Halli who is highly gifted in the fine art of roasting people. The Tale of Sarcastic Halli features the only callback joke in the book, involving Halli’s death by porridge, and also my favorite of the ridiculous, riddle-esque ways of naming things that features so heavily in Viking alliterative poetry: a floor being referred to as the “moor of socks.”

I regret to report that Viking society was wildly sexist and as such, like 80% of the female characters in this book fail the sexy lamp test. Of the ones that pass it, most often their role is to harangue the men into engaging in acts of honorable vengeance that, despite being required for honor reasons, end badly for everybody. There is approximately one story in which a woman actually hits anybody herself; Aud, the wife of the titular Gisli in “Gisli Sursson’s Saga,” socks a dude in the nose with a heavy purse of silver and instantly became my favorite character (later in the saga she also defends herself with a club, so, go Aud).

The biggest challenge in reading this book, IMO, is the fact that all the male characters are named like Thorstein and Thorbjorn and Thorkel and Thorolf and Thorgrim, and all the female characters are named Thora and Thorgerd, and it’s really nearly as bad as reading British history where everyone is named William or Charles or Charles William. There is a reason that in novel writing they tell you not to do this (unless you are George R. R. Martin and are allowed to name everyone Robert).

Anyway all my nitpicks here are affectionate; the sagas are completely batty and I enjoyed them quite a lot.

Originally posted at In which I complete a 2021 New Year's resolution.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
113 reviews20 followers
June 11, 2012
I am currently reading this, in no particular order, and am loving it! The characters are so utterly recognisable in their human attributes, both positive and negative. These sagas give an insight into the culture and history of those times. I am not finding these sagas archaic or "difficult" either: the stories romp along with such gusto, uncluttered by unnecessary verbiage.
I started with Gisli Sursson's saga, simply because I had seen on Vimeo a wonderful short film called "Memories of old awake", created by Cambridge University's Dr Emily Lethbridge. This follows the landscape where Gisli's saga was set.
http://grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/...
One of the most delightful parts of the film was the attitudes of the three old Icelanders whom Emily interviews. To them, the saga lives, as relevent today as ever. One man says that the characters in the saga feel like real people, who maybe left the district 20 or 30 years ago.

I have a feeling that this collection is going to be one of those treasures that will give me pleasure for years to come.
Profile Image for Monty Milne.
838 reviews36 followers
January 15, 2015
What a joy to read this book in my timber cabin in the woods, by the flickering of a log fire, with a hard frost outside, and a full moon shining from a starlit northern sky. Perfect conditions in which to enjoy these vivid translations, and feel transported to a more congenial time and place (except for the sudden eruptions of deadly violence...)

I would have given five stars except that some of my favourite sagas are omitted; and also, I wish the publishers hadn't had the daft idea of rough-cutting all the page edges. If you want to give a book an antiquarian feel, go the whole hog and give it a cloth binding and marbled end papers as well - but rough cut edges on a modern paperback just look silly, in my opinion. A minor gripe, however - it's the text which counts, and this is never less than excellent.
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