Reading Eyrbyggja saga

Helgafell

Eybyggja saga (old English translation by William Morris here, though I read the new translation by Judy Quinn in the complete sagas) is not one of the major sagas, but it’s fascinating for just that reason. As a reading experience it never really takes off; its central character is of great interest and appears in lots of other sagas as a bit part, but somehow fails to come into focus in his own story. Thinking about why it’s a bit of a damp squib certainly helps me to understand more clearly how the sagas in general work.

The saga concerns a community living on the the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland (it therefore has much the same setting as Laxness’s Under the Glacier). But more specifically it follows the life of Snorri Goði (or ‘Snorri the Priest’), one of the few people from the tenth century to have his own Wikipedia page and more importantly a chieftain who appears in a large number of sagas. He is a boy in Gísla saga Súrssonar (his father Thorgrím is one of the men his uncle Gísli kills), but his usual role is as a powerful and cunning leader, working inscrutably for various ends. These supporting roles build up a remarkable portrait of a complicated character. For example, when Grettir approaches Snorri for help, Snorri says he’s too old to be bothered with taking in outlaws, but he does provide Grettir with advice and shortly afterwards attempts to find a legal settlement to rescind Grettir’s outlawry. Later, when Snorri’s young son attempts to hunt and kill Grettir, Grettir, who could kill Thorodd easily, refuses to do so, saying that he fears Snorri’s vengeance. Snorri is pleased: you can see from both these exchanges the ambiguous blend of good will and realpolitik which Snorri’s character expresses.

This kind of episode means I read Eyrbyggja saga with high hopes, but it turns out that Snorri is of less interest as the protagonist of his own story than he is as a supporting player in someone else’s. Maybe that’s because he isn’t a hero, either epic or tragic: his shrewdness means he makes small gains and losses rather than getting entangled in bigger dramas. Snorri plays the percentages. In fact, reading Eyrbyggja saga you start to wonder where he got his reputation: why, you ask, does everyone fear and respect this chieftain who avoids risks, hesitates, and usually patches up quarrels before they escalate?

Of course, that’s exactly the reason: people fear and respect Snorri because he understands how to get on in medieval Icelandic society. He’s a good friend and a bad enemy to have. There’s a clear divergence here between the demands of the society he lives in and the literature which depicts him. What makes for success in one doesn’t translate directly into success for the other. This is a crucial complication to bear in mind when reading those critics, like Jesse Byock, who assert that saga literature reflects and is shaped by saga society. It may be, but it may distort it too.

One striking episode in Eyrbyggja saga (which also appears in The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath) involves two berserks which a man called Vermund has foolishly brought back from Sweden. They are generally troublesome, and eventually Snorri sets up a plan whereby the berserks are asked to clear a road through a lava field and eventually killed in a bath-house. The lava field is still called Berserkjahraun, and we visited it earlier this year – a bizarre landscape of reddish, polystyrene-light rock and dry, grey, spongy moss.

lava

Nearby is Helgafell, the sacred hill where Snorri lived until he swapped houses with Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir, the heroine of Laxdæla saga. Weirdly Helgafell is tiny, more 0f a tump than a hill, and its smallness is accentuated but he fact that it’s set against the backdrop of the Snæfellsnes mountains which must dwarf it many times over. But I suppose when you live in a counter of mountains, it’s the little lone hill that must be sacred. The photo at the top of this post is the view from the top of Helgafell – it doesn’t show the big mountains nearby but the edge of the fjord and then the range miles away on the other side; and note too the hayfields at the foot of the hill, oddly-shaped patches of good growing land won from the inhospitable terrain, which must I think have changed little since Snorri’s day.

Under the Glacier

Snaefellsjokull

Under the Glacier is a short and typically strange novel by the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. It’s narrated in the first person by a young man sent as an emissary by the Bishop of Iceland (‘Embi’) to investigate the theological irregularities of a small community living under the Snæfellsjökull glacier, out at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of the island. (I was particularly interested to read the novel because we visited Snæfellsnes this summer, when the photo above of Snæfellsjökull was taken.) Embi meets the backsliding pastor Jón Prímus and various other local oddballs, none of whom are interested in Christianity – rather, they plan to retrieve some sort of coffin from the glacier in order to perform a resurrection.

The premise of the book is strikingly similar to that of Flying to Nowhere, John Fuller’s grotesque novella that opens with a horse being fatally injured as it disembarks a boat. Fuller’s book isn’t without a certain dark humour, but in tone the two books are otherwise completely different. Laxness’s characters are sarcastic yokels who make light of the emissary’s metropolitan earnestness, and the whole book is infused with a knockabout tone which continually undermines any attempt to take the story or its events seriously. It’s largely a series of dialogues at cross-purposes, with Embi trying to get to the bottom of weighty matters and his interviewees simply chatting or spouting a New-Age mumbo-jumbo that draws on science, Buddhism, Existentialism and whatever else Laxness happens to chuck in. Interspersed with the dialogues are a few lyrical vignettes of provincial Icelandic life in the 1960s.

The narrative continually switches between past and present tenses – I’m told that Icelandic literature is very given to the historical present, and I have a suspicion that when I read translations of the family sagas, much of that switching has been silently edited out. If that’s the case, then on the whole I’m grateful, as it makes for an odd reading experience to an English-speaking reader who isn’t used to the extent it’s used here.

Taken as a whole the book barely hangs together, hardly bothers to in fact. The ending is a case in point, a half-hearted flourish which gestures at aesthetic unity without really delivering. But the central narrative, a bureaucratic investigation of the great mysteries of existence by a callow youth, is hardly one which offers a satisfying arc. Instead, there are really wonderful ideas, sentences, jokes and exchanges which begin as fruits gathered along the way but end as the reader’s main concern: more and more I found that reading Under the Glacier became an act of gathering a succession of these brilliant atoms, which together formed a kind of casual heap that shed light on the world.

This impression was magnified by contrast when the next book I picked up was The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan sequence. Ferrante’s writing doesn’t lack fine phrases; but they aren’t its purpose. Narrative in a traditional sense is what Ferrante offers, so skilfully represented that events that could have been drawn from a particularly dull soap opera become both clear and compelling. I don’t want to put her books down (I simply don’t put them down; I go on reading) – whereas reading Laxness is always slightly laborious, because in spite of the comedy, the pace and the grace of his writing, his refusal to move a story on presents a constant challenge to the reader: What are you reading for? What do you think a book can give you?

David Matless, The Regional Book

trbcover

The Regional Book is a collection of 44 short pieces of prose, each describing or about or written at a different location on the Broads (which I gather we shouldn’t call the Norfolk Broads, because some of tim are in Suffolk).

The introduction discusses an injunction by Georges Perec to ‘see more flatly’ (wryly apt considering the landscape being seen), and the pieces do try to look beyond official accounts of place to draw on tiny concrete details, lived experience, historical perspective, technical boating matters, economics, and so on and so forth. Of course, unless you note everything, the very act of selecting details unflattens them, making (to mix my spatial metaphors horribly) salient features out of what had been background trifles. Similarly, the alphabetical ordering of the pieces is a way of insisting on the ‘non-hierarchical’ approach; I think Matless wouldn’t object if you read them in a random order, as if you were yourself wandering around the Broads, making your own way.

This refusal of official narratives is matched by the book’s refusal of a conventional academic mode. Matless is a geographer, and the introduction does frame the pieces as ‘geographical descriptions,’ but anyone coming to the discipline without a prior knowledge of cultural geography would be amazed by the lack of a ‘neutral’/’objective’ voice, lack of argumentative rigour and even of argument, and lack of traditional academic apparatus such as referencing. Of course, the move away from that rather chimerical lifebelt is one of the characteristic and exciting features of the contemporary cultural geographer. There might be legitimate anxieties about this development. But what strikes me most forcibly in relation to The Regional Book is how Matless’s ‘geographical descriptions’ resemble prose poems, even if they aren’t explicitly presented as such.

What makes me read them as prose poems? Almost everything about them: the deliberately unexpected selection of details. The parataxis whereby items from disparate registers and discourses are brought together in adjacent sentences, or even in the same sentence. The refusal of narrative except in an attenuated or elliptical form. The compression. And, though perhaps this is a result of those other resemblances rather than a resemblance in its own right, the readerly experience of leaving each piece simultaneously impressed, amused and stimulated on the one hand and curiously underfed on the other, as if the blow glanced off but we called ‘touché’ anyway.

There are some very pleasing phrases in here, things that begin as jokes but unfold inside the smile they provoke to say something more meaningful. There are ‘walker courses’; a sheet pinned up for people to tick the birds they’ve seen is a ‘public archival broadside’; ‘Evening flights pull dark over craft.’ It’s hard to do justice to these effects in quotation, because they are partly generated by the dense accumulation of words and images. Very often a word is left ambivalent between its nounal and verbal usages, and this creates a way of looking in more than one direction at once. Definite and indefinite articles, pronouns, even people, are stripped out, and this is one way in which syntax is opened and allowed to resonate. Reading from a poetry perspective, this kind of redaction can be a workshoppy dogma (‘do you really need that word?’) which leads to a pseud’s gnomicness. That was a little worry in my mind as I read this book; but actually I think Matless pushes things so far that it becomes a legitimate style, not ‘do you need this word?’ but ‘what’s added by taking this word out?’ – a highly significant difference.

Whether this book contributes to geography as an academic discipline, I’m not equipped to say. But as landscape writing, it’s smart and rich and memorable. It also gets me thinking about the prose poem as a vehicle for writing about landscape and history – what is it that makes it attractive? The prosaic cadences, sure. And the ability to knit different materials together easily; but verse can do that. What verse might do less well is the stringing-together of distinct items and leaving them to co-exist. Verse, because of the rhythmic impulse and the always-recurring question of the line break, wants to build a narrative in exactly the way Matless is at pains to avoid. And yet. Wordsworth showed us that blank verse is capable of looking across landscapes. I’d like to know what a geographical description with verse’s moving force might find itself to say.

Reading Vatnsdæla saga

Vatnsdæla saga (The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal) is one of the regional feud sagas: it tells the story of a community in a specific place, running over several generations. The central character is the paterfamilias Ingimundur, but he doesn’t cut a particularly heroic or striking figure. On the contrary, he’s a peace-loving, practical and pragmatic man who tries to avoid and defuse conflicts as far as possible. The saga is thus the story of a mainly successful, happy community, with no major feuds or killings mucking things up.

Just over the hills in Laxardal, the inhabitants have a much worse time of it, with killings and jealousy and all the rest of it – no wonder Laxdæla saga is a much more famous and artistically interesting text. The problem with Vatnsdæla saga, of course, is that peaceful, sensible people don’t make for great stories, and Vatnsdæla saga has usually been considered inferior to Laxdæla saga and the great warrior/poet/outlaw sagas. But I don’t know – I enjoyed reading it a lot, almost in spite of the dramatic flaccidity. It has a certain pastoral charm. A bit like a novel by Turgenev, which though you know it’s not as good as Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky in almost every way, does something which those more muscular writers can’t.

There’s a useful discussion here which makes honour the central idea of the saga, and argues that the saga has a distinctive feel. I’d go along with that, although I think that feel has less to do with the saga’s attitude towards its material than with its (lack of) dramatic drive.

There’s no full text at the Icelandic Saga Database, but Vatnsdæla saga is one of the sagas included in the Penguin selected Sagas of Icelanders, which is the best current introduction to the sagas for English-speaking readers.

The Visual Book

photoYesterday in my local bookshop Barter Books I saw this gorgeous first edition of William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, one of the first books of ‘fantasy’ literature in the modern sense and heavily influenced by Morris’s reading in medieval literature, including the sagas. At £2,400, anyone but a collector would be forgiven for passing, and going for a cheaper later edition or even the free e-text via Project Gutenberg. But we know that the appeal of a book goes beyond its text – the typography, paper quality etc make a difference. Here, the book itself has become a work of art. But those two artworks, the book-as-artefact and the text contained, are not independent. What strikes me here is how the 19th-century text evokes the medieval not just through its diction, syntax and subject matter, but also visually, most obviously through the use of an illuminated capital. The mise-en-scene of the novel helps the reader to approach it. ‘Aha!,’ we say, ‘Here’s a tale of olden yonks,’ or whatever. Although one function of typography is to become invisible, delivering the text to the reader unnoticed, it can also serve as a frame. I’m not about to fork out £2,400, but I think that expense prohibits me from a full and proper (as in, as intended) reading of the book. In my own writing, I’m thinking about ways of staging the text on the page.

Reading Gísla saga Súrssonar

Last time I looked at Grettis saga, so it makes sense to look next at the other great outlaw saga, Gísla saga Súrssonar (Gísli Súrsson’s Saga). (Full text here.) In both, the protagonist commits a number of crimes and is outlawed. (Outlawing was a key tool in medieval Icelandic law which said that the outlawed person forfeited all his possessions, was required to leave Iceland, and could be killed with impunity.) They then survive for some time, pursued by various enemies, defending themselves valiantly, before being killed.

But there are major differences between the two characters and the way they embody values. Grettir is a Viking champion born too late: he is lazy and violent, and can’t get on at all in the generally peaceful farming society he is born into. Gísli is a fully functioning member of that society: he is a capable and respected farmer, and he unlike Grettir has a lot to lose. His crime is to (more than once) kill men interested in or married to his sister (there’s a slight but weird undertone on incest in the saga). According to the rules of feud, he acts justly, but obviously you can’t go around doing that sort of thing and expect to get away with it. While Grettir is an outsider fulfilling an impossible idealised role of the great hero, Gísli is an insider forced by circumstance and the rules of society to put himself outside that society. He’s a much more reluctant outlaw than Grettir, and more sympathetic, if less charming. The saga offers a more complicated critique of saga society, because here we don’t see two sets of values in opposition, but one society whose various values, interpreted by different characters, lead to a kind of tragic unravelling.

It’s another stonker, which you should read.

Reading Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar

Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar (Grettir Ásmundarson’s Saga or more commonly The Saga of Grettir the Strong) is for various reasons the saga I know best. It’s one of the outlaw sagas, in which a hero is outlawed (a specific process under Icelandic law) and is forced to live outside society in spite of their obvious virtues or heroic status.

As the saga’s English title implies, Grettir is extremely strong, and he represents a certain kind of Viking hero which was being superseded by Iceland’s development into a peaceful agricultural, and especially Christian, society. He’s basically this big, lazy, aggressive sod, and his tendency to continually get in fights (and often kill his opponent) doesn’t go down well. In fact, he’s also a monster-slayer: there’s a particularly noticeable fantastic element in this saga, with Grettir killing or meeting various ghosts, trolls, giants, mound-dwellers, and so forth. The saga is thought to have a similar source to Beowulf, but whereas Beowulf is feted for his exploits, Grettir is damned: he is cursed by the monster Glámr, and this leads to his outlawry and eventual death.

It’s possible to think of Grettis saga as a classical tragedy, with Grettir’s tragic flaw being his impulsive violence. But he’s also unlucky (a fact which characters in the saga explicitly remark on) – sometimes the evil turn of events simply isn’t his fault. And there’s also an element of blame attached to his father Ásmund for the contemptuous way he treats his son. The reader isn’t offered an easy reading of Grettir or of the notion of responsibility; and Glámr’s curse permeates the whole saga, either as the real and literal explanation for why things happen as they do (the supernatural world is more powerful than the world of men), or as an incidental echo of the main plot, or perhaps as a symbolic flourish which emphasises the more mundane processes of human action that produce Grettir’s fate. The way we read this fantastic element may depend on our own habits of thinking and on our perspective on the sagas and their relation to the world.

As a reading experience Grettis saga is very rewarding. Unlike the other great outlaw Gísli Súrsson, Grettir doesn’t seem an ordinary man driven by circumstance (and perhaps a bit of incestuous feeling) to his outlaw status – he really is a loose cannon, an aggressive and troublesome bully. But he is charming too, and moreover as the saga develops his character subtly develops, from hotheaded youth  to a more wistful and restrained adulthood; he grows up. Nevertheless, the saga presents not so much a bildungsroman-style narrative arc as a succession of episodes in which the same basic pattern is repeated, with variations. This repetitive structure is typical of many sagas, and marks it seems to me a significant difference between the saga form and the novel. Whereas a novel (or indeed a classical tragedy) takes a single subject (whether this is a character, or an event, or a plot) and then explores it in detail through its ramifications and complexities, the saga takes a single character and/or plot and depicts them happening again and again. While this can feel repetitive, what generates depth is the way that the repeated patterns are subtly varied: the protagonist’s reaction to situations may seem consistent, but actually vary in a way which shows the legal, social or personal differences between those situations, and/or the protagonist’s development over time. Rarely does a protagonist change completely; instead we see them repeating the same mistakes in different ways and often with a growing but helpless self-awareness. There’s a clear parallel in this quality between a saga like Grettir’s and a novel like Moll Flanders, which shows Moll repeating the same mistakes as her life goes on. Perhaps this rather depressing idea, that people don’t change, can be as true as the principle of character development that underlies a lot of thinking about narrative.