Maybe you are in the mood for a tale of multi-generational conflict with a cast of dozens, but you can’t spare the time for a four thousand or so page commitment? Or if it’s not the violence, maybe you’re fascinated by an atmosphere of religious upheaval and subtle magic? If you’re like me, you loved the t.v. series, maybe obsessed over it, and can’t tell if plunging into the novels will gratify or spoil the appetite?
As I sat up late last night struggling with Eyrbyggja Saga, it struck me that this anonymous thirteenth century Icelandic monk covered much the same ground as George R. R. Martin, but in under two hundred pages. Where Martin creates ambiguity through involved plotting and shifting points of view, the saga achieves much the same effect through terseness. How do the two compare? Take the families. Eyrbyggja deals with some of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the first settlers of Iceland, roughly around the year 1000. The Penguin edition I was reading helpfully lists forty five characters in six lineages, but this is merely schematic and leaves out many important people.
The profusion of characters in a work this size is very hard to deal with, but on the other hand, it allows for action on an epic scale. The maneuvering for power is unceasing and there is always the threat of violence. Often violence is avoided by the surprisingly litigious farmers, but when it does break out there is no favor shown to likable or important figures. And there’s no getting around the fact that some of the fighting is very cool. Arnkel of Bolstad stands alone on the turf wall of his haystack, wielding the runner of his sledge against fifteen armed men. An episode that has to be a monkish comedy routine about vikings concludes with Thorodd Thorbrandsson arguing with a priest over whether to reopen the wound on his neck so as to get “the head set straighter”.
I don’t want to say too much about the magic parts of the saga, because it would be hard to convey the realistic tone and because I don’t like spoiling these things. The best thing I can say is that similar episodes in the Vinland sagas reminded me of nothing so much as Hamlet.
(I just realized that I might have made it sound like Arnkel could have survived the fight on the haystack. Of course he didn’t! But it was still cool.)